WSU athletic director Pat Chun was in Seattle Wednesday, and plans to spend lot of time going back and forth between Pullman and Seattle when he starts his new job.
Hours after he was introduced as Washington State’s athletic director in a news conference Tuesday afternoon, Pat Chun was on a plane headed to Seattle.
The Cougars’ 14th athletic director hasn’t even officially started work yet – his first day at WSU is Feb. 5 – but he’s already making his rounds and trying to meet his constituents. Chun spent Tuesday night and all of Wednesday in the greater Seattle area, meeting with alums and donors. He had dinner with longtime WSU donors Jim and Lisa King on Tuesday night, met with athletics supporter and donor Greg Rankich Wednesday afternoon, and was scheduled for a dinner with WSU donors Wednesday evening.
This likely won’t be an anomaly going forward. Chun said in an interview with The Seattle Times Wednesday that, like WSU President Kirk Schulz and his wife, he’ll have access to a condo in Seattle, and that he plans to balance his time on WSU’s Pullman campus with frequent business trips to Seattle.
Chun said that Schulz made it clear during the interview process that he wanted his athletic director to maintain a presence in Seattle, where, per WSU, there are 65,000 WSU alums from Everett to Tacoma.
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With Seattle’s thriving economy, that also means potential fundraising dollars, and Schulz has been open about the need for his new athletic director to vastly improve WSU’s fundraising efforts.
“We recognize the importance of athletics being present in Seattle and I need to help our teammates who are here every day,” Chun said. “I’m appreciative that President Schulz is strategic and understands the importance and value of making it easier to come to Seattle.”
Chun’s only trip to Pullman prior to this year came more than a decade ago when he flew out to WSU from Ohio State to interview for a job in Jim Sterk’s athletic department. John Johnson, WSU’s interim athletic director since Bill Moos’ departure for Nebraska, was responsible for getting Chun to take the interview. Chun ended up remaining at Ohio State though, and he said he joked with Johnson this week that that trip probably got him a raise.
We covered a variety of topics in a half hour interview with Chun in Kirkland on Wednesday. Here’s the interview, edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: WSU President Kirk Schulz has talked up your fundraising expertise, but what do you think you bring to the table?
Pat Chun: Hopefully an experienced administrator in college athletics. I’ve grown up in this business. I’ve been at every level in the athletic department, from student worker all the way to athletic director The lens I look at college athletics at is layered with a lot of different experiences. And yes, the majority of my career was spent on the fundraising and revenue generation side, and obviously that skillset was important to Kirk, but it’s a complex organization. We’ve got to have good people, good staff. We’ve got to come together and serve our student-athletes and our community.
Q: How did you hear about this job?
PC: The search firm reached out to me right before Christmas and asked if I had any interest in engaging in a dialogue with the committee and getting involved with the process.
Q: At that point, I would imagine you researched the school. What did you find out about this school that piqued your interest?
PC: I always knew about the passion that the alumni and fans had for the institution, and how loyal they are. So at the end of the day, that’s an important piece. And I have a little differnet perspective now, having grown up at a place like that (Ohio State), and then really being at an emerging school that’s a commuter at heart (Florida Atlantic).
So not having that the last five and a half years, really makes you appreciate that type of fervor for an athletic department. But really, beyond that it was just doing homework on President Schulz. His reputation is impeccable. He’s literally known as one of the best presidents in all of college athletics. So from a big picture standpoint, to have a president with that type of a reputation, and then you sit down and you hear what his goals are for the athletic department, you go “wow this is gonna be a pretty special opportunity.” We’re aligned in our values and we’re aligned in what we want to happen at WSU.
Q: Through your research, you obviously found out the that WSU athletic department has run huge deficits – over $60 million in the last seven years – of late. Was that cause for concern when you were evaluating this job?
PC: From a macro standpoint, there’s lots of athletic programs in this country that have a massive deficit. Not saying that’s right, not saying that’s wrong, but this isn’t just a WSU challenge. Going forward, I’m fully aware the deficit exists. I’ll have to roll my sleeves up and learn more of “Where’s that stuff? What are the opportunities to eliminate some of it?” I’ll work with president’s office, work with CFO’s office, and we’ll put a plan together, we’ll work to create new revenue streams to try and eliminate it.
Q: What’s your take on the arms race and the escalating spending on coaches in big time college athletics? How do you balance that with the need to balance your books?
