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Originally published Sunday, May 24, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Times are tough — but Cougars are used to that

Washington State, like other schools, is searching for ways to cut costs as expenses rise. The Cougars have experience with tightening their belts, but this is the worst economic situation WSU athletic director Jim Sterk says he has seen in 22 years in the business.

Seattle Times staff reporter

PULLMAN — A generation ago, Washington football coach Don James made a tongue-in-cheek comment in the spirit of Apple Cup repartee.

"I've always felt being a Cougar prepares you for life," he said. "You learn not to expect too much."

In a twisted sort of way, the thrust of James' inference is helping WSU find its way through trying economic times that athletic director Jim Sterk calls the worst he has experienced in his 22 years in the business of college sports.

In her office, women's rowing coach Jane LaRiviere explains the phenomenon at WSU:

"It's sort of like other [athletic departments] have their own little internal home-mortgage crisis," she said. "But we've been small. And we've been having to deal with limitations for longer, and when you have a crisis, it's just kind of like, 'We'll just tighten the belts a little bit.' "

Make no mistake, the Cougars are facing some grim decisions just like most other college athletic departments. They're committed not to drop sports as Washington recently did with swimming, and they don't want to trim scholarships for fear of jeopardizing competitiveness.

But that means there will likely be some cuts in staff positions coming soon as WSU tries to reconcile by June 1 a cut of some $350,000 in funding from the university, and on the expense side, a bump in tuition fees of about $1 million.

WSU, though, has never much been about an extravagant existence — from the bulk of Sterk's background at Maine and Portland State to the lower-end contracts of its football and basketball coaches — so this exercise in frugality is an arena where it can operate.

"Our budget is smaller," Sterk says, referring to WSU's budget of about $30 million, lowest in the Pac-10. "We don't have the huge swings, either, in that the people who support the program are going to annually support it.

"Our base is going to be there, in good, bad and ugly [times], and they have been. The swing, probably, for us, isn't as much as the University of Washington, for instance."

In the fiscal year ending last June 30, WSU raised about $4.9 million in donations outside capital projects. As of April 15, it was about 10 percent behind that, with 45 days to try to match that number.

But costs are rising, so matching revenue to the previous year isn't the goal.

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"It's just little things," says longtime track coach Rick Sloan, "where you go to check in and the airline says it's going to charge you $25 for each bag. If I'm there with 50 or 60 kids, that's a significant piece of change."

Anne McCoy, WSU's senior women's administrator and Sterk's chief financial officer, says the budget has been a constantly moving target.

"We've never gone through as many budget-shaving exercises as we have this year," she said. "It's been what a lot of people are probably doing themselves — tightening here and seeing what happens [with the economy], and then tightening a little more and seeing what happens."

Some of the snips: WSU is adopting, as a departmental policy, the restriction the NCAA uses for travel to its postseason sites, in which any distance within 350 miles must be by bus rather than air.

Professional travel — sports publicists to national conventions, for instance — is out, unless the person is an officer. Staff per diems on the road have been reduced.

Even WSU's style of budgeting, McCoy says, is a reflection of running lean.

"We don't budget a percentage based on the prior year," she says. "We start with a zero-based budget: 'Tell us what you need this year. Are you replacing uniforms. Are you on longer trips?'

"It's just so we don't get into the mentality of 'Oh, it's almost the end of the year, we still have money left, I better use it or I'm not going to get it next year.' Some of the things you may see in more corporate America, we try to avoid."

As a means to bump football revenue, the Cougars are offering a $125 "Value Section" season ticket — sideline, opposite the end zones — or $425 for four such seats.

Meanwhile, the recent controversy over whether to move the Apple Cup to Qwest Field in Seattle — scuttled after intense public debate — had the unintended effect of shining the light on the shortfall at both schools. No doubt some fans, preoccupied with matters like whether their team gets to a bowl game, don't grasp the nuances of finances at their schools.

Says John Johnson, associate AD and chief fundraiser, "If something came out of that, it was to educate our fan base. Sometimes we take for granted what they really know.

"I think it gave us a little bit of a reality check, that sometimes we don't [get out the message], and let's do a better job."

In that vein, the economic miseries may have provided a benefit in self-examination.

"In an odd way, it's been a healthy exercise," says Johnson. "We've redefined ourselves a little bit, I think."

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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