Hoops donations good, but much more needed

JIM STERK, ELSON FLOYD and Lane Rawlins are putting together a new contract for Cougar basketball coach Tony Bennett that will elevate his salary from worst in the conference to middle of the Pac. Getting the deal done could be the most fortuitous move by the WSU athletic department since a fateful day in 1945. But it's alumni who can do even more to keep the program headed in the right direction.

The grapevine in Pullman says to expect an announcement sometime soon on a new Bennett contract -– preferably one loaded with incentives based on length of stay. A huge buyout clause would be nice to include as well.

But that's just the start of keeping Tony in Pullman and building long-term stability in the basketball program.

Sterk's "Athletic Director's Fund for Basketball Excellence" has raised about $400,000 in the last month. The money will be used to improve facilities, pay for scholarships and keep staff salaries competitive.

Let's be clear: $400,000 is only the start of what's needed -– perhaps just a fourth or fifth of what's truly required to put the foundation firmly under the program. New offices, locker rooms and training facilities are desperately needed.

The fundraising effort received a kick-start three weeks ago from 1979 WSU graduate Mikhal Thomsen, the former president of Bellevue-based Western Wireless Corp., who sent out an email encouraging all his Cougar friends to step up for their alma mater.

The response was gratifying.

And shortly after the Cougs' heartbreaking, double-overtime loss to Vanderbilt in round two of the NCAA tourney, he fired off another email, to an even longer list of fellow Cougs.

The message was short and sweet: "Before this great season fades in your memory, before that pumped up feeling, that spring in your step, that smile on your face goes away ... Write a check, send in a pledge, remind your friends."

Thomsen wants to make sure the Cougar Nation knows the excitement and pride derived from the 2006-07 Cougars can become an annual rite.

But only if wallets are opened.

He's encouraging every Cougar to take action now by clicking to wsucougars.cstv.com/ot/ad-forum.html.

Or phoning WSU at 206-219-2425 or 509-335-0220.

Or sending an email to kori@wsu.edu for more details.

As much as Cougar fans like to talk about how spirited they are, they tend not to translate that excitement into donations. Both in terms of total athletic department donors and average amount per contribution, WSU fans rank dead last among all Pac-10 and Big Ten schools.

That explains in part why the school went 13 years in between NCAA tournament appearances.

In Jim Sterk's ideal world, every Cougar household would dig deep –- to the tune of $5,000 per year for the next five years. That truly would get WSU on a competitive footing. But whether it's $5,000 a year, $1,000 or $250, pledge something right now.

Help make sure 2007 isn't the basketball version of 1945.

That was the year football at WSU was reinstated after a two-year hiatus caused by World War II. Legendary Babe Hollingbery, WSU's hugely successful head coach since 1926, planned to return to the sidelines in '45. Budget constraints prompted the school to insist on a $7,000 salary for the coach -- $1,000 less than Babe was making before the war.

It proved to be a grand miscalculation.

Like Tony Bennett, Hollingbery was a gifted motivator and strong recruiter. He knew how to establish a winning tradition (only two losing seasons in 17 as head coach). Without him to guide WSU through the tenuous post-war period, however, the school condemned itself to three decades of struggle.

Thomsen and Sterk are asking Cougar fans everywhere to help seize this moment in time, to make 2007 the year your kids and grandkids point to as the permanent turning point for Cougar basketball.

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