It’s been a rough week for Cougar football. In other words … nothing new.
For the second year in a row, there’s a deficit exceeding $13 million in the Washington State University Athletic Department.
But with a beautiful new stadium and a successful season still fresh in the minds of fans, things have been worse.
Oh, yes, much worse.
Let’s talk about the early ’70s, when I attended Washington State.
On April 4, 1970, a suspicious fire burned the football stadium to the ground. This meant the end of games in Pullman for a while.
And so it was that, on Oct. 17, 1970, the Cougars played Stanford. In Spokane. At Albi Stadium. I was there, along with a bota bag of Bali Hai to ease the pain of what was happening on the field. As Stanford ran for yet another touchdown and the Cougars sagged toward a 1-10 season, a fan decided something had to be done. He jumped from the stands and tackled the Stanford runner.
“Toughest hit of the day,” cracked the Stanford coach.
By 1971, the sports editor of the Daily Evergreen, WSU’s student newspaper, was developing a knack for satire. Not without reason. The editor’s name was Lew Pumphrey, and in his Nov. 5 column he noted that all 11 of the Cougars’ games would be played away from Pullman. But there was good news, he said, for the student body: The athletic department had organized a closed-circuit telecast of the upcoming game against USC so students could buy tickets to watch it, live.
The cost of beaming the signal from California to Pullman would be, Pumphrey wrote, the “amazing” sum of $8,000. Universities larger than WSU did this for all of their away games so students could watch. “We may not be as big, in football tradition, as Notre Dame or Penn State, but we have just as much right to go to games, if we prefer.
“Eventually, the telecasts may even make money.”
Pumphrey wasn’t done. On page 9 of that same issue of the Evergreen, he wrote a feature saluting the rodeo team. “We are sure the many sports fans out there would support the rodeo team as fervently as they support football if they only knew the rodeo team existed,” he declared.
Cougar rodeo received no help from the athletic department, he reported, and “subsists on a budget of straw.”
He quoted Mike Proctor, spokesman for the rodeo team, as saying that rodeo was one of the few intercollegiate sports in those days to include women as well as men. At other universities, varsity rodeo enjoyed “phenomenal” success, Proctor said.
WSU might possess what it takes to make it big in rodeo, Pumphrey wrote, “if it is given a chance.”
But the university, he said, had denied a request from the rodeo squad for the right simply to earn letters in their sport.
The university had other priorities.
In that same issue of the Evergreen, a senior staff writer named John Webster reported that the administration had embarked on a $1 million fund drive to rebuild the burned-down football stadium and carpet its field with AstroTurf.
Faculty and staff were quitting for jobs at better-paying universities, tuition was rising and enrollment was capped, all because of a shortage in the university’s budget, I wrote in that long-ago article.
“Why not have a $1 million fund drive,” I demanded with the idealism of youth, “to hire more faculty or improve our academic facilities?”
Because, I went on, a million bucks would be “peanuts” alongside the cost of running a university. Besides, WSU just a few months earlier had created a brand new division – the Office of Development. WSU President Glenn Terrell had said this new office would enable the university to start tapping private philanthropy, whose generosity brought tens of millions to other schools. If taxpayers wouldn’t fully fund education, maybe wealthy donors could help.
Terrell’s effort turned out a bit better than the rodeo idea.
A week after my classmate Pumphrey published his call for school-supported rodeo, a letter to the editor denounced rodeo as cruel to the animals.
Within a year, boosted by a donation from the family of former governor Clarence Martin, WSU began construction of a new football stadium. That was not the last of the donations.
Today, college athletics are a multimillion-dollar enterprise in which television plays an enormous part. So do donors.
Another thing has changed: By law, WSU is now prohibited from spending state budget appropriations on intercollegiate athletics. Funds for academics and athletics have to remain separate – and both need help from private philanthropy.
Still, no one today could deny the synergy between athletics and academics. To see the effects of a winning athletic program on fund-raising for academics, look no further than Spokane’s Gonzaga University.
And the Cougars? They’ve had setbacks. And they’ve had comebacks. Now they need another.
I had another classmate, who remembers how tough it was in Pullman in the early 1970s. We went to high school, together, in Olympia. We both enrolled at WSU. I studied journalism. He played football. Without a doubt he knows what it feels like to have your head bounce off the frozen turf. He knows how it feels to lose. He knows a few things about resilience, about raising money, about fighting for a better day. After we both graduated, you see, he eventually moved to Oregon where he showed how it’s done.
Now he’s back in Pullman, and even though the odds are long and the deficit is deep, Cougar fans are hoping he can pull it off.
His name is Bill Moos.
John Webster is editorial operations director at The Spokesman-Review.