College football season is only a few days away, marked by familiar signs of autumn: The thud of linemen against blocking sleds, the trill...

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College football season is only a few days away, marked by familiar signs of autumn: The thud of linemen against blocking sleds, the trill of practice whistles, the sound of coaches hedging on their selection of starting quarterbacks.


And oh yes, the ka-ching of the cash register.


Never has the game — particularly nearby — been as marbled by financial factors as in 2005.


• Washington, coming off a 1-10 season, has raised seat-priority assessments about 31 percent across the board. The Huskies have taken the public tack that the investment will help ensure the dreaded 2004 effort doesn’t happen again.


• In the spring, Arizona not only lopped 19 full-time athletic-department jobs from a roll of 185, it turned the lawn around its basketball arena into a temporary used-car lot. The Wildcats received $150,000 up front from several car dealers in a five-year agreement that requires them to buy about $50,000 worth of football tickets each fall.


• When Oregon State christens a dramatically revamped Reser Stadium on Saturday against Portland State, it will signify its commitment to football — and its reliance on season-ticket holders who are paying several hundred dollars more for the right to buy a pair of seats than they did a year ago.


• Washington State, exploring its own remodel to Martin Stadium with marketing surveys and hiring of an architect, has tacked a $5 fee onto each ticket for all home games this season to front that campaign.


It was in discussions with athletic director Jim Sterk about the proposed renovation that WSU coach Bill Doba cast a knowing glance at his boss.


“It does help if we win a little bit, doesn’t it?” Doba remarked.


Only a little.


Never have the stakes been as high in college football. Never has winning meant so much. Never has the pressure been quite as gnawing on coaches as it is entering this season.


Already buffeted by the twin forces of Internet message boards and sports-talk radio — two outlets that weren’t a factor 15 years ago — coaches are increasingly held accountable for the improved facilities around them.


An inexorable shrinkage has taken place in their grace period for success. Not so long ago, a coach could figure to have five years to show he was the right choice, four at the most football-crazed schools.


At many places, that window now closes after three years, a trend underscored when Notre Dame — which had always held itself to be above such bottom-line madness — cashiered Tyrone Willingham after only three seasons.


It was when the Irish hired Willingham — now coaching on the rebound at Washington — that they also romanced Mike Bellotti, the Oregon coach.


“The one thing they could tell me they could hang their hat on was, they had never fired a coach,” says Bellotti. “They had always let him finish out his contract. It’s very interesting that the next coach they hired, they didn’t allow that to happen.”


Willingham’s wasn’t the only surprise firing. Mississippi, a school whose recent football tradition might be generously described as modest, touted David Cutcliffe as the first coach in school history to win at least seven games in each of his first five seasons. Then, when he went 4-7 last year, one season after a Cotton Bowl victory, he was canned.


The school president said “mediocrity” would not cut it at Ole Miss.


“I was head football coach at Baylor for 21 years,” says Grant Teaff, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association. “I’ve been out 12, and they’ve had four head coaches. There aren’t going to be any more 21-year terms like I had, and Bobby [Bowden] and Lavell [Edwards] and [Joe] Paterno.”


The flip side to this amped-up world is that coaches are making money unheard of not very long ago. Think about this: When Washington hired Rick Neuheisel in 1999, his contract — about a million dollars with incentives, roughly $800,000 guaranteed annually — drew concern and derision from some faculty members at Washington. It was among the top five college coaching salaries.


Just six years later, Willingham will make a guaranteed $1.4 million this year. That’s a 75 percent increase on what Neuheisel was guaranteed.


Yet Willingham’s salary is believed only third-highest in the Pac-10. His contract appears closer to the market than Neuheisel’s was in 1999.


Moreover, argues Washington athletic director Todd Turner, Willingham’s hire has dramatically altered the face of football at UW.


“He’s done an incredible job of instantly changing the culture of what we’ve been having to deal with over the last few years,” Turner says. “He’s restored confidence in the players; he’s returned them to being focused and more disciplined and more committed. You can see it in the way they act.”


In 1996, the year running back Corey Dillon led Washington to a 9-3 season, a reserved season ticket cost $160. This year, for a team the media picked to finish 10th in the Pac-10, the tab is $345 — after the 31-percent hike in seat rights.


“There’s a climate there, no doubt about it,” says Oregon State coach Mike Riley. “People do all this stuff [to improve facilities], and then if it doesn’t work, the coach gets fired.”


The so-called “arms race” has come after a long period in which facilities lay fallow. Riley, first hired by OSU in 1997, remembers walking into the football offices where his dad Bud was a successful assistant coach in the ’60s and ’70s.


“Nothing had changed,” he says. “This place had a time warp on it.”


Now, with both Washington and Washington State looking to make stadium improvements, the possibility exists that within less than a decade, all four Northwest schools will have done major renovations to their football venues.


The hell-bent trend is a concern to people like Arizona president Peter Likins, chairing an NCAA presidents task force on the future of Division I athletics. Likins also heads up a task force subcommittee on fiscal responsibility.


“There’s a general sense of unease among presidents and chancellors,” Likins said. “While we’re not in crisis, we’re engaged in an unsustainable rate of growth in expenditures and revenues. It’s not possible for universities to put unallocated money into athletics. That’s what people have been doing in recent years.”


“It scares me to death,” says Jim Livengood, Likins’ athletic director. “We’ve got to figure out a way to get our arms around expenses.”


He cites spiraling costs for fuel-related services, like airline charters and buses.


“Those are things we have no control over,” Livengood says. “As powerful as we think we are in intercollegiate athletics, we’re not going to drop the price of oil.”


Across the NCAA landscape, there are subtle signs of a system creaking under the weight of football investment and responsibility. Earlier this year, the NCAA waved through a 12th regular-season game starting in 2006, a measure that’s all about increased revenue.


When the Bowl Championship Series expands to five games next season, the title game in Tempe, Ariz. — following the Fiesta Bowl a week earlier — is to take place tentatively on Jan. 8, 2007, stretching the college football season longer than it has ever been.


Coaches say routinely that the high-rolling finances can’t create any more pressure than they feel already. And in fact, they acknowledge the scrutiny is only reflective of the amenities that help them win.


“Expectations are up; that’s a beautiful thing,” says Riley. “Ten years ago, there were no expectations. It was dead, dead, dead. Now people expect to go to a bowl game, they expect to compete for a Pac-10 championship. They expect to beat Oregon.”


And increasingly, when they don’t, they expect to fire the coach. In the white-hot climate around college football these days, one thing hasn’t changed: One side wins and one has to lose.


Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com