Rueben's Biggest Challenge

RUEBEN MAYES KNOWS a thing or two about scaling tall mountains. A little known commodity from a hockey-focused Saskatechewan backwater, he would become a football All-American, Heisman Trophy contender, NFL rookie of the year and two-time Pro Bowl selection.

In 1984, amid a hostile Autzen Stadium crowd, he looked the Oregon Ducks in the eye and proceeded to trample them for an NCAA-record 357 rushing yards. At Stanford the week before, he helped orchestrate one of the great comebacks in Pac-10 history, scoring the decisive TD --- his fifth of the game --- in the waning moments of a wild 49-42 Cougar victory.

Rueben Mayes knows --- and responds to --- pressure.

Today, though, he's taking on a challenge that makes the 42-14 third quarter deficit at Palo Alto look like child's play.

Mayes is nine months into his new job as director of the Cougar Athletic Foundation --- the fundraising arm of the WSU athletic department formerly known as the Cougar Club.

And facts are facts: Oregon and Stanford are now running all over him. So are Oregon State, Washington and every other school in the Pac-10.

Despite the heart-felt testimonials of loyalty. Despite the fact more WSU alums, as a percentage, contribute to their alma mater than any other public university in the nation, Washington State's athletic department is dead last when it comes to alumni support in the Northwest.

That means fewer dollars to support student-athlete scholarships and fewer dollars to invest in facilities.

Read it and weep, Cougar faithful. But more than anything, do something about it --- send Mayes a check. The more zeroes on the end the better.

Here's the sobering reality of it all: Of the 83,000 alums who live in the state of Washington, not even five percent --- about 4,000 hearty souls --- belong to the Cougar Athletic Foundation. That sorry statistic becomes even sorrier when you consider that the minimum fee to join this "exclusive" club is only $100.

The booster clubs at Washington and Oregon are twice the size of WSU's, and Oregon State's is 50 percent larger.

Translate that into dollars and the disparity becomes more skewed. The Huskies are getting $7 million each year from their boosters, the Ducks $5.5 million and the Beavers a fast-growing $3.1 million. At WSU, Mayes and his boss, Associate Athletic Director Brady Crook, are working overtime trying to breach the $2 million mark. They are also scrambling --- unlike their richer brethren at Washington, Oregon and Oregon State --- to raise the final $5 million needed to put a real roof over the soon-to-be-built indoor practice facility.

The Cougars have always had a reputation of doing more with less, but the unvarnished realty is that dollars dictate success. If you look at the Sears Cup standings --- the collective measure of every school's performance on the fields and courts of play --- you'll find that the pecking order pretty much stacks up the way the budgets do. For the 2000-2001 school year, WSU ranked No. 67 on the Sears list.

Guess where WSU's athletic budget falls?

No. 67.

The same was true a year ago when WSU finished No. 123 in the Sears standings. Its overall athletic budget ranked No. 123.

Mayes is circumspect. "WSU can't, and doesn't, need to raise the types of dollars you see at the Michigans and Oklahomas of the world in order to compete. Just look at our bowl-game history in the ‘90s, the national prominence of our volleyball program and the gains we're making in basketball. But it's imperative that we level the playing field in the Pac-10. If we're going to compete consistently, our alumni need to make it happen because the dollars won't be coming from Olympia or anywhere else."

WSU President Lane Rawlins is of the same mind. Nothing can unite the student body and alumni the way athletics can, he professes. And a consistent winner, built on ethical and academic excellence, can go far in boosting school pride and public perception. In short, he says, the reciprocal benefits of being a competitive member of a prestigious conference such as the Pac-10 are immense.

Rawlins is so committed to improving athletic funding that he's asking alums who donate to other parts of the university to consider adding athletics to their annual gift list.

Mayes' goal is to double the number of contributors to athletics within five years. That's 8,000 members by 2006. He's also aiming to increase the average contribution from $430 a year to the $725 that the Pac-10's other three northern schools collectively average.

Mayes is trying a little bit of everything. The Gary W Club of old letter winners is being resurrected, with former hoops standout James Donaldson serving as chair. Mayes has hired assistants to help him spread the gospel to alums in the I-5 corridor --- Bellingham to Portland --- where the vast majority of WSU graduates live.

Jim Sterk and others in the athletic department are looking at ways to keep quality people on staff over the long term rather than see them move on to higher-paying opportunities elsewhere. The lack of continuity in athletic department staff over the years is one reason the Cougars are so far behind the funding curve, Mayes says.

Another factor is more basic: Simple awareness.

"I have high hopes," Mayes says. "Cougar spirit is something special. I'm confident that if we raise awareness among our alumni while at the same time raising the bar of expectation, we'll achieve our goals. But it's going to take a lot of work and dedication from a lot of people."

In other words, Cougar spirit needs to extend to the pocketbook. WSU is at a critical juncture --- a juncture no less significant than the revolving coaches debacle of the mid-70s or Babe Hollingbery's decision not to return to the football helm at the end of World War II.

Cougar fans need to step up to the plate -- the donation plate --- and make things happen in a very momentous way --- just like Mayes did in the fourth quarter at Stanford on an improbable autumn afternoon in 1984.


Contact the Cougar Athletic Foundation on the Web at You can also phone at 1-800-448-2978, or write to P.O. Box 641602, Pullman WA 99164-1602.

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