April 17, 2009 in Sports

Blanchette: Greenbacks hijack Joe Coug

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Look, money wins. I get it. That isn’t even the most discouraging thing about the Applejacking going on at Washington State.

It’s this:

If Jim Walden can’t work up a good froth over it, what’s the point in the rest of us even trying?

It’s not that the former football coach of the Cougars is our default moral compass in all matters Wazzu. But he was the fellow, along with his bosses Glenn Terrell and Sam Jankovich, who not quite 30 years ago managed to at last pry all Wazzu home games out of Spokane to play them on campus where they belonged – not just the Apple Cup, but games with UCLA and USC as well.

Walden knew the Cougs were on the bottom of the Pac-10 pyramid, but he didn’t have to like it.

And now that athletic director Jim Sterk is pirating the Apple Cup to Seattle?

“Emotionally, I’m against it,” Walden said, “but as much as I hate to see it go, that’s just the way it has to be.”

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the sound of surrender.

It’s the same sound Sterk’s ballpoint will make when he signs the agreement with First & Goal Inc., to stage the next six Apple Cups at Qwest Field, a neutral site exactly 5 miles from the University of Washington campus.

You have your Apple Cup memories, and I’ll project mine: the Huskies eking out a close win at Qwest on a crisp, clear day while snow blankets Martin Stadium in Pullman – and Sterk hungrily clutches fistfuls of First & Goal cash to hire yet another rowing coach or an assistant associate director of compliance development marketing and special external events coordination.

That cash is hardly inconsiderable – up to $20 million over six years to be split equally between the Cougars and Huskies, as opposed to the $240,000 each banks when the game is in Pullman and $800,000 from a game at Husky Stadium. Pragmatic and thoughtful, Sterk is consumed by pressures the average Cougar fan tends to dismiss even in these dark economic times, and surely did not entertain this offer lightly.

And it’s not a bad idea – even if Rick Neuheisel was the first to come up with it.

But it would be a bad reality.

Not because the Spokane fan will have to make a cross-state trip over Thanksgiving. That doesn’t even register on the hardship scale, and if he isn’t already making the drive for the September game in Seattle, which will go away, then he will not be missed.

There is more empathy here for the Pullman merchant whose receipts will take a beating, but only if he ponied up eagerly when Sterk came around seeking to upgrade his football stadium. Alas, any number of shopkeepers view the football weekend as their birthright and have kept their Cougar investment static. You know who you are.

Besides, if they’re decrying the fact that Sterk is making this about money, can they make it about money?

But, of course, it is about money. It always is, and money always wins.

To think that this hasn’t been professional football for some time now is naïve, but hijacking the Apple Cup for a buck certainly exposes the man behind the curtain.

Sterk will continue to talk up the student-athlete experience as if he means it, but he has just told recruits – and student spectators – that the most important football game on their schedule is too important to be played on their campus.

He is telling current and future players that they must play a road game – oh, yes it is – against their rival every year. There is not another in-state rivalry game among Football Bowl Subdivision schools played at a neutral site anyway, and you will not soon be seeing Arizona agreeing to play Arizona State in Glendale each year.

Even Walden, the old coach who understands Sterk’s dilemma, has trouble swallowing that one.

“The part that sticks in the craw is asking us to play a game in our archrival’s city,” he said. “If I’m Paul Wulff, I’m saying, ‘Wait a minute – they’re sleeping in the same motel they do every week, they’re not getting on a plane or a bus, their routine is the same.’

“If I’m the coach, I’m voting no. I like my home advantage.”

Speaking of which, here’s an update on statistics Walden once compiled. Those UW-USC-UCLA games played in Spokane on a neutral field? Wazzu’s record was 3-23. Since then, the Cougs are 16-22-1 in Pullman games – 7-7 against the Dawgs.

Think playing in Pullman doesn’t make a difference?

It is disheartening enough that the college sports fan is wooed for his emotional attachment yet treated more as a customer with each passing year, if for no other reason than he increasingly thinks more like a consumer – excoriating teenagers and demanding the heads of overpaid coaches with each dropped pass or surrendered 3-pointer. But with this decision, Sterk is rather pointedly regarding the players as mere employees.

Perhaps they should ask for a cut.

As for the Cougar fan, he only has two real options: Give more money, or stop giving them any money.

One way or the other, they’ll get the message.

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