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Q&A: Washington State AD Pat Chun recaps 2020, talks student-athlete vaccination & responds to recent national events in wide-ranging interview

UPDATED: Sat., Jan. 16, 2021

Washington State athletic director Pat Chun watches the second half of an NCAA college basketball game between Washington State and Oregon State in Pullman, Wash., Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020.   (Associated Press)
Washington State athletic director Pat Chun watches the second half of an NCAA college basketball game between Washington State and Oregon State in Pullman, Wash., Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020.  (Associated Press)

Over the past year, Pat Chun has overseen departmentwide furloughs and pay reductions, guiding Washington State athletics through one of the most turbulent periods in school history.

The Cougars were already anticipating the accumulated athletics deficit to reach nine figures by the end of the 2021 fiscal year. It’s difficult to project where that number will land by the end of the COVID-19 pandemic – something that’s impacted every revenue stream the department counts on to merely break even. WSU’s football team played just four of its seven scheduled games and both basketball teams have had their seasons interrupted by COVID-19.

Chun’s faced many of the same headaches others in his industry have faced the past 365 days, but some of those have been alleviated by the competitive success of WSU’s various athletic programs – most of them under the direction of coaches hired by the third-year athletic director.

WSU football posted a 1-3 record, but Nick Rolovich’s team showed signs of promise while playing arguably the most challenging four-game schedule of anyone in the conference, and playing all four games severely shorthanded. The men’s and women’s basketball teams, led by Kyle Smith and Kamie Ethridge, are a combined 16-5, with both collecting Top 25 votes at various points of the 2020-21 season and Ethridge’s women cracking the AP Top 25 for the first time in school history. Todd Shulenberger’s soccer team recently sent three more players to the NWSL draft, Brian Green’s baseball program is on the rise with an impressive recruiting class and returning All-American infielder, while Jen Greeny’s volleyball program is targeting a fifth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.

Recently, The Spokesman-Review discussed all of the above, and much more, during a wide-ranging interview with Chun.

Spokesman-Review: We’ll start out with a non-Washington State question. You’re an Ohio native and a long-suffering Cleveland Browns fans. What was your reaction to Sunday’s playoff win over Pittsburgh?

Pat Chun: “It was funny, texting with my college roommates. We all went to Ohio State, but most of us are from Cleveland. You don’t know how to react with a playoff win and then on top of that beating the Steelers in the playoffs. So it’s fun to watch, it’s fun to fan out a little bit. I know how important football is to northeast Ohio, to the city of Cleveland, so as a native Clevelander, those wins probably mean a little bit more in those cities. Whether you’re a Raiders or 49ers fan, like (sports information director) Bill (Stevens) growing up, you can pick a team and they have championships. We didn’t have that luxury.”

S-R: With all the attrition you faced in 2020, both personally and as a department, what was the most valuable thing you learned last year?

Chun: “Well, specific to Washington State, we believe in Washington State, but this is a very people-driven organization, people-driven institution and I think just to see the resiliency of people. We’re an athletic department where our entire staff took a salary reduction or took furloughs or will still take furloughs. I’ve been pretty public. I did not receive one single complaint about any of that, so getting through this year, doing it together if anything, there’s a lot of pride. … I think just seeing the resiliency of people and if anything, the other piece of it is the importance of compassion and me personally, that’s my word for ’21. I’ve got to do a better job of being more compassionate to everyone I interact with and that’s my lesson learned, or how I’m going to try to impact others in ’21.”

S-R: There’s been a few women’s basketball teams that have recently decided to opt out of the remainder of the season. What needs to happen for college basketball to get to the finish line and are you optimistic it will?

Chun: “Well, the finish line’s a long way away. That’s the reality of trying to play a season in a pandemic. So it’s no different with all other sports. We’re going to take it game by game, week by week. There’s no guarantee. Until the ball’s tipped here in about 15 minutes for men’s basketball, that’s the only guarantee we’re going to get that game started and go. We owe it to our student-athletes to put them in this position, to try to compete and try to keep – the normal part of their lives is competing and being part of these teams and playing these sports. We owe it to them to try to get these things done and they’ve made a lot of sacrifices to get this thing done. When you look at all the college sports and men’s and women’s basketball are going through it right now, you see the power of the human spirit. Our teams, they jump on a bus, they’ve got to separate and wear masks, they’ve got to eat before they get on the bus. Everything they’re doing is just totally different to try to have two hours of solace of playing a basketball game today. So there’s no method on how to get to the finish line, other than we have to keep following the protocols that have been approved and let’s see how far we can get this thing down to the end.

S-R: Is there a vaccine rollout plan for student-athletes at this point? When do you anticipate is the earliest they could receive one?

Chun: “I’m in constant communication with our government affairs people. The administration’s going to change over here shortly and the thought is, the department of education will weigh in as well. But whenever it’s appropriate for that age group, the student sector, to get in line for vaccines, my assumption is that’s when our student-athletes will get in line as well. We understand there’s an at-risk population that needs to be served first, that must be served. So we’re patient and whenever it’s time for our student-athletes to have the option of getting the vaccine, they’ll be educated on everything that goes in and around taking the vaccine.”

