WSU athletic director Bill Moos is back at his alma mater 20 years after he left, with challenges greater than any he has faced as AD at two previous schools. But he says he's more than ready.
“Got a story to tell you,” Bill Moos says eagerly, his eyes brightening.
No, he doesn’t. He’s got a million of them.
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The new athletic director at Washington State is sitting among unpacked boxes on his second day in his office, trying to find the phone when it rings, but it can all wait. Bill Moos has stories that need to be told.
There were all those new, unfamiliar jobs, where he didn’t know what he was doing but somehow it all worked out. For Moos, it always does.
There were those years when he roomed with old football coaches at WSU, knowing where the bones were buried.
“Oh, you’ll like this one,” Moos says, starting another tale.
There was that time when his professional dream was devastated. By his alma mater, of all things. And then the time he returned the favor and turned it down.
Stories: That’s how Moos engaged Nike founder Phil Knight and primed a flow of cash to the University of Oregon that turned Knight into the nation’s most prominent benefactor to college athletics.
This is what he does, and he does it well.
Bill Moos: Good story.
How does this happen? How do events bump around and never quite connect right, and then, when you’re 59 years old and retired to a cattle ranch outside Spokane, it works? And the next thing you know, you’re wearing a coat and tie again and you find yourself in the job you always wanted, at precisely the time when they needed you most?
“There have been some fabulous accomplishments during the 20 years I’ve been gone,” Moos says. “But when you look at the heart and soul of Washington State, it’s the place I fell in love with when my folks brought me up from Edwall.”
Ah, Edwall. It’s an unincorporated dot on the map about 35 miles southwest of Spokane. This summer, his parents, Donald and Parmalee Moos, celebrate their 65th wedding anniversary, and no doubt they’ll recall how Donald hitchhiked from Edwall down to Sunnyside to his wedding in 1945, picked up by a kindly driver of a Seattle-bound Texaco fuel tanker willing to go out of his way to help a soldier home from World War II.
Years later, the Moos family would drive down to Pullman for a couple of football games each fall. And young Bill would marvel at the elaborate homecoming displays on campus that took fraternities and sororities a couple of weeks to assemble.
“I just loved that,” Moos says. “I can remember every inch of that drive.”
Of course, there was never any doubt about where he was going to school, and Moos excelled there for Jim Sweeney, named a first-team All-Pac-8 offensive tackle in 1972.
A couple of years after, Moos found himself in the basement of a federal building, a file clerk working as part of an internship with the Civil Aeronautics Board. It was one of his several where-is-this-going life crises.
“Within six to eight weeks,” he says, grinning, “I was the deputy director of community and Congressional relations, flying all over the country, giving speeches on the Civil Aeronautics Board. And to this day, I can’t spell ‘aeronautics.’ “
A business education
Here’s how you lay the groundwork to be an athletic director at a Pac-10 school: You get thrown into the restaurant business in your mid-20s at a place they called “Misfit” in Pullman.
Moos was with his dad at a Cougar Club meeting in Olympia, where he spent his high-school years. By this time, Donald Moos had gone from state legislator to director of the state Department of Agriculture.
A couple of former WSU basketball players, Ray Sundquist (1938-41) and Ed Gayda (1946-50), had teamed with a restaurateur named Perry Overstreet on a new eatery. At that booster meeting, Sundquist buttonholed the younger Moos and convinced him to manage it.
“I think he knew I was well connected and could probably help bring clientele in,” Moos says. “I didn’t know a damn thing about it. I learned pretty fast.”
The Misfit had no theme. The salad bar was served in an old claw-foot bathtub. Nothing matched. Sundquist coaxed china out of a friend at the Olympic Hotel in Seattle.
Moos’ connections paid off for Misfit. When football recruits came to town, they were hosted at the restaurant, downing huge steaks and cracking open lobster.
“We built it figuring about $500,000 in volume the first year,” says Overstreet. “We did $950,000. It just kicked ass.”
“I wouldn’t have traded that time for anything, because I really learned business,” Moos says. “Sometimes you’ve got to lay people off, sometimes you’ve got to cut people back, sometimes you’ve got to do it yourself.”
Meanwhile, Moos watched WSU go through a four-coaches-in-four-years carousel.
“Jackie Sherrill was not a good fit,” he said of the Cougars’ coach in 1976. “He never unpacked his bags, and I know that, because he lived with me for six months. I had a town house out here. The next year, the Cougars hire Warren Powers, and he lived with me four or five months.”
Success at the restaurant led Overstreet and Moos to open new ones in Eugene and Corvallis. Then in 1982, WSU athletic director Sam Jankovich, recognizing Moos’ potential for fundraising, wanted him to join the department. A search committee yielded three candidates, none of them Moos, who admits he didn’t have a clue about the job demands.
“You can do with these names anything you want,” Jankovich says today, recalling his instructions to that panel. “But if it doesn’t have Bill Moos’ name on it, I’ll dissolve the committee and get another committee.”
Funny, the new hire was Bill Moos.
Building a relationship
Through three WSU athletic directors of the ’80s — Jankovich, Dick Young and Jim Livengood — Moos earned his spurs. He learned the business, raised funds, grew to know marketing and promotions and ticket sales.
One day, he was driving president Sam Smith down from Spokane, and told him the vacant AD job at Montana interested him.
“What’s your ultimate goal professionally?” Smith asked.
