Keeping Bennett: One e$mail at a time

MIKAL THOMSEN, a loyal Washington State graduate, is so excited about the trajectory of the Cougar basketball program that he's launched an email initiative to raise money with the sole goal of ensuring Tony Bennett remains in crimson. This is no quixotic effort, but a heartfelt plea that coincides with WSU athletic director Jim Sterk's plans for the Pac-10 Coach of the Year.

"Doesn't the success this team is having make you feel good?" Thomsen writes in an email he is spreading as far and wide as he can. "Doesn't it put an extra spring in your step? It makes you feel good to be a Cougar, and it helps the University in so many ways because it raises awareness and it increases Cougar Pride."

Thomsen's enthusiasm is understandable. The Cougars, ranked No. 11 in the nation, are two wins shy of tying the school record for victories and are headed to March Madness for the first time since 1994.

Yes, 1994.

Remember that season? Fred Ferguson cleaning the glass. Eddie Hill canning howitzers from the baseline. Tony Harris going coast-to-coast. Two of the best ever to wear crimson, Mark Hendrickson and Isaac Fontaine, were up-and-coming sensations.

And then Kelvin Sampson was wooed away by Oklahoma. Mark, Isaac and momentum carried the program to two subsequent NIT appearances before the ineptitude of Rick Dickson unleashed the full carnage of the Twin Disasters otherwise known as Kevin Eastman and Paul Graham.

A decade earlier, in 1983, when George Raveling guided the Cougs to their second NCAA tournament berth in four years, the future also looked bright -– and then Iowa hired George away shortly after the season ended and so began the Len Stevens era.

Thomsen, the former president of Bellevue-based Western Wireless Corp., is jumping in to help turn rhetoric to action.

In simplest terms, the aim is to ensure that the unfortunate junctures in the Cougs' hoops history aren't traveled again. That means keeping Tony Bennett's heart in Pullman.

"If we let it," Thomsen says, "it could be gone as fast as it has arrived. Tony Bennett and his staff are the lowest paid basketball coaching staff in the Pac-10." The facilities, he notes, are pedestrian and the financial support alums give to athletics is the worst in the league.

He wants to expedite Sterk's work to move WSU to the next, consistent level on the hardwood.

To help maintain the momentum, Thomsen is doing his part to assist Sterk in raising $2 million for WSU's "Athletic Director's Excellence Fund," a pool of money used at the AD's discretion for department priorities.

Within that fund is an account targeted exclusively for men's basketball salaries, facilities and scholarships.

Thomsen is asking every Cougar to call or email the WSU Athletic Foundation (206-219-2425 or 509-335-0220 or kori@wsu.edu) with a pledge to help.

It won't be cheap.

Facilities need to be upgraded and added. And Bennett's salary, about $360,000 a year, isn't even close to the Pac-10 average. In fact, five Pac-10 coaches earn approximately $640,000 more per year than Bennett. And that doesn't count Lute Olson, who leads the conference at $1.4 million annually.

"I am committed to bring the salary structure for the men's basketball coaching staff to a more competitive level," says Sterk. "Led by Tony, our coaching staff has done a superb job in developing our program. They deserve nothing less than the total commitment and support from the department."

Thomsen and his wife Lynn have pledged $25,000 for the basketball excellence initiative -- $5,000 per year for the next five years.

They can't do it alone.

"Pick up a pen and write a check or send a commitment to the WSU AD's Excellence Fund ... anything you can commit to will help," he asks. "Send a message like this to 20 Cougars you know asking them to do the same thing."

Bottom line, Thomsen doesn't want 2007 –- or 2008, '09 or '10 –- to become a repeat of 1994 or 1983. He wants the glow of Friel Fever to last well into the next decade.

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