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John Blanchette: Pat Chun’s hire all about closing fund-raising gap

Patrick Chun, left, WSU's new athletic director, fields questions with university president Kirk Schulzduring an introductory press conference for Chun on Tuesday at Martin Stadium. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – He didn’t miss a “thank you” or a tip of the hat. The tie was crimson. There was the obligatory shot across the bow of the Huskies. But no vise-grip handshakes, because Pat Chun was nursing a cold.

But this was a fist-bump kind of day, anyway.

Washington State has a new athletic director, introduced on Tuesday with the usual fanfare but hyped even before he was offered and accepted the job. WSU president Kirk Schulz had insisted more than a month ago that the Cougar constituency would let out a “Wow!” upon hearing of the choice – which has happened exactly never in the history of anyone’s AD hires.

Pat Chun is an impressive enough guy, with a fine résumé and 5-star endorsements. But he’s also a suit from another school, and the wows will be held in abeyance for a couple of years until it can be seen what he does at his new one.

Until he finds more ways to pay for some of the wow Wazzu has purchased on credit.

This was no subtext at the introductory press conference. Chun’s mandate is to raise WSU’s athletic treasure, and the transparency of the message contributed to an odd aura on Tuesday, rosy expectation mingling with lingering regret.

As workers readied the room for Chun’s entrance, kitty-corner across the Martin Stadium complex, two women removed the last flowers from the makeshift memorial to Tyler Hilinski, the young quarterback whose suicide rocked the Cougar community last week. Chun’s hiring was hailed on the Martin scoreboard; across the street, the Beasley Coliseum reader board continued to flash “RIP 3.” And Chun took proper care to make his first remarks a tribute to how the school and its many supporters grieved Hilinski’s memory, and rallied for each other with remarkable spirit.

But the bills keep coming all the while – especially in college athletics, which cannot find a governor for its impulse shopping. And so the subject of the day was fundraising.

It’s not a new development. When Bill Moos rode into the AD’s chair on his utter Cougness eight years ago, he quipped: “If you like the sermon, show it when the collection plate is passed around.”

Chun’s approach is likely to give off more missionary zeal.

This was driven home when Schulz revealed the simple parameters of Chun’s contract: $650,000 a year, a $25,000 retention bonus if he stays five and a lone incentive – $25,000 for meeting a mutually agreed upon fund-raising target.

Symbolic as much as anything else.

“We didn’t want to go with a financial incentive for graduation rate or ticket sales or things like that,” Schulz reasoned. “I worked with an AD for many years who told me, ‘Kirk, that’s my job. You don’t go to the provost and say if you graduate a certain number of students, you get more.’ There shouldn’t be an incentive for doing what part of your normal job is.

“The only reason we did it for fund-raising is we feel we have to put an extra emphasis on raising those private dollars.”

And everyone knows why.

The athletic department has run up operating deficits totaling $60 million over seven years, with likely three more years’ worth coming – by building the facilities Chun marveled at Tuesday, and ramping up amenities and coaching salaries. Schulz obviously doesn’t plan on spending less – hence his rewrite of football coach Mike Leach’s contract – and anticipated Pac-12 Networks revenue has been a comparative trickle. That leaves fundraising.

“Having a deficit, if you look across the country, is consistent in college athletics,” said Chun, not cavalierly but not exactly vexed, either. “But I understand there’s a fiscal responsibility to the state of Washington and the institution.”

Earlier, he’d lauded his new school as having “one of the most loyal and passionate alumni bases in the country,” leaving out the part where Wazzu collects roughly $1,400 less per donor than even Oregon State. But then, you don’t win the press conference shoveling dirt on your demographic.

“All of the candidates for the job raised lots of money where they were,” Schulz said, “but at Florida Atlantic, a young university, Pat did several gifts that are far larger than anything we’ve done here for athletics. I felt if somebody could operate and be that successful in an environment that didn’t have the same alumni base we do, what could he do with a wealthier, larger set of Cougs out there who really need to buy into our program?

“Pat is not going to be able to turn this around in 12 months. It’s going to take us a couple years to get us back to where we need to go.”

That could be a “Wow!” moment.

It might even get Pat Chun a salary bump, because that’s what college athletics does when it raises more money: finds a way to spend it.