PC: In our business, the highest return on investment is gonna be your head coach. So the market is always going to be in favor of coaches. You look at Alabama and Nick Saban (editorial note: Saban made more than $11 million in 2017). Their president and decision makers and athletic director probably believe he’s worth every penny they’re paying him, times 10. The market is in the coach’s favor because there aren’t a plethora of great coaches out there. So you’re either taking a chance on someone, or you like what you have and feel like you can improve and grow. Fortunately for us, we have a stable situation with our head coach. He has a vision for where he wants to take this football program, wants to keep growing this football program, and you can’t argue with the results he’s had in his time here. So we’ll keep pumping in to try to elevate Washington State football.
Qn: Schulz has stressed that he understands the importance of getting an indoor practice facility built. Is this going to be your immediate emphasis in fundraising?
PC: I know that’s the last piece, a big piece that we need to complete. I have not done as assessment on what our needs are, but I know in talking with the president how important that is. And just knowing the way our league is set up, and just geographically, where we sit and what the weather patterns are like where we are in Pullman, the need for a facility like that is there.
Q: If you looked at your tenure at FAU and Ohio State and had to pick out a landmark accomplishment at each stop, what would it be?
PC: I would hope, based on the reaction at both places that it’s the relationships. I got a text from a former baseball player today, from Ohio State, just congratulating me. I had staff members from the president’s office emailing me. I think it’s the relationships you build with people over time. You work together toward a common goal and I think at the end of the day that’s the most enduring thing anyway, that, as life changes, you always have people that, they left an imprint on you, and hopefully you leave an imprint on them.
Q: There was a story in the Palm Beach Post recently alleging that your relationship with FAU football coach Lane Kiffin was rocky toward the end of your time there. Is there any truth to that?
PC: A lot of things are taken out of context. I will tell you this, I’m appreciative of what he’s done, I’m grateful for the work he’s done – he did everything we asked him to do. I talked to him last Friday before I left town. It was really nice. The joy he had in his face for me and my family to move on to this opportunity was genuine. The relationship (between A.D. and head football coach), people don’t understand, sometimes it’s not about us being best friends. It’s about us coming together for a common goal and that’s to serve student athletes and to do something special for our institution. When you look back, FAU had its greatest year of college football with Lane Kiffin as the head coach and me as the athletic director.
Q: You’ve work in the athletic department at Ohio State, an established institution with a storied history, and then at FAU, a commuter school that’s trying to build its reputation. What did you take from each place in terms of trying to build a program, and where does WSU fall in that spectrum?
PC: Well part of the thing I learned at FAU, because I worked for three presidents, counting an interim, is how important the university president is. And that’s what makes working for Schulz so important to me. Because things changed at FAU when we hired Dr. John Kelly. Even though he didn’t hire me, he treated me like he hired me, and we went to work because we had a shared vision of what we wanted the athletic department to look like. And I don’t want to denigrate who hired me (Mary Jane Saunders) because she’s a wonderful person.
But Dr. Kelly was pro-athletics, he’d been at Clemson, so we spoke the same language. We both understood how important academic achievement is, how important community service is, and developing the whole student-athlete. All those things that go into building a dynamic program. Same with President Schulz. He understands how we get to results. We’ve gotta achieve academically, we have to have the type of program that attracts quality people. We want high-character kids in our program. All those things add up to the big picture. President Schulz, he understands and has a profound understanding of it all.
Q: What have you seen from the Pac-12 from watching on the outside?
PC: Historically I know it’s a conference that values academics and athletics, and that’s sincere. Like I told our team, if our goal collectively is to be the best program in the Pac-12, historically if you’re the best program in the conference of champions, you’re one of the best programs in the country.
The bar is high here. So if we can consistently be on top of that, (we can) replicate what we did in the fall with our top 25 finish in the Director’s Cup, in the winter and spring. That’s why I feel like the bones are in place. To do what we did in the fall is spectacular. Now the goal is, “Can we replicate that?”
Q: You’re now the first Asian-American Power Five athletic director. Is that a source of pride for you?
PC: The significance isn’t lost on me. But like I tell our daughters, typically when something big happens, when something significant happens, there’s a lot of other people that impact that, or had more to do with that than that person.
Like in my situation, I think of my mom and dad. They came to this country (from South Korea) for opportunity. They’re the ones who had to sacrifice. I grew up, went through 12 years of Catholic school and went to Ohio State. I had it easy.
I look at our industry and athletic administration, there are real pioneers like (Ohio State athletic director) Gene Smith and (athletic director) Dan Guerrero at UCLA. When they took their chairs as ADs, they looked very different than the rest of the community of athletic directors. They unknowingly put people like me on their shoulders and created more opportunities for others. And even in this instance, this is more about WSU and Kirk Schulz than it is about me. I promise you that when they interviewed me, my ethnicity did not come up at all. It was my values, my skillset, and, ‘does it match with what they believe is needed at WSU?’