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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Could WSU decide to take football out of the driver’s seat?

WSU Athletic Director Bill Moos shows off a recently-completed locker room at WSU's new football operations building during a media tour on Tuesday, June 3, 2014, in Pullman, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
WSU Athletic Director Bill Moos shows off a recently-completed locker room at WSU's new football operations building during a media tour on Tuesday, June 3, 2014, in Pullman, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Now that Bill Moos is climbing the ladder from Washington State University to Nebraska, here’s a question for Cougar Nation: How much is a good football team worth?

Under Moos, the answer was: Everything. Whatever it takes. Max out the credit card and apply for another. It’s football, baby.

The Cougars have gotten a lot better on the field. No doubt about it. But the area in which they’ve truly excelled has been overspending. On that field, they’re national champions. USA Today tracks the spending of every athletic department in the country, and its data shows that in 2015-16, only one college among the largest 100 in the country ran a bigger proportional deficit than WSU’s 22 percent, and that was Cal.

University President Kirk Schulz and his administration have come up with a plan to get sports back in the black – a plan that relies on no real spending cuts and the addition of “institutional support” that will draw resources away from other university priorities to make sports whole.

An initial plan to bail out sports with increased student fees was wisely abandoned – though there was no wisdom in the fact that it was even considered.

WSU says it is making progress. The deficit was shaved from $13 million to $10 million last year. Under the plan, it will take only four more years to balance that budget.

So, with Moos leaving and these two vectors colliding – football excellence and flagrant overspending – WSU is at a crossroads. It will have to decide whether to stay on Moos Road, where any football expense is justifiable, or to take another road, where some level of sanity and perspective about the role of sports within an institution of knowledge is regained.

Or, to use coach Mike Leach’s formulation: Should WSU stay in the “front seat” on football?

Leach praised Moos last week as the best AD he’d ever worked with. Among the reasons: Moos understood that you simply must spend a lot of money on football. On locker rooms that gleam just as brightly as UCLA’s. On team chefs. On luxury boxes for the swells and donors.

On very expensive coaches.

Leach didn’t put it that way, exactly. What he said was Moos had “a vision and understanding of staying state-of-the-art with everything from facilities to processes and things that exist in athletics. None of this back-seat stuff. If you’re competing, you’re competing.”

In the back seat, you might think twice about overspending your $59 million budget by $13 million, as Wazzu athletics has done regularly in recent years. You might think: Hey, we’ve got to tackle that spending problem.

In the front seat, you call that an investment. You just close your eyes, sign the checks and wait for the payoff.

But what is purchased and what is sold when universities commit their institutional lives with such gusto to big-time sports? When institutional priorities become so warped that the first idea to bail out a free-spending sports department is to raise fees on students?

There are some reasons – apart from simple profligacy – for the deficit woes in WSU sports. Revenue from a much-heralded TV contract came in lower than anticipated. Fundraising has not been as high as hoped. And some of the spending was built in with the idea that it would create short-term debt as an investment in long-term success and solvency, as Moos has noted.

But the revealing element of all this is not that there was a plan, and the plan didn’t work. It was how WSU responded when the plan didn’t work out. The university didn’t look at its dwindling sports income and rush around finding ways to cut back. It didn’t recalibrate expectations when neither ticket sales nor contributions went shooting through the roof.

No. It “said,” essentially, that spending on athletics was so crucial that among the many ways the budget would be balanced, reducing those expenses would simply not be possible. No, other schools in the Pac-12 spend more, you see. Other football teams have even nicer facilities. Even nicer amenities. The Joneses must be kept up with, in football if not in physics.

It is a familiar cycle, and it’s not unique to WSU. Big-time football distorts and deforms the priorities of universities all over the country, and a big reason for that is that people love it. So universities behave as if they’re trapped by the dictates of football – as if they have simply no choice but to treat it like the top priority.

But they do, of course. Schulz and his team have a choice. As they go looking for a new AD, they say they want quality and excellence and all of that. They could decide that they also want sports to occupy a place in the hierarchy of university priorities that is a bit less insane. They could decide that football should pay for itself, without budget gymnastics and semantic guises for the bailout efforts from the rest of the university, and find that philosophy in a new AD.

They could decide they can live with some back-seat stuff, instead of leaving football in the driver’s seat.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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