S-R: You’re the son of Korean immigrants who came to the U.S. to pursue the American Dream. What’s your response to the recent events at the Capitol and as someone leading such a diverse athletic department, how do you continue to unite as opposed to divide?

Chun: “It was disheartening, disturbing, sad. In my lifetime, one of the low moments of this country’s history. When we did an all student-athlete meeting last week, it’s going to take all of us to figure out how to unify, how to educate, how to listen, how to be more compassionate. We’re fortunate because we have a pretty active group of student-athletes that care and want to be a part of the solution. We have speakers coming in all semester and we challenge each other to go grab a teammate or a co-worker and go put your arm around them, virtually, and encourage them to go sign up for our educational opportunities and let’s go talk about it and learn how to communicate and accept people at their words and meet halfway. So a lot of learning to do. This country is hurting right now, our student-athletes are hurting when this country hurts and a little bit different when you don’t have the life experiences of someone like me in my mid-40s and you’ve got someone with half the life experiences. It’s important that whatever we do, we stay unified. I think you look, what the sport of women’s basketball did in the Pac-12 was pretty compelling. All the schools, all the women’s basketball teams, are wearing the same basic shirt because they all unified around a message. It’s been powerful to see our men’s basketball team rally around each other, because you’ve got some guys – we’ve got some international guys that don’t really understand what’s going on, but they know one of their brothers is hurting and a way we can unify and help him through, or help them through it, is taking a knee and learning and growing together. We need to figure out how to heal and the only way to do that is together.”

S-R: Are you optimistic that there will be some level of fan attendance during the 2021-22 seasons, or is it too early to determine that at this point?

Chun: “I think both. It’s too early to gauge, but I am optimistic knowing people want to connect. There’s something special that happens those seven Saturdays in Martin Stadium. There’s something special that happened when we had Klay Thompson here. There’s something special when we had George Raveling here. There’s something special if we could’ve had a couple thousand people in the building when Charlisse Leger-Walker hit that buzzer-beater. Something special would’ve happened there and those kind of connections are invaluable. They inspire you, they make you take pride and pause and make you think about different aspects of your life. … I know there’s a huge segment of Cougs that miss that and whenever we can open our doors, we’ll open them.”

S-R: More than anything else, athletic directors are judged or graded by the hires they make. Is there any sense of relief, personally, when you see Kyle Smith, Kamie Ethridge, Brian Green and Nick Rolovich having success and making a positive impact in their respective sports?

Chun: “No, I wouldn’t say a sense of relief. When you hire people that are winners, this is the expectation. Not to be too frank about it, but if anything you look and you ask yourself the question, what else can we do as a department to help them achieve their goals at being the best we’re supposed to be? The hiring piece of it is a critical component, I recognize that, but it’s also supporting them and giving them as many tools as we’re capable of giving them to achieve the ceiling of where they’re trying to get to. So, it’s fun, it’s rewarding because you see the greatest beneficiary of that is our student-athletes.”

S-R: Have you been able to fully grasp the financial ramifications of the pandemic for the athletic department, or do you wait until the end of the fiscal year to measure something like that?

Chun: “The final number is still nebulous because we’ve got to get through basketball season and I think we’ve estimated publicly I think between $28-30 (million), I think around $30 million, so we’re planning for a certain number. As we get through these next six months, our expenses will start to increase because we’ve got teams traveling and active. We’ve got TV contracts that need to be fulfilled. But we’ll be prepared as we need to be and I remind all of them, this is a pandemic that, when the pandemic hit, with everything our staff was willing to do to get us through it, I know we’ll get through this and we’ll get through it together.”

S-R: Has there been a definite impact on fundraising you’ve been able to detect, or is that something else you’re still waiting on?

Chun: “It’s an impact. A lot of it is impacted, so it’s going to have an impact on fundraising, but we’ve been moving forward with our indoor practice facility project. We have plenty of momentum with that and I think with the uncertainty of what’s going to happen in the fall of 2021 with football will impact our Cougar Athletic Fund. But Cougs have big hearts and we have a pretty big base of people that are supporting us now because they can and we’re appreciative of that. Whenever we get more assurances on what 2021 will look like, that’s when we can get a little more targeted with fundraising.”

S-R: Where do you think the Pac-12 is right now from a competitive standpoint? How does the conference get to a place where it’s sending teams to the College Football Playoff annually and making deep runs in the NCAA Tournament?

Chun: “Well, I don’t think it’s a complex answer. We all got to do a better job of winning football games. We’re committed to doing that at Washington State. We know we’re one-twelfth of the equation, we’re going to do our part to keep building a program that is focused on being the best it can be and that means winning as many games as we play. So, we’re committed to that half and we know the rest of the league is. We just have to find our own pathway to get there.”

This interview was edited for brevity.

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