A couple of days after Mike Leach called his eighth-ranked Cougars football team “pathetic front-runners,” his boss, Washington State athletics director Bill Moos, used the suddenly prominent football team to help springboard him to a better job Sunday, taking over the storied program at Nebraska. Not sure if that’s front-running, but it probably isn’t pathetic.
It’s just college athletics. Having spent his entire life in the industry, Moos is smart enough to deduce a certainty. Amid all the changes, scandals, hypocrisies and financial peril afoot across the land, Washington State will always be the 12th-largest school in the Pac-12 Conference.
That seems the reason most logical to explain a move so surprising that neither Leach nor WSU president Kirk Schulz had foreknowledge that it was going down.
Moos isn’t going to talk about WSU’s limitations, because he’s a loyal alum who put a lot of energy and time into giving athletics the best possible chance to succeed. And the football program was succeeding — or at least until Friday night, it was.
But by the time one of the most shiver-inducing defeats in school history, a 37-3 bludgeoning by a Cal team that a week earlier lost to Washington 38-7, was over, Moos had probably completed all the rituals necessary to join the Cornhuskers cult, including genuflecting in front of of Saint Tom Osborne.
While it would be unfair to assign vast significance to one loss — although half-vast might be apropos — the outcome illustrates how tenuous success can be at WSU.
Because of the smaller enrollment and fewer resources compared to conference rivals, the arms race in big-time NCAA sports is making casualties of some schools in the Power 5 conferences, such as WSU. Moos took on a high-maintenance football coach because the deep shot was the only way to keep up in Pullman.
Through all the controversies surrounding the program, Moos stood fast by Leach and watched him gather regional and national acclaim and players. In his sixth season, Leach finally surmounted his annual FCS-opponent pratfall and put the Cougars in the national spotlight.
It’s probably just coincidence that the season peaked last week when Moos was closing the deal to succeed Shawn Eichorst, fired Sept. 21 by the patriarchs for being part of the football down-cycle. But it’s not coincidence that since 2011, the year after Moos took the Cougars job, the athletic department began running annual deficits.
For the past three seasons, the annual shortfall has been about $13 million a year, bringing the total through fiscal 2016 to $50.7 million. It’s mostly due to the build-out of facilities to keep up with the rest of the conference, as well as revenues from the Pac-12 Networks being less than projected.
WSU has a plan to get the athletics department back to even by 2019, but not before the deficit reaches about $66 million. The plan includes hiking student fees for sports, as well as, ahem, seeking approval from the state to sell beer at Martin Stadium games.
Short of introducing fire ants into a nursery, I can’t think of a bigger administrative headache.
So it’s hard to blame Moos for thinking that being seen as a profiteer off student drunkenness is a bad look. Some might suggest that Moos look to cut football expenses, but that is not the custom and culture of big-time college sports.
The players may not be paid, but if a school starts taking away hair stylists, manicurists and Costa Rican organic kale smoothies, the word will get out quickly on the recruiting trail. That’s when football success becomes more fleeting than sustainable.
At Nebraska, where football is to the state economy what coffee plantations are to Brazil, Moos will be untroubled by deficits and cutbacks. If he needs an Olympic-pool-sized therapy tub, the cargo helicopter pilots all have Lincoln programmed into their GPS devices.
As to the subsequent question of the fate of Leach without Moos, it’s anyone’s guess. By the more overt signs, Leach seems happy with his preferred small-town life, where his eccentric ways and orneriness are indulged more than in the big city, where he is less likely to intimidate faculty, media and bosses.
Much will depend on the nationwide search Schulz has announced is underway for Moos’s successor. If the new person can handle working under Leach, things should work out. If not, Schulz probably needs to be ready to tell the new AD that he or she is free to choose from the many coaches capable of scoring more than three points against Cal.