Jim Sterk seems to have reached his Morton’s Fork.
Not just about what to do with the Apple Cup – keep it in Pullman every other year or send it out on Royal Brougham Way in fishnet stockings and stiletto heels? – but possibly regarding his days as athletic director at Washington State University, as well.
There is a truism passed along and shared by almost every collegiate athletic director, cautions from the elders to newbies or mutual commiserations at NCAA conventions. It’s about the relationship between an A.D. and a school’s athletic constituency and it goes something like this:
Your first five years on the job, they’ll love you.
Your second five, they’ll tolerate you.
And then they’ll spend five years trying to get rid of you.
Mileage may vary, of course.
As it happens, Sterk is in his ninth year at Wazzu – short of that ominous deadline. But he’s also third in longevity among athletic directors in the Pacific-10 Conference, where the average tour of duty these days is seven years. So the clock is certainly ticking.
Sterk himself has relayed a version of the 5/5/5 scenario in an all-in-fun fashion, noting that eventually there is a tipping point at which the A.D. finds himself dressing for work in bull’s-eye sports jacket.
It’s hard to think he saw this one coming, however.
In an economy this sour, who would have expected anyone could dangle a package worth $10 million apiece to the Cougars and rival Washington Huskies over six years to move the state’s premier sporting event to Qwest Field in Seattle? Or that it would be the Qwest promotional arm of Paul Allen, Wazzu’s most famous dropout himself, who were he so inclined could simply write a check with that many zeroes on it and save everyone all this sturm und drang?
Sterk might have anticipated seven years ago when he sat down at the poker table with First & Goal Inc., to barter a home game over to Seattle that they might eventually go all-in like this, but surely he didn’t see his chip stack ever being so small and vulnerable.
The only thing certain is this: every Pac-10 athletic administrator current and past is mopping a brow, grateful that it’s Sterk’s problem and not theirs.
“It’s a tough, tough call,” said one. “But I’m not sure the answer is prostituting yourself.”
Sterk, who met with reporters in Pullman on Saturday for the first time since the proposed move was initially outlined in a story in The Spokesman-Review, has a rationale for everything about the deal except that: selling off a game he knows full well should be played on his campus every other year.
Beyond the overwhelming economic considerations, the calendar logistics of a 12-game schedule in particular bolster his contention, and his explanation that during the span of the proposed contract Pullman would get six home games back – including dates against Wisconsin and Utah – in exchange for the three Apple Cups is not inconsiderable.
Two arguments, however, don’t ring especially true.
One, that the game could very well come back to Pullman at the end of the contract. If the deal is paying off at between $1.5 and $2 million per year, does anyone think that revenue won’t become a permanent part of the WSU athletic budget? Does anyone see salaries or operational costs going down even if the economy improves?
The only way the game comes back is if it’s a loser for First & Goal – or if the Huskies balk.
Two, that the extra cash from the Qwest deal could get Phase III of Sterk’s Martin Stadium improvement project done.
Really? Didn’t Sterk say Saturday that he’s facing a $1.5 to $2 million “challenge” just to balance the budget for the coming year, what with the 14 percent tuition increase facing the school? If he’s planning to bank the Qwest ransom for his stadium, won’t he still have to make the potentially devastating job and program cuts he’s been using as his first salvo of justification?
Beyond the taffy pull between Fiscal Reality and Old Time Football, Jim Sterk is going to find his benefit-of-the-doubt quotient immediately cut in half no matter which way he decides – even if the decision isn’t his alone, which it probably isn’t.
“I’m pretty sure this would never have happened if Lane Rawlins was still the president,” said one administrator. “He knew the territory.”
If Sterk signs the deal, the hard-line Cougs will not only never forgive him, they’ll dredge up all perceived past failings and make a racket about them. If he turns down the deal and challenges that same vocal majority to get out their checkbooks and make up the difference, he’s going to get hammered hard on an anxious campus for saying no to a sure-thing $10 million.
Is this the beginning of a long goodbye? Magic 8-Ball says ask again later.
But it could get pretty lonesome in that office wedged between Rock Towers and Hard Place Hall.
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