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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Cougars vow to compete with Pac-12 money in pockets

Of the many variations on the old joke, the guess here is the folks at Washington State prefer the Spike Milligan version.

“All I ask,” the British treasure once said, “is the chance to prove that money can’t make me happy.”

Let it serve, anyway, as the Cougars’ farewell to the Pacific-10 Conference and their embrace of its replacement, the Pac-12. Colorado and Utah officially join the lodge today, alas without stripping down to their skivvies and assuming the position.

The pledging was done last summer. Since then, the football divisions have been drawn, the TV networks fleeced and the future revenue divvied up equally, so there are no more details to work out other than this:

Who wins, and how often.

This should be of particular interest to the Cougars, who have done precious little winning in the Pac-10 in anything, especially of late, and figure to find it even more challenging to do so in the 12-Pac. Not because the Buffs and Utes are such athletic giants – they’re fine, but it’s not like Texas and BYU were added. But just by virtue of the math.

Climbing over nine other schools to a championship has been an Everest for the Cougs. What’s taller than that?

Besides, much of the time they get a nosebleed in the Mediocrity Foothills.

It was hardly encouraging to review Wazzu’s athletic report card for the 2010-11 school year and find that the Cougs managed to crack the Pac-10’s upper division in exactly one of the 15 sports in which they compete: men’s basketball. In that, the Cougars finished fifth, lost their opener in the conference tournament and then made some noise in the NIT – only to have their two best players bail to the pros rather than return next season.

Ah, but the good news is, WSU’s standing actually improved or stayed the same in 10 sports. Or is that the bad news?

No wonder athletic director Bill Moos is setting some rather modest immediate goals.

“We’re going to continue to strive to be in the top six of the 12 in all of our sports,” he said, “and that’s going to take some doing.”

Top six? Well, sure. Sixth place can get you to a bowl game, the NIT, the NCAA tournaments in baseball and volleyball. Heck, win one track event at the NCAAs – as Jeshua Anderson did for the Cougs a couple of weeks ago – and you’re in the Top 25 nationally.

Of course, Moos insists it doesn’t have to stop there. Counterintuitively, he also sees expansion as a help and not a hindrance, especially in football.

“From where I sit, having the split into a north and south division is a plus,” he said. “We can focus now on winning a division title and that puts you a game away from the Rose Bowl.

“On top of that, the vote to have the California schools play each other every year puts us in the position of not having to play both L.A. schools every year. Our Northwest rivals are tough, yes, but I think that gives us a better chance to win our division.”

And then there’s the money.

The parsing of the Pac-12’s TV deal with the strangest of broadcast bedfellows – ESPN and Fox – has been done and redone. That the Cougars figure to receive a $12 million bump in the first year of the 12-year contract alone is something Moos looks at as a game-changer, if only because the percentage of increase to his budget – nearly 40 – will be so much larger than for the USCs and Washingtons. He has noted it will allow WSU to improve lagging salaries, recruiting budgets and facilities that have “created a morale problem.”

Look, not many of us here in Recessionworld want to hear about the morale problems of an assistant coach making six figures, even if his Husky counterpart is pushing seven. But you get the point. Still, are percentages relevant here? If everyone gets the same money, won’t rival schools be spending it in areas that leave the Cougs just as far behind?

“I just feel,” Moos said, “we’ve got a better chance.”

So it’s a feeling. OK. Surely it beats the feeling that the Cougs have been out of their league for too long here in the “Conference of Champions.” The Pac made a big hoohah last month when it won its 400th NCAA title, the first conference to reach that milestone. Wazzu’s contribution? An indoor track title in 1977 and one 40 years earlier in boxing, which is no longer contested. Perhaps worse, in the 33-year Pac-10 era the Cougs won six conference titles – football in 1997 and 2002, and four in men’s track, two of which were vacated for NCAA rules violations.

“No, I’m not happy with how we’ve competed,” Moos acknowledged. “But I want you to ask that question in 24 months.”

It’s a deal.