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Blanchette: Cougs need clear message

Fri., April 24, 2009

If nothing else, the cataclysm last week of learning that the Apple Cup will in all likelihood be rented out to Qwest Field for six years – though rent-to-own seems more realistic – has infused a lingering plaint with some urgency:

Washington State’s athletic donor army is woefully small and painfully reticent, by NCAA Division I standards.

Nothing new there. The Cougs have long swept up after the elephants in the Pac-10 money parade. That they’ve been able to rise up and get to a Rose Bowl or a Sweet 16 in the past decade despite their relative poverty has somehow been interpreted by large segments of the crimson cult as a signal that digging deeper or broadening the donor base isn’t necessary, that good enough is good enough – instead of being recognized as the minor miracle it is.

It’s easy to paint the lot as delusional or cheap, but there does seem to have been a failure in education here – no reflection on a Wazzu degree intended.

In playing schoolmarm this past week while trying to sell his Apple Cup rationale, WSU athletic director Jim Sterk resorted, perhaps reflexively, to a tried-and-true teaching method – an iron skillet to the brow.

In an on-line chat with Cougars fans, Sterk recalled Wazzu’s supposedly tenuous membership in the old Pacific-8 Conference in the 1960s (“only a close vote saved the school from being ousted,” he wrote, though there was no such vote), noted that the school’s athletic budget is $14 million less than the next-to-last program and lowered the boom.

“If we do not take action to create revenue and level this playing field,” he wrote, “we may at some point in the future be facing another vote.”

And if someone doesn’t fix the street outside my office door, I may at some point step in a pothole and break my ankle.

Whether Sterk was playing chicken with his constituency or playing Chicken Little – or was just weary of explaining that last in revenue means last – his was at best a dubious claim. There are legitimate financial and administrative reasons to move the Apple Cup to Qwest and the long term to consider – just as there are legitimate emotional and competitive reasons not to do it.

My vote is not – but I’m not suggesting the Death of Cougar Spirit Forever if it goes, either.

Besides, checking in with Pac-10 commissioner Tom Hansen on Thursday revealed a couple of things.

“We have not had any conversations about any of our current members and their status,” he said.

And if there had been?

“There’s nothing in our by-laws that says if the membership wants to eliminate one of the members, you take these steps,” he said. “We don’t have anything of that nature.”

What is there? The NCAA requires that a school sponsor 14 sports to be in Division I (the Cougars have 17), and the Pac-10 makes each member field teams in football, volleyball and men’s and women’s basketball. As for financial considerations, the Cougs still have to keep coming up with $125,000 in gate receipts to pay visiting Pac-10 football opponents – a figure that, presumably, could be hiked in the future.

But again: Street. Pothole. Broken ankle.

On Thursday, Sterk backtracked a bit on the membership issue, admitting that “there’s nothing imminent.

“I believe our Phase III (of the Martin Stadium expansion) and generating more revenue is important for the future,” he said. “It’s probably not anything that would happen during my tenure, but if we don’t grow our program, it puts us in a precarious position.”

So then, let’s go with prevention – and not panic.

Even if the Apple Cup is pimped out, Wazzu’s athletic budget – and that of nearly every Pac-10 school, according to Hansen – will soon get a haircut. In an economy that’s crushed businesses, put thousands of people out of work and triggered exasperating government bailouts, that’s the least that should be expected. In fact, the way schools spend on athletics is long overdue for a revolution, but that’s a screed for another day.

But surely the ever-demanding fan needs to know the price of doing business as it’s being done.

At Oregon State this week, athletic director Bob DeCarolis issued his own warnings – accompanied a target date and a goal to double OSU’s donor base to 12,000 by 2012. Of course, no one was offering the Beavers and Ducks $20 million to move their game to Portland, so there was no bombshell attached and no end-of-the-world alarm and no residual chaos.

Here’s the thing: Back in 2003 Sterk launched a “10-10-10” campaign – 10,000 donors, $10 million a year by 2010. But here in 2009, while the Cougs have topped $13 million in donations a couple of times, there are just 6,100 athletic donors – out of about 140,000 living alums – and nobody remembers the campaign. Indeed, most Coug fans have been mystified by the revelation that school policy prohibits the athletic department from pursuing grads for support unless they donate or buy tickets first.

What the Cougs have here is a failure to communicate. Or to educate. Or to pass that skillet around like a collection plate, rather than applying it to the forehead.

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