Ticket revenue is at record levels thanks to four sellouts (double last year’s total), and donations are soaring. Now the Cougars need to keep the momentum going.
During his first year on the job, Washington State athletic director Pat Chun has frequently told the story about the time his current employer faced his previous employer.
It was Sept. 2002, and the 10th-ranked Cougars ventured to Ohio Stadium to play the No. 6 Buckeyes.
Chun has vague memories of the game itself — OSU won handily — but vivid recall of what happened afterward.
Buckeyes athletic director Andy Geiger walked into the office and told his staff, including Chun, to commence a $20 million fundraising campaign to support a renovation of the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.
“Both teams are top 10, and Ohio State uses that game to start a reinvestment in the program,” Chun said. “Washington State doesn’t do anything with its facilities, and you see how that can erode the program.”
Chun has no intention of letting the Cougars squander another prime opportunity made possible by football success.
Yes, they poured $65 million into a renovation of the Martin Stadium press box earlier in the decade, adding club seats and luxury suites.
Yes, they spent $61 million on a football operations complex that opened in 2014.
But that’s not enough, Chun said — it cannot be enough.
“I remind everyone that Washington State has the ability to compete at the highest level, but sustaining it is the goal,’’ he added. “And the fundraising piece is what will allow us to sustain it.
“The stadium renovation and the operations center helped modernize us, but we need a new indoor practice field. It’s a reinvestment. If you want to sustain success, reinvestment has to happen annually.”
The Cougars are in the process of securing approval for a $10 million baseball clubhouse. Once that’s complete, Chun plans to charge forward with the indoor facility and its $25-to-$30 million price tag.
The baseball project is being funded entirely by philanthropy.
“That’s the model for our plan (for the football facility),” he said. “We have to keep adding to the portfolio.”
Unless the Cougars would prefer to backslide into irrelevance, for the trajectory of WSU’s football program over the past two decades mirrors the level of facility reinvestment. Or lack thereof.
The Cougars built a rudimentary indoor practice ‘bubble’ to protect players from the elements in 2002, in the middle of a three-year stretch in which they won 30 games.
But as Chun tells so many constituents, the school didn’t double down with dollars at the required level through the remainder of the decade.
As a result, the Cougars fell behind in the facility race and recruiting suffered. Combined with a poor coaching hire (Paul Wulff), the program collapsed with stunning speed.
Not long after back-to-back-to-back seasons of 10-plus wins, they suffered back-to-back-to-back seasons of 10-plus losses.
At the turn of the decade came a rebirth orchestrated by former athletic director Bill Moos: The South side renovation, the football operations complex, and the hiring of Mike Leach.
“The years before Leach have left battle scars here,” said Chun, who was hired last winter. “Nobody wants to go back to that. It affects the institution when football isn’t winning.”
Likewise, it affects the institution when football wins big — just as it’s doing this fall.
Ticket revenue is at record levels thanks to four sellouts (double last year’s total), and donations are soaring: The Cougar Athletic Fund, which supports scholarships, raised a record $7.6 million in the 2018 fiscal year and is on pace to shatter that mark.
According to Chun, donations to the CAF are up 28 percent year-over-year (Nov./Nov.), with many months of momentum remaining.
WSU gambled with the stadium renovation and football operations, spending $120 million without the philanthropic support needed to comfortably service the debt. As a result, the athletic department is facing an $85 million long-haul deficit.
But without that investment, there would be no 9-1 record or No. 8 ranking. There would be no winning streaks against Oregon and Stanford. There would be no fake mustaches at Martin Stadium.
Chun knows the reinvestment must continue without increasing the department’s deficit. There is only one means to that end (fundraising) and only one sport that can power the process.
If not a lesson for the rest of the conference, the Cougars are at least a gentle reminder of the impact football can have across all sports and all branches of campus .
“I call us the best story in college sports,’’ Chun said. “From the tragedy (the death of Tyler Hilinski) to finding Gardner Minshew to how the team came together to GameDay coming here and the impact that has had — emotions here are at an all-time high.
“They call it the Flutie Effect, right? When your football team gets exposure at a high level, applications increase. Philanthropy increases.
“College football is a huge opportunity for universities because it’s all about connecting people. We’ve got a lot of opportunity with the success we’re having.”