“I want to be the athletic director at Washington State.”
“Well,” Smith said, “you better go to Montana.”
He did. In Missoula, he upgraded fundraising and brought the scholarship foundation under the wing of the athletic department. Basketball went to the NCAA tournament a couple of times, and football prospered.
In 1994, Livengood left WSU for Arizona. To many WSU supporters, Moos was the slam-dunk choice to replace him. He had succeeded inside and out of the program.
“They brought in like 12, 15 (candidates) into the Tri-Cities for a quick little one-hour interview type of thing,” Moos says.
He thought he did well. Turned out, he wasn’t even a finalist for his dream job. The school hired Rick Dickson of Tulsa. The buzz among many longtime WSU boosters is that Moos was seen as too much of a good-time guy. Somehow, he wasn’t serious enough for the administration.
“I was crushed,” he says. “I was devastated. I had done everything by the book to prepare myself.”
A year later, Oregon came calling, and this time everything clicked. Football and basketball were in the middle of good runs, and his job, in essence, was to keep them going.
Inevitably, that would lead him to Phil Knight, the emperor of Nike apparel. A former miler at Oregon, Knight had never really been heavily engaged in athletics at his alma mater.
Three days into the new job, Moos found himself in Knight’s office, having been promised 15 minutes.
Moos did what he does best. He told Knight a story.
He was at Stanford back in 1972, practicing for the East-West Shrine football game. Shoe promoters were all around. An undersized offensive tackle from Washington State stood next to an undecorated receiver from Oregon, Greg Specht.
“These guys come up with these orange boxes with a check mark on the side,” Moos told Knight, “and they said, ‘Will you wear our shoes?’ “
“We’d wear anybody’s shoes,” Moos went on. “We just wanted some attention.”
Now Knight was laughing.
“I wore the black ones in practice and the white ones in the game,” Moos continued. “I had those shoes for 20 years.”
“That was our very first shoe,” Knight said. “You don’t still have them, do you?”
They talked for 90 minutes. Moos knew he was on to something good. Soon Knight was writing checks — for an indoor practice facility, for an expansion of Autzen Stadium, and most recently, some $100 million for a new basketball arena.
Independent of Knight’s largesse, Moos more than doubled donations at Oregon, and both football and basketball reached unprecedented heights. Of course, there was a gradual falling out with Knight, and Moos would be ousted in 2007. The two sides are still working out terms of a noncompete clause in his contract.
“Bill was an excellent athletic director, by any measure,” said Dan Williams, the Oregon vice president who oversaw athletics. “He had a really good understanding of where athletics fit into the general mission of the institution. He knew when the time was right to eliminate the university subsidy to the department.
“I was very troubled by the way he left here. It wasn’t because he made bad decisions. It was because his decisions weren’t in agreement with important people.”
Now it’s 2010, and Moos is traveling I-90 through the desert of Central Washington. His cellphone rings. It breaks up.
“This is Philip Knight,” repeats the caller. “I’m so happy for you. Congratulations. This is so great for you and Washington State and the Pac-10.”
They chatted for 15 minutes. They hadn’t spoken in three years.
The best for last
Thing is, Moos could have been sitting in this new office a decade earlier. In 2000, Sam Smith retired at WSU, giving way to Lane Rawlins as president. Moos knew Rawlins — he seems to know everybody — from Rawlins’ days as an economics professor at WSU three decades earlier.
Rawlins pursued Moos, but Oregon was in the middle of the Autzen Stadium addition, and after squirming and agonizing, Moos said he couldn’t leave right then.
So that was going to be it for his dream job. Out at Oregon three years ago, he and his wife Kendra built their ranch, when suddenly, all the planets aligned in February: His yearning to get back into the business, Jim Sterk’s departure to San Diego State, and then a whirlwind courtship that took all of 10 days.
“It’s very heartwarming for me, because this is my alma mater,” he says. “You know, the good Lord has ways of taking you where you need to be, if you just let him.”
In the 20 years he has been gone, WSU has done things thought to be impossible. It went to two Rose Bowls, when it hadn’t been to one in 67 years. It crashed its first Sweet 16 in basketball.
“Was that capitalized on?” Moos asks rhetorically. “I know how to do that, if we can get there. That’s going to be a challenge, but it can be done.”
But now the landscape is wicked in college athletics. The Oregon and Oregon State that Moos knew as a player have football stadiums far better than Washington State’s. Costs have risen dramatically. Coaching salaries are alarmingly high.
Jankovich, who knows the territory, says WSU’s challenge is greater than the ones Moos faced at Montana or Oregon.
“You need a couple of big hitters who are really going to have a tremendous impact,” he says. “Who they are, I don’t know. This business has gone totally out of control.”
But if there’s a guy to maximize what’s out there for WSU, it’s Moos.
“He can be with the farmer from Colfax and the CEO of Microsoft in the same day,” says Montana football coach Robin Pflugrad, an assistant coach at Montana and Oregon during Moos’ regimes at the schools. “He’s the type of guy that can have a cold beer with you, and in the next room, he can have caviar and wine and be perfectly comfortable in both arenas.”
When Moos takes a seat among Pac-10 athletic directors, he’s second in seniority only to USC’s Mike Garrett. Battle-tested is the way he puts it, better than he would have been when the job eluded him 16 years ago.
He saved his biggest professional challenge for the end of his career. But yes, this time, Bill Moos has a clue.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org