Jim Sterk ran the athletic department at Washington State longer than anyone in the last 40 years and hired 17 head coaches, including the men who revived the flat-lining basketball and baseball programs. There were three bowl games and a Sweet 16 in there, and the athletic graduation rate on his watch was second only to Stanford in what was then the Pac-10.
And football went all to hell.
Also, he tried to sell Pullman’s turns at hosting the Apple Cup to Seattle, and that alone had the Cougar commonwealth nominating him for a Purple Heart – for a brave action, but not a noble one in this case.
Ten months later, Sterk – possibly mindful of the diminishing grains of sand in the popularity hourglass of every athletic director – accepted the same job at San Diego State, and so was born a subplot for Saturday’s football tussle between the Aztecs and Cougars.
Here is Paul Wulff, the coach Sterk hit upon to gut the premises at WSU, with a weekly referendum on his future and desperate to win, well, all the winnable games. This, at Sterk’s new joint, is one of those.
If he is not held in high regard in hindsight by the constituency he left, at least his new one has to admire his touch so far.
Sterk’s first football season at SDSU ended in victory at the Poinsettia Bowl and though he lost his head coach to Michigan, promoting assistant Rocky Long gave the program both continuity and a replacement with head coaching chops. Then the basketball team lost to eventual NCAA champion UConn in the Sweet 16, and Sterk re-upped Steve Fisher for four years while also greasing the line of succession to assistant Brian Dutcher.
And then there’s the other bottom line.
The Aztecs’ budget – $34 million – is amazingly close to what Sterk managed in Pullman, but they also have 120,000 alums within a two-hour radius and did $93 million in facility improvements the last decade.
Still, Sterk inherited a $3.3 million debt – that somehow was wiped out in a matter of months. One alum kicked in $2 million; 10 months later, another couple pledged $5 million. The school admitted more applicants last spring term and reaped a boost in student athletic fees. Three thousand more season tickets were sold for football. And when Brady Hoke split for Ann Arbor, Michigan had to pony up $1 million to cover his buyout.
“Football and basketball had the combined second-best record in the country last year,” Sterk said. “That and getting rid of the debt has given us incredible momentum.”
This will not cheer loyalists at his old school, where momentum didn’t seem to have a forward gear.
The Cougars, of course, put together three 10-win seasons early in Sterk’s tenure, but got no real bounce out of it – other than coach Mike Price bouncing off to Alabama. No football facility was built, no significant stadium upgrades occurred, no vision was apparent. It’s come to be seen as a squandered opportunity.
Sterk will not second-guess the promotion of Bill Doba to replace Price, but does regret both the uncontrollable circumstances that followed – the ovarian cancer that struck down Doba’s wife, Judy – and his own reaction to the impact that had on Doba and the football program.
“Looking back on it, I wouldn’t have put as much trust in the assistants in carrying on when Bill couldn’t,” Sterk said.
“When he couldn’t make home visits and look Mom and Dad in the eye, there were evaluations made that didn’t end up being very good.”
Sterk said he talked to Doba about taking a leave of absence to care for his wife, but he wasn’t going to insist upon it. Doba himself recalled Judy telling him to focus his energies on football: “You’re here for the long term,” she said. “I only have a short time to go.” Doba’s only thought was to try to be there for both.
“He’s trying to balance home care and taking her to the Mayo Clinic because that’s who Bill is,” Sterk said. “But it took him out of recruiting for two years and it really showed. The assistants thought we could beat UCLA and USC for top-tier kids off those 10-win seasons and we got away from getting the kids that made us successful. Boise State and Oregon State made a living off those kids.”
There are hard-liners who can’t accept that talent was at such a nadir that the 2 1/2 years of pastings had to be endured before Wulff’s Cougs started becoming competitive again.
“I feel good that we did some things to put some other sports in a position to be more successful,” Sterk said, “but I hate that Paul was put in such a hole that it’s taken him this long to dig out.”
He’s not the only one with regrets.