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WSU’s Pat Chun discusses Cougars’ place in realignment: ‘We’re going to be OK’

Pat Chun, Washington State University’s athletic director, testifies at a March hearing at the U.S. Capitol.  (Orion Donovan-Smith/The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – The Apple Cup’s future is hazy, the Pac-12 fell apart largely thanks to a failure of leadership, Washington State will wait to find a conference home before assembling next year’s football schedule and, when it comes to the Cougars’ place in college athletics, “all options are on the table.”

That’s the word from Washington State Athletic Director Pat Chun, who for the first time since the Pac-12’s dismantling talked to the media on Wednesday afternoon via Zoom, addressing a bevy of topics across a 25-minute news conference.

Chun declined to address a few topics – such as which conferences WSU could join, how the school could benefit from the Pac-12’s distribution funds and the impact of the university’s budget crunch, which could mean losing 40% of the school’s athletic revenue, according to president Kirk Schulz. But among the most pressing matters, he said whatever decision Washington State makes on the Apple Cup “will not be based on emotion.”

It’s up in the air thanks to Washington’s (and Oregon’s) decision to leave for the Big Ten in time for the 2024 season. That leaves WSU and UW with a decision: Keep the rivalry going as a nonconference game – or kill it.

Chun said Washington State brass has made no decisions on the rivalry, but said, “I don’t see how not playing the Apple Cup in Pullman would ever be a good decision for Washington State.

“I think it’s a layered decision. One, the practicality of it is, football scheduling is complicated, and beyond this year, that is a huge question mark for us. Two, the reality is this environment is very clear right now – the Apple Cup is a national game. It is a national rivalry. It’s a value game from a TV property standpoint. So wherever we end up, it’s not going to be an emotionally based decision. It’s going to be based on what’s best for Washington State, what’s best for our student-athletes.”

One factor that will loom large for the Apple Cup’s future: What will Washington State’s 2024 schedule look like? To decide that, the Cougars need to find a conference home, which is the most consequential question in the athletic department in this situation. It’s also potentially the most meaningful development in program history.

Everything hinges on which conference Washington State joins next season, which remains unknown, and that’s why Chun couldn’t address everything reporters asked him.

Options appear to include a potential Pac-12/Mountain West merger – in an interview with ESPN released Wednesday morning, Schulz said, “It may be the two of us accept an invitation to join (the Mountain West), and we rely on private dollars to make sure our budgets are at the top of the league,” – but Chun also said, “I’m not going to speculate on where we end up.”

But Washington State (and the other three remaining Pac-12 schools) only finds itself in this position, Chun said, in large part because of a failure of conference leadership.

“Until there’s better leadership as a whole, this is going to continue,” Chun said. “What happened to the four schools that remain in the Pac-12 is going to be a theme that you see over the course of the next decade unless we get better leadership in college football.

“There’s a century of history that has gone by the wayside because this conference has mismanaged itself on a bunch of different levels. And when you have poor leadership, one of the outcomes is failure. That’s what has happened to the Pac-12.”

There are multiple ways to track the collapse of the Pac-12, but dominoes began to fall in December , when USC and UCLA announced their plans to leave for the Big Ten. Seven months later, Colorado left for the Big 12, and within days, three more Pac-12 schools did the same: Utah, Arizona and Arizona State. Then Oregon and Washington defected for the Big Ten, all schools jumping ship before the lack of a new TV deal could derail the conference.

When The Spokesman-Review asked Chun if at any point in that span Washington State received an invitation to join another Power Five conference, he declined to say.

“It’s not that simple of a question,” Chun said. “We’ve been committed members of the Pac-12 Conference for whatever iteration it was over the past century. The world changed last Friday, and now we’re trying to figure out what the best future for Washington State is.”

At some point, Chun said, the mood soured in the athletic department.

“I think we’re going through the whole stages of grief,” Chun said. “I mean, this is an institution, an athletic program that is extraordinarily proud of what it’s been able to achieve over the last century.

“It’s really remarkable when you think about who Washington State is, the external-world perception that the odds are stacked against it, and yet over and over, it continues to prove its critics wrong. So it’s really an anomaly when you think about what Washington State has become.”

For his part, Chun made like head football coach Jake Dickert, preaching confidence and patience. Whatever becomes of the situation, Chun said, “We’re going to be OK.

“It will be different, just simply because sports on the West Coast changed, at least in the interim, because the one constant is changing college athletics. The reality is, realignment is not done.

“So as I think President Schulz has been very clear, we’re committed – we are a Power Five school. Our performance indicates that we’re a Power Five school. We’re going to do our best to continue to compete at that level, and that’s really our goal going forward.”