John Blanchette: WSU has opportunity to get back in the running in Pac-12
PULLMAN – Legends came off the books Sunday at Mooberry Track.
John van Reenen, Gabriel Tiacoh, George Ogbeide and Tony Li – eight NCAA and 11 conference championships among them, plus a world record and Olympic silver. And no longer owners of the best performances on record at their old home loop at Washington State.
It happens. Records, we’re told, are made to be broken, like axles by a Spokane pothole. Having held up for 44 years, van Reenen’s discus standard fell somewhere between venerable and having worn out its welcome.
Anyway, this sort of thing is the norm when the conference meet visits Pullman – 27 of 42 Mooberry records have been set at what’s now the Pac-12s.
It was just a pretty stark reminder of what’s been mostly missing from the athletic menu at Wazzu. Track’s record-breakers – the world-beaters – compete for somebody else now.
And now the questions: Where do the Cougars go from here, and how do they get there?
Consuming questions, they’re not. Whatever old comfort Cougs used to take from spring sports success has long since been eclipsed by the common lust for bowl trips and winning the occasional basketball game.
Little does it help than in their role as hosts this weekend, the Cougs finished next-to-last among the men and eighth among women’s teams, more of a dispiriting pattern. Last year, they didn’t score in the NCAAs at all. For all the things the program gets right, this is the one the Cougs haven’t been able to fix.
But now a change at the top – Rick Sloan retiring after two decades as head coach – brings the opportunity to move the needle.
Except the equation is more complicated now. So is the derby for the replacement.
Where the school once seemed eager to make an announcement during the season – for no reason that seemed necessary – a successor will probably come in the next two weeks. But it doesn’t seem likely to be James Li, the former WSU cross country coach who’s steered Bernard Lagat to greatness and established a strong distance colony at Arizona. Sources suggest Li was approached, but didn’t find the offer sufficiently enticing, a curious turn at a place where restraint on coaching salaries has become, uh, elastic.
Now the focus turns to Idaho’s Wayne Phipps and former Coug decathlete Rodney Zuyderwyk, an assistant at New Mexico, or maybe a wild-card candidate.
The who part is important. The how just as much.
And if the Cougars want to return to relevance in the Pac-12, they’re going to have summon an identity they lost somewhere along the way. Not an easy trick.
The “Long Crimson Line” of distance running tradition – and their Kenyan connection – petered out well back. They haven’t had a conference champ in the throws in 14 years.
“If we’re going to specialize, where are we going to do it?” wondered athletic director Bill Moos. “When we’ve had success in the past, it’s been in the distances and the throws. Can we still go head-to-head with Oregon, Stanford and Arizona in the distances? The question I’ll have is, ‘What is your recipe for success?’ ”
That would include whether the Cougars can still cling to the broad-based approach that served them well for a long time, but hasn’t produced at the conference and national levels lately. There’s also the question of how far afield the school should recruit; at least, it’s been a question, since earlier in Sloan’s tenure his bosses took a dim view of it.
“I would not discourage that at all,” Moos insisted.
But it’s an issue of momentum, which takes time to change, as Wazzu knows all too well from its programs that got left behind for a lack of investment when other schools got really serious. Nothing typifies that more than old rival Oregon’s evolution into grand omnipotent stomper of track, while the Cougs drifted.
The weekend provided a couple happy storylines. Charlotte Muschamp, rustled up from a tiny New Zealand town, surprised in the high jump, and C.J. Allen from across the state outlegged a mostly freshman field in the intermediate hurdlers. Both are under-the-radar types that the program has come to depend on; both endured through the anxiety of impending change, not just at the top but possibly with their event coaches.
“I like this program,” Allen said. “It fits me – nose to the grindstone, work your ass off. But as much as I love Pullman, it’s hard to get high-level recruits. I had recruiting trips set up to Arkansas and Florida, big-name track schools, and I canceled them all. But a lot of people don’t give it a chance.”
Now we’ll see how serious the Cougs are about giving themselves a chance.
“I think we’ve been lacking energy,” Moos said. “We have to get that back.”
That, and a few prospective legends.