by Howie Stalwick

Time was, not so many years ago, when more than one critic suggested that Washington State should abandon the Pacific-10 Conference and join, say, the Big Sky Conference.

Too small a school, many reasoned. Too isolated, others said. Why, almost everyone asked, would a top athlete choose the wheat fields of the Palouse over the bright lights of L.A.? Or the bright sun of Arizona? Or the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the Bay Area? Or the big-city glitz of Seattle?

Slowly but surely, the Cougars appear to be catching up with their big-city brethren. Or, in the case of football, passing most Pac-10 schools -- indeed, passing virtually every school in the nation.

"Our fans are loving it," WSU senior quarterback Jason Gesser says. "Our students are loving it.

"It's the way it should be in a college town. The town basically revolves around the football team. Everywhere you go, people say, 'Let's go to a bowl game where it's warm.' I say, 'I'll do my best.'"

Two years removed from a third consecutive last-place finish in the Pac-10, the 7-1 Cougars are tied for first with Arizona State and threatening to win the conference championship for the second time in five years -- and the third time since 1930. WSU stands eighth in the Bowl Championship Series rankings, eighth in The Associated Press poll, ninth in the ESPN/USA Today poll.

Just as important for the long-term prospects of the Cougars, their success is gaining them record crowds, television exposure and financial support. That translates into invaluable revenue for an athletic department that needed a $1.8 million bailout from the school to "break even" two years ago.

The current fiscal year marks the first when athletic department deficits will no longer be covered by the school. However, the Cougars turned a $324,000 profit in fiscal year 2002 and seem well on their way to finishing in the black this year. The majority of the 117 NCAA schools with Division I-A football programs lose money on athletics.

More good news on the financial front: WSU appears to be a lock to make back-to-back bowl appearances for the first time in the 108-year history of Cougar football. Bowl games, of course, can be worth millions of dollars and priceless amounts of exposure.

"It's a great time," WSU coach Mike Price says, "to be a Cougar."

Perhaps, but not everything is rosy (Rose Bowl-y?) in Pullman. Cougar athletics raked in a record $4.74 million in donations in fiscal year 2002, but WSU's football, men's basketball and women's basketball teams -- the traditional top three draws at most colleges -- all finished last in the Pac-10 in attendance yet again (WSU volleyball often ranks in the top 25 nationally in attendance). Also, the athletic department's financial donations and $20 million budget both rank last in the conference.

"Jim Sterk [WSU's athletic director] has always said we don't need to be at $30 million, because we do more with less," says Associate Athletic Director Brady Crook, the head of the WSU Athletic Foundation (formerly the Cougar Club), the fund-raising arm of Cougar athletics. "But we do need to get around the $25 million mark."

Crook, a Pullman native and former WSU baseball player, says only the Rose Bowl season of 1997 rivals the present one for excitement among Cougar fans. However, Crook says the 2002 team has created and maintained more early season interest than the 1997 bunch "in the town, the state and the region" by being nationally ranked all season and being tabbed the preseason favorites to win the Pac-10 -- both firsts for WSU.

"It's certainly easier to talk to people [potential donors]," Crook says with a laugh, "but it's hard to keep up with the excitement. It's a good kind of crazy."

Crook says he's confident the Cougars can haul in a record $5.5 million in donations in fiscal year 2003, partly by boosting Athletic Foundation memberships to a record 4,000.

"We've made big strides the last two years under Jim Sterk's leadership -- but the gap between us and the average Pac-10 budget is still significant," Crook says.

WSU's 16-3 football record the past two years has led to "some very significant donations," says Crook. He adds, however, "We need to get more donors to sign up with six- and seven-figure gifts."

Crook says the average Pac-10 football budget is $9 million. WSU is set to spend a school-record $5.2 million on football this year. Compare that to a league-high $16 million at Washington.

"Realistically," Crook points out, "it's hard to compete year after year with an $11 million difference."

The Huskies, of course, have the advantage of playing in a large city with a stadium that seats almost twice as many fans (72,500) as WSU's Martin Stadium (37,600). The Cougars had their first sellout in five years on Oct. 5 for homecoming versus USC. And their three remaining home games are sold out, too. Four consecutive sellouts is unprecedented in Cougar football history.

Counting a school-record crowd of 63,588 for their season opener at Seattle's Seahawks Stadium, the Cougars are averaging 38,568 fans per home game. The school record is 34,719, set in 1994.

More games are planned for Seattle every other year to take advantage of the larger stadium, but the Cougars have talked for years about double-decking one side of Martin Stadium to boost capacity to 50,000 or more. In recent years, the Cougars have spent tens of millions of dollars to boost their image and chances for success by constructing new athletic facilities or revamping existing ones.

One area where the Cougars need to stop dreaming and start producing is football season ticket sales. Crook says he expects those sales to hit record levels next year, but WSU's current total of 13,000 season tickets (counting 2,500 trade-outs) is already one of the highest figures in school history. Washington, by comparison, leads the Pac-10 with 64,400 season tickets.

The Huskies have built their season ticket base by building a winning tradition on the field. Price, who recently signed a lucrative new contract -- well, lucrative if your name isn't Rick Neuheisel -- likes to think the Cougars are now in a position to regularly recruit the kinds of players who can make winning the norm rather than the exception in Pullman.

"There are a lot of great reasons to come to Washington State," Price says. "It's an unusual place in the Pac-10. Only Corvallis [Oregon State] would be similar. A lot of people like the smallness of it: the college town, the safety, the weather, the spirit. And we take chances on kids. It's not who you recruit, it's what you do with them after you get them."

Gesser, considered too small by many recruiters (although he's the same size as the San Francisco 49ers Jeff Garcia), is a prime example. He's become one of the most accomplished quarterbacks in Pac-10 history, leaping past Cougar legends like Drew Bledsoe, Jack Thompson and Ryan Leaf in the WSU record books.

"We're trying," Gesser says, "to rewrite history at Washington State." n

The Washington State Cougars, who have played at home only once since Sept. 21, play their next three games in Pullman before finishing the regular season on Dec. 7 at UCLA. Pac-10 co-leader Arizona State visits Saturday, Nov. 2 (on ABC at 12:30 pm); Oregon on Saturday, Nov. 9; and Washington on Saturday, Nov. 23. All remaining home games are sold out, but all are expected to be televised.

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