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Grip on Sports: Just why would anyone want to deal with the problems college athletic directors face with these days?

Idaho athletic director Rob Spear, center, talks to associate athletic director Timothy Mooney, left, during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Washington State at Beasley Coliseum in Pullman on Nov. 16, 2010. (Dean Hare / AP)
Idaho athletic director Rob Spear, center, talks to associate athletic director Timothy Mooney, left, during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Washington State at Beasley Coliseum in Pullman on Nov. 16, 2010. (Dean Hare / AP)

A GRIP ON SPORTS • A simple question: Why would anyone want to be an athletic director at a major institution anymore? With the news from the Palouse yesterday, east and west, such a question has to be asked. Read on.

••••••••••

• Washington State’s athletic department has a money problem, one many of us can identify with. There just isn’t enough of it. And fixing that $85 million problem ultimately falls on the shoulders of one man: athletic director Pat Chun.

The new kid in town.

There are great expectations. Everyone’s watching him. 

And Chun better deliver a miracle. Because that’s what it’s going to take to pull the Cougars out of the deepest deficit hole this side of the other Washington. Of course, in D.C. there is no need to balance the budget, no law that says you have to be forthright and open about your financial problems, no worries about paying back the lenders.

Washington State has all of those these days. And, as the school’s Regents prepare to examine the athletic department’s plans to eliminate its annual shortfalls, we – that covers everyone with access to the Internet and the will to wade through documents – were given the chance to see how bad it’s become.

Of course there is some irony in the regents having this role, as that group, under the sway of former school president Elson Floyd, approved the over-the-top spending of the past decade that got the athletic department into the red.

You don’t think then-athletic director Bill Moos could have done this all on his own, do you? 

Floyd was a willing co-conspirator, in a positive way, as the school attempted to keep up with the Arizona States and Oregon States of the Pac-12 world. Those land-grant schools’ athletic department budgets, sure, receive state help amounting to millions of dollars and WSU doesn’t, but that’s the neighborhood the Cougars were trying to occupy. Forget the Oregons and the UCLAs. All Washington State was doing with its spending spree – a remodeled Martin Stadium, a football ops building, more money for coaches – was keep within shouting distant with the lower end of the conference.

It worked, if football wins and losses are your measuring stick. But at a cost probably even Floyd, Moos and the regents didn’t imagine. A big part of that, considering WSU’s athletic department has the smallest budget in the conference, is a revenue stream that was expected to overflow its banks by now.

That didn’t happen. The media rights money river is really just a creek and the Cougar faithful just doesn’t contribute the financial wherewithal for the school to consistently run with the big dogs – or even the Beavers and Buffaloes.

So there is a huge (and growing) deficit. But Washington State has a plan to balance the books. Another one, actually. There have been more before. Heck, Jim Sterk had one more than a decade ago. It didn’t work. Neither will the latest one. And even if it does, the athletic department will still owe the university about $85 million in 2023.

How does that much money get paid back?

It won’t be. The budget plan mentions 2029, but that seems, well, unrealistic. Even if the athletic department digs itself out of the hole (a big if considering the ongoing revenue problems), there is no way it will magically produce surpluses of more than $15 million a year to repay the university’s coffers.

That’s a fantasy even Lord of the Rings’ readers wouldn’t buy.

And when this budget plan fails? What then? All eyes will be on Chun. 

Except they won’t be. By then, he’ll probably be somewhere else. These days athletic directors last about five years or so at each job. That’s the shelf life even at places with sound financial backing. (For example, USC is on its third since 2010 and with the school president on his way out the door, it will be a surprise if Lynn Swann survives the decade.) 

What a job.

• Across the border, Idaho’s athletic director, Rob Spear, remains in limbo. Or is it purgatory? 

Spear is on administrative leave, and has been since April 3, as the school examines his department’s response to complaints of an inadequate response to harassment allegations. The incidents occurred in 2012 and 2013 but only recently came to the public’s attention.

In the time Spear has been sitting in the corner, the Idaho Board of Education has decided to cut ties with his boss, President Chuck Staben. So no matter what the university’s investigation shows, Spear will be dealing with either a supervisor on his way out the door or a new person needing to put his or her stamp on the school.

As we said when we started, why would anyone want to be an athletic director anymore? 

Sure, the money is good. But the pressure from above, below and from the sides is greater than it’s ever been. Decisions made years ago that seemed reasonable at the time – for example, if WSU hadn’t spent the money it did, where would the athletic department be today? – can bite years later.

It’s just not a “settle down and enjoy a long career in one place” sort of job. 

•••

WSU: Money, it’s a gas. It’s also the subject of John Blanchette’s column this morning, as he examines the Cougars’ ongoing financial cataclysm. … Theo Lawson presents the underlying facts behind the issue. … Theo also covered the other news come from Pullman, including talking with Robert Franks about his decision to return to the basketball team. … On the football front, a high school quarterback told the world he’ll be headed to Pullman in a couple years and four games from next year’s schedule were given starting times and television spots. … Larry Weir’s Press Box pod examines the same WSU subjects. … Around the Pac-12, the release of the television times for some football games dominated the news up and down the coast, including at Washington. … One of the biggest controversies in Oregon these days revolves around the rebuild of Hayward Field, the Ducks’ historic track stadium. Thanks to the Register-Guard’s Austin Meeks, Phil Knight has weighed in. … Another historic venue is being rebuilt as we speak, and the Coliseum is already over budget. Guess who will pay for that. … Speaking of athletic directors, Utah’s next one will have big shoes to fill. … There have been lots of new feet in California’s basketball shoes. … Not all the choices concerning the NBA draft were pleasant. 

Gonzaga: The WCC’s new-look basketball schedule will mean the Zags will miss their annual Malibu trip next season. Jim Meehan has the particulars of the 16-game conference schedule. … The baseball team is in the Midwest for the NCAA regional. Justin Reed takes a look at today’s matchup with UCLA. … Also in baseball, tonight is Gonzaga night at the M’s game. Jim has a story. … Around the WCC, BYU lost one of its fan favorites.

Idaho: Spear’s status is the subject of Peter Harriman’s story in today’s paper

Preps: You never know what you might find in a rural North Idaho backyard. Dave Nichols tells us about one such place that has become a heavenly retreat for weight throwers. 

Mariners: Dee Gordon returned to the lineup and so did the winning ways. OK, it’s not all a coincidence. … Wade LeBlanc pitched well once more.

Seahawks: A run-first mentality is once again the Hawks norm.

•••        

• Thanks to The Eagles and Pink Floyd for the use of their lyrics today. Forty-year-old musical references are right in my wheelhouse. Don’t forget to “grab that cash with both hands and make a stash” today. Or that this beautiful Friday is National Doughnut Day. Until later … 

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