Time to answer the call

IT'S TIME, COUGAR FANS, to put your incredible excitement for the football program into action. You need to open your wallets so <b>Mike Price</b> can consistently deliver the results we've seen over the last two years.

Bottom line, the luke-warm financial support the Cougars receive from alums makes Price's job the toughest in the Pac-10, if not the entire nation.

Mike's ability to do more with less is remarkable. That's not hyperbole. It's a fact. He's a Houdini with a whistle. But hard work and commitment from coaches and players can only take a program so far. To produce consistently over time, they need financial backing.

I have to be frank here. This has been a glorious season to remember, but the one thing that stands out most about it is this sorry little factoid: At the dedication of the Indoor Practice Facility, Athletic Director Jim Sterk thanked the 650 people who donated to the project.

Did I hear that right? Only 650 people donated to the practice facility?

Sad but true. Despite a full-court press by the athletic department --- and constant message board reminders from the editors here at Cougfan.com, only a tiny fraction of Cougars wrote a check.

Pardon my French, but that's a pisser. Yet it's typical of the financial support, or lack of, that Cougar fans give their team.

Despite the heart-felt testimonials of loyalty. Despite the fact more WSU alums, as a percentage, contribute to their alma mater in some way, shape or form than any other public university in the nation, Washington State's athletic department is dead last when it comes to alumni support in the Pac-10. Whether measuring unrestricted gifts or endowments to the Cougar Athletic Foundation or season tickets, WSU is dead last.

We can't continue to let athletics just get by on the backs of a few devout souls and Mike Price's wondrous ways.

Excitement and pride like we're enjoying this season carries a price.

Here's the sobering reality of it all: Of the 83,000 WSU alums who live in the state of Washington, not even five percent --- about 4,000 people --- 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 $250.

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 close to $8 million each year from their boosters, the Ducks about $6 million and the Beavers a fast-growing $4.5 million. At WSU, Brady Crook and Rueben Mayes -- the engines behind the Cougar Athletic Foundation -- worked their rears off this past year just to breach the $2 million mark.

They are also scrambling --- unlike their richer brethren at Washington, Oregon and Oregon State --- to raise the final dollars needed to put a real roof over the indoor practice facility.

WSU's situation is also compounded by geography. It takes two sell outs at Martin Stadium to equal the revenue the Huskies generate from one home game. All the more reason Cougar fans should not only open their wallets, but open them extra wide.

Consider this: WSU's football budget is $5.2 million this year. Washington's is $15.8 million. And Ohio State, our lone nemesis so far this year, has an annual football budget of around $20 million.

The disparity makes WSU's two-year run of football greatness all the more impressive.

WSU has always had a reputation for working harder, but the unvarnished realty is that dollars dictate success.

Over the long term, money talks and bullshit walks.

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 2001-2002 school year, WSU ranked No. 55 on the Sears list. The year before it was No. 67 and the year before that No. 123. The rise tracks exactly with the amount being invested in Cougar atheltics.

As Mayes says, "WSU 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, as this football season so forcefully illustrates, 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.

Mayes and Crook would like to double the number of contributors to athletics within four years. That's 8,000-plus members by 2006. He's also aiming to increase the average contribution from $450 a year to the $750 that the Pac-10's other three northern schools collectively average.

To get there, Mayes is trying a little bit of everything. The Gary W Club of old letter winners is being resurrected. Mayes has hired assistants to help him spread the gospel to alums in the I-5 corridor 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.

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. Whether $10 or $10,000, it all helps. It's time for all Cougar fans to get in the game.

Contact the Cougar Athletic Foundation on the Web at http://www.athletics.wsu.edu/wsuaf/. You can also phone at 1-800-448-2978, or write to P.O. Box 641602, Pullman WA 99164-1602.

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