PULLMAN – Ron Stone Jr. had his pick of the litter. It was last offseason, and Washington State’s edge rusher was reaping the benefits of his sterling career.
In 2023, that means hearing from other schools’ collectives and listening to their name, image and likeness (NIL) offers.
Stone faced every chance to hit the transfer portal, make bank somewhere else and call it a career at WSU. Who could blame him if he did? He had graduated. He had given the Cougars five years. He had helped them make three bowl games.
“I didn’t have to come back here,” Stone said, “but I wanted to.”
That’s what makes Stone a rare breed in this changing landscape of college football. With electric pass-rush abilities and a vibrant personality, he turned down deals much more lucrative than his opportunities at WSU – just to remain a Cougar and finish what he started.
He would have gone down as a Washington State star if he left after five years. Now, as he does his part to help WSU right the ship on this bizarre season – which started with four straight wins and has followed with five straight losses – he can go down as an icon.
As players around the country hop into the portal and accept NIL deals worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, though, these questions become pertinent: How many of Stone’s breed remain? Can the Cougars recruit and retain guys like Stone? How does the answer to that question color the future of WSU athletics?
Washington State is plunging into an uncertain future. Without a conference home, the university is looking at financial losses that may change the school for years to come – if not forever. No longer can the university rely on Pac-12 Conference funds, a reality that will touch every corner of campus.
The Cougars are no longer recruiting players from Stone’s era, before NIL deals became prevalent. They are recruiting players who value playing time and money, a departure from the norm and a new reality that is forcing WSU to recalibrate its place in college football.
“In today’s world, you can no longer just say passion and spirit is gonna get you by anymore,” WSU head coach Jake Dickert said. “It’s just completely real, that the NIL matters. And the facts are Washington State, we’re way behind. Not even competitive in some aspects of the NIL.”
The biggest challenge facing the Cougar Collective, one of Washington State’s two NIL initiatives, is a Washington state law that dictates public institutions cannot explicitly endorse private entities. That means Dickert cannot reference the Cougar Collective by name, at least not in an official capacity – which puts a serious handicap the organization’s visibility and in turn limits its ability to fundraise at the level that schools like Oregon and USC enjoy.
Those states don’t have that law, which means Oregon State University Athletic Director Scott Barnes can urge fans to donate to the Dam Collective and USC Athletic Director Jen Cohen can do the same for the House of Victory, the Trojans’ NIL collective.
“We don’t have that,” said Tim Brandle, the Cougar Collective’s treasurer and legal counsel. “So what we’ve been doing is we’ve had to run in and wave our flag as much as we can to all of our supporters via social media, email campaigns, in person, education, seminars, things like that, to try to get people to understand that we’re here for the right reasons. And we’re here because we’re trying to help. The hardest part is that the university can’t validate that claim.”
Even within the state, the University of Washington retains a much larger alumni base and donors who give bigger dollar amounts – so the Huskies can afford to offer more money to recruits, therefore landing better players.
In that way, WSU is at a fundamental disadvantage. If the Cougars can’t woo transfer portal players with dollar signs – “You need NIL money to get portal guys, period, as we found out in the last two years,” Dickert said – will the ones they land have the talent to uphold the school’s standard? How much time remains on the Cougars’ bowl streak, which stands at seven years?
“Cougs have been spoiled. There’s no doubt about it,” Brandle said. “We’ve all been spoiled with the amount of success – we’ve always done more with less. That’s just not gonna be the realistic case anymore.”
“For so many years, the Cougs have had this image of they do more with less,” said Jack Thompson, regarded as one of WSU’s best players of all time and a member of the Cougar Collective Board of Directors. “I can’t wait for the day when we do more with more.”
In simpler terms, WSU must adapt .
Vanishing are the days where the Cougars can find the needles in the haystacks, the under-recruited players who take time to develop then blossom into all-conference players by their junior and senior years. Those guys now want NIL deals, too, and other schools can offer them more than WSU can.
The same is true for players on WSU’s roster, and during their five-game losing streak, the Cougars are feeling the effects.
Take three examples from players on last year’s roster – linebackers Francis Mauigoa and Travion Brown and offensive lineman Jarrett Kingston. All three made meaningful impacts on last year’s team, leading WSU to another bowl game.
All three transferred at year’s end. All three accepted big paydays via NIL. Mauigoa did so at Miami, Kingston at USC and Brown at Arizona State.
Now think about some of WSU’s current problems. A thin linebacker corps, best exemplified by the team’s decision to start redshirt freshman Taariq Al-Uqdah over senior Devin Richardson two weeks ago. An inconsistent offensive line, which ranks last in Pro Football Focus’ Pac-12 run-blocking grades.
