Sterk was dying to play Irish

PULLMAN – Jim Sterk was in Seattle’s Virginia Mason Medical Center in 2004, recovering from surgery.

Asleep one day, the Washington State University athletic director opened his eyes to see his Notre Dame counterpart and mentor, Kevin White, in his room.

The first words from Sterk’s mouth?

“Kevin, I’m on my deathbed. We need to schedule that home-and-home,” Sterk recalled this week, laughing.

Sterk wasn’t on his deathbed and he didn’t get his home-and-home football games with Notre Dame. But he got the next best thing – a game with the Fighting Irish not in South Bend, Ind., and an overall payout of more than $1.5 million, about 5 percent of Washington State’s operating budget this fiscal year.

The roots of Saturday’s game in San Antonio go back to the 1980s, when Sterk was the ticket manager at the University of Maine and White became athletic director.

When White moved on to Tulane University in New Orleans, Sterk did too, although he was offered the job before White was hired. From there, Sterk moved into his first athletic director position at Portland State, before moving to WSU in 2000.

White left Tulane for Arizona State, then took over at Notre Dame the same year Sterk moved to Pullman.

Sterk said he immediately began pestering White for a home-and-home series, but the Irish already had signed a deal with Washington, played USC every year and were hooked in with Stanford. So the best White could do was offer WSU a 2003 game in South Bend.

“We go there, we lose to them in overtime with some highly controversial calls,” Sterk said of the 29-26 overtime decision, “and Kevin swore he would never play us again.”

Until he had a conversion on Sterk’s “deathbed.”

Notre Dame was talking with NBC, its broadcast partner for six homes games a year, about a seventh game that would be held at an off-campus site in 2009.

White thought of WSU, Sterk was able to move the Stanford game to the start of the year, and the deal was made for Halloween night. At first, they tried to get the game in New Orleans, where they both had deep ties, but the Superdome wasn’t open for this weekend.

So the Alamodome game was made.

“There is bowl atmosphere to this game,” WSU coach Paul Wulff said. “All the elements are there. A non-conference team. It’s on national TV. A neutral – well, I wouldn’t say it’s a neutral site, but it’s not their home field.

“It’s a great opportunity for this football team, particularly the younger players who could use this experience to build on down the road.”

The payout is also bowl game-like.

The Cougars will receive $950,000 just to play and another $595,000 in television revenue.

“That’s a good payday,” Sterk said, laughing. “It obviously helped this year when you get hit budget-wise.”

Sterk was not only referring to the state’s budget cuts, but television revenue, as WSU’s 1-6 record hasn’t translated into a lot of television appearances.

“It certainly doesn’t help us, that’s for sure,” Sterk said of the downturn in television money. “But it’s something we had planned for going into the year. We try to predict and we’re very conservative.

“We are right where we thought we would be as far as television revenue.”

The revenue, budgeted at $2.8 million this year with the $595,000 from the Notre Dame game figured in, might not rise quickly.

“Next year could be a tough year,” Sterk said with no Notre Dame windfall on the table. Two non-conference games, the season opener at Oklahoma State and a road game against Southern Methodist, will bring in $300,000 and $200,000, respectively. But that’s still less than this week’s payout.

“TV is usually a year behind,” Sterk said. “Though ABC and Fox are able to pick 12 days ahead, they select a lot up front.”

Still, he sees the revenue rising along with the won/loss record.

“We have a lot of talent coming into the program, so there is going to be a lot more as far as Fox- and ESPN-selected in the future,” he said.

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