WSU president preparing realignment moves from 'bad spot'

ByPete Thamel ESPN logo
Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Washington State president Kirk Schulz acknowledged his school's athletic program is in "a bad spot" as it faces a harsh new reality in the wake of the Pac-12's defections last week.

Schulz, in his first interview since the conference dwindled to four teams, recalled the tense moments in the Pac-12 presidents' call Friday morning. Entering the day, optimism had emerged that Oregon and Washington might commit to a new television deal and save the league.

Schulz said that Oregon and Washington essentially ended the call before it began, revealing their intentions to finalize a deal with the Big Ten.

"It's like a breakup; it's awkward," Schulz said. "No one wants to sit there for too long."

The pivot point came as the call unfolded, when Schulz texted veteran athletic director Pat Chun: "We've got to roll up our sleeves and get to work."

In a wide-ranging interview with ESPN, Schulz assessed Washington State's options moving forward as "keeping all the irons in the fire." He stressed his and Chun's engagement with student-athletes in the wake of a seismic day and acknowledged "anger" from his fan base.

Schulz worked as Kansas State's president during the Big 12 tumult in and around 2010, and he distilled Friday's hairpin turn from a potential deal with Apple to the current scramble.

"I don't ever remember a single day unfolding that was so dramatic in changing the landscape," he said.

He added later: "College athletics is at its worst with this realignment stuff. Everyone is truly looking out for themselves. What it also does is changes behavior, and people stop being honest with each other."

Schulz made it clear that, regardless of conference or affiliation, Washington State will continue to "invest" like a Power 5 program. He also said Washington State will not cut sports, even facing a budget crunch he estimated would represent 40% of the school's athletic revenue disappearing. (The school already faces a budget deficit of more than $11 million, and he said using a student fee, which is low at the school, might be one way to help raise money for athletics.)

He stressed the human side of a moment like this for Washington State's athletic department and athletes, as he predicted the next two years "would not be pretty."

"I don't want to minimize it, that this is some budget exercise," Schulz said. "You're laying people off. Your best coaches are always on the market. All of a sudden, one of those offers [to a coach that] didn't look so good a year ago [looks different]."

Washington State's future remains ambiguous. He and Chun met with 200 student-athletes for a half hour and created an open dialogue to answer more questions and concerns that will arise.

The athletes' prime questions centered on whether sports would be cut, access to championships, travel and the school's eventual conference destination.

Schulz didn't have an answer to the conference piece, as he said WSU has hired a consultant and will explore options, such as adding programs to the remaining Pac-12 or joining a league such as the Mountain West or perhaps the American Athletic Conference.

"At the end of the day, us doing something on the East Coast, unless it's a hell of a lot of money, there's just no way to make it work," Schulz said.

He said that Washington State andOregon State are waiting out the courtship between the ACC and Stanford and Cal.

Part of the consultant's job will be to assess the Pac-12's remaining value, which includes significant brand equity, NCAA basketball units and access to incoming media money. Lawyers are examining just how much access the remaining four schools have to this year's media money and other league assets.

The leaders of the remaining four schools now constitute the Pac-12's board. Schulz is the only one with extensive experience in athletic matters, as Stanford's and Cal's leaders are both on the way out and Oregon State president Jayathi Y. Murthy has been on the job less than a year.

If Cal and Stanford don't go to the ACC, Schulz is open to exploring a path forward for the Pac-12 as one of the options. Schulz, however, said it's uncertain whether Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff would be part of that.

Schulz said it was "a secondary issue" at this point when asked specifically about Kliavkoff's future, but "if we choose to rebuild a conference around those four schools, is George that guy? All of that then becomes a forefront issue instead of a secondary issue." He did say that if Stanford and Cal stay, any creative solution pushing the Pac-12 forward would likely require a different media consultant. Kliavkoff hired Doug Perlman of Sports Media Advisors, who did not have extensive experience in the college sports space.

"To me, when something happens like this," Schulz said about a media consultant, "we need a new set of people to start with a clean chalkboard."

What could some Pac-12 options look like? He mentioned that schools from the Mountain West and perhaps in Texas could look to jump, but that would all depend on a media deal.

Schulz said Washington State and Oregon State have been in touch with the Mountain West, which looms as an option. There's skepticism from the Mountain West that Stanford and Cal would want to join, he said, but the league is "very interested" in Oregon State and Washington State.

"It may be the two of us accept an invitation to join [the Mountain West], and we rely on private dollars to make sure our budgets are at the top of the league," Schulz said.

Schulz, who has been at Washington State since 2016, reflected a bit on how the league got to this point and acknowledged that the league's presidents played a role in the conference's demise.

When he arrived at WSU, he was "astounded at how little engagement there was with the presidents" in their own athletic departments, he said. A culture had emerged where the Pac-12 presidents met just three times a year, and there was little crossover with the athletic directors.

He saw a much different level of interest than when he was in the Big 12.

Schulz said the presidents deserve some of the blame. "We had disengaged presidents for a long, long time."

He said that Kliavkoff was "blindsided" by the departures of USC and UCLA. From that point, Schulz said, league members began looking out for themselves.

"That's what did us in at the end," Schulz said. "Not just the last week. People had feet in both camps."

Schulz realizes that dwelling on the past won't help Washington State push forward. He said that clarity on the school's future should come in the coming weeks and that the return of football will help.

Washington State will hostWisconsin in a marquee game during the second week of the season.

"Once you get through the next week or two, people will take a deep breath and a little sanity comes into play," Schulz said. "We have a groundbreaking for a new indoor practice facility at the Wisconsin game. We're playing football. There's positive momentum, we're investing in facilities. It doesn't mean it all goes away."

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