“Think about where we’d be if we had those three guys,” Thompson said. “There’s no doubt in my mind – no doubt – we would have won probably four of the last five games that we lost, at least. At least.”
“I’ll never be one to look at a former teammate the wrong way for leaving because of any reason,” Stone said. “If you don’t feel like being here is the best fit for you, then I have no right to sit here and say you’re a bad person, you’re a traitor, this and that. I’ve wished the best for all my teammates that have left.”
So for WSU, what’s the answer? To Brandle and the Cougar Collective, it’s simple: Keep donating.
The organization is making strides on that front. On Monday, after Dickert’s comments about NIL at WSU went viral, the collective raked in $30,000 – a record for single-day donations. By the end of the night, the operation had exceeded its $100,000 match campaign, soaring to $125,000. As he watched WSU’s men’s basketball team beat Idaho on Monday night, Brandle had to put his phone on do-not-disturb mode – he was getting too many notifications about donations.
That’s the kind of fundraising efforts that have landed current WSU players their NIL deals. Stone has a few, including ones with McDonald’s of the Inland Northwest clothing companies, which he advertises on social media. Backup quarterback John Mateer has a deal with Pullman’s Miss Huddy’s Barbecue. Cameron Ward got a sponsorship from a McDonald’s in his hometown for a youth camp. Brennan Jackson does commercials – some with Stone – for CougsFirst, a business network that connects WSU alumni.
But there’s a reason why not every Cougars’ NIL deals are public knowledge, at least not the ones from the Cougar Collective. If they were, other schools interested in poaching WSU players would have an easier time understanding their value, thereby sweetening their offers and making it harder for players to decide to stay at Washington State.
Schools will still do so, and some already are. For example, WSU star safety Jaden Hicks told CougFan over the weekend that representatives from opposing schools have contacted his father, Archie, about NIL deals for his son.
Schools are already poisoning the water with tampering, which is another issue Dickert said has gone wrongfully unchecked by the NCAA. But the Cougars are under siege, and when the transfer portal opens on Dec. 4, they’ll be free to talk with other schools and chat NIL money.
“It’s gonna be open-target season on our players. That’s what it’s gonna be, and it’s already started,” Dickert said. “So know that’s what’s coming. We need to provide them with as much resources as we possibly have here to keep this team together, to keep recruiting, to keep going. It’s the future of college football.”
The problem is the Cougars don’t have the resources (read: money) other schools do. Thompson, Brandle and the Cougar Collective said they can get there eventually. One of the other roadblocks to that destination, they said, involves a disconnect between WSU’s deep-pocketed donors and the Cougar Collective.
Those donors, Brandle said, don’t trust the Cougar Collective the way they trust the Cougar Athletic Fund, a fundraising arm of WSU’s athletic department that finances things like scholarships, facilities and coaches’ salaries. Those donors have spent years donating to that fund, so they stick to it.
The Cougar Collective is a newer, third-party organization, founded because ethics laws prohibit WSU from arranging third-party compensation for student-athletes as it relates to NIL contracts. It exists for the sole purpose of providing NIL opportunities for players – a new-age development that doesn’t resonate as deeply with donors.
To bridge that gap, Thompson and Brandle ask donors to split their donations between the organizations: 90% to the Cougar Athletic Fund, 10% to the Cougar Collective, for example. Maybe even 80-20.
“It’s not an either-or equation,” Thompson said. “Because it’s needed. If we want to be a part of a Power Five or Power Four, whatever that is – we need to do both.”
“We’ve begged for that to happen,” Brandle said, “and up until this point, we don’t think that’s really been the case of what is happening. But it’s realistically what it’s gonna take for WSU to survive as a major player in college athletics. It’s just the reality.”
To those most invested in WSU’s fundraising efforts, that gulf is a microcosm of a bigger issue, which is donor apathy. Some would-be donors don’t understand the gravity of this new reality, Brandle said, and even those who do feel skeptical that their single donation could make a meaningful difference.
The Cougar Collective tries to make things simple, asking donors for a monthly gift of $18.90, a nod to the university’s founding year of 1890. While they’ve gained traction through that approach, reaching some 900 backers according to Thompson, they understand they’ll need much more to keep the athletic department afloat as constructed.
However it plays out, but this much is clear: Players like Stone only come around so often, and as college athletics enters this new era and the Cougars look for a new conference home, athletes of Stone’s ilk represent the best of what WSU has to offer.
How many more of them WSU can recruit, and the impact of the Cougars’ boosters, may leave the biggest footprint of all on the program’s future.
“If Cougs don’t understand that this is what’s gonna happen, we are going to descend into a – there’s going to be a dark age,” Brandle said, “unless we have some knight in shining armor like the late Paul Allen. Somebody else comes through, somebody like that who has billions of dollars and a willingness to fund these programs at WSU.”