The Cougar Pride Statue, part of the Martin Stadium renovation, rivals Dick Bennett as one of the coolest things Jim Sterk brought to Pullman. via farm4.static.flickr.com
Now that Jim Sterk has moved on to sunnier days in the greatest city in the history of mankind (it's a fact), it is important to look back on the impact he had in his long tenure as the Athletic Director for the Washington State Cougars. Jim had his ups and downs, which is seemingly par for the course for any decade of Cougar athletics, but overall he has left most sports in great condition through a series of excellent hires.
There is of course, one sport that is most definitely not in it's best possible position and that is also worth mentioning (since it happens to be the moneymaker). However, athletic directors do more than just hire coaches, and Sterk did work in upgrading the facilities at WSU as well. Jim Sterk left a positive mark on Washington State, and Cougar fans should not let the last two seasons of college football change their thinking there.
Non-revenue sports enjoyed great success under Jim Sterk. This past season, volleyball and baseball made returns to the NCAA tournament. Soccer made it for the second straight year and has become a consistent player under head coach Matt Potter. Women's rowing finished fourth in the country in 2006 and eighth in 2008 under Jane LaRiveire. Track continues to have success with great individual performances from athletes such as Jeshua Anderson and the Pickler sisters. Tennis is consistently ranked and made the tournament in 2008. All of these sports peformed well on a national stage under coaches hired by Jim Sterk. Jim helped make WSU a well-rounded Pac-10 competitor.
That's not to mention what may have been his best hire of all.
The story of Sterk's courting of Dick Bennett has become legendary in the Coug community. Sterk driving coach Bennett to Cour D'Alene in the dark to convince him there was great golf nearby comes to mind. However Sterk did it, bringing Bennett to Pullman has to be his grand achievement. Dick came in the first year and took at team that had the likes of Justin Bellegarde and Justin Garcia ON SCHOLARSHIP and guided them to seven conference wins. The hire, of course, came with the promise that Dick's son Tony would eventually take over, and when he did, WSU basketball saw unprecedented success.
Washington State basketball is now on the map, and that was something that probably seemed impossible after the Paul Graham era. Jim Sterk deserves a lot of credit for that.
Sterk put forth a lot of effort in building the facilities that WSU needs to compete in the Pac-10. Recently, WSU has installed an indoor rowing training machine. Anybody wondering how important that is, just think of that "short" trip out to Wawawaii, then think of doing it at 5 am in the dead of winter. Additionally, the new hydrotherapy pool has allowed WSU athletes to do build back strength after injuries. Palouse Ridge Golf Course allows WSU to host Pac-10 events and it probably won't hurt when recruiting coaches in the future. Finally, Sterk's biggest project, the Martin Stadium renovation, will eventually allow WSU to generate the revenue to compete year-in and year-out with the rest of the conference.
The facility upgrades make WSU more attractive to potential recruits and allow WSU to compete in that arena. Sterk was able to do many of these with easily the smallest donor support in the conference.
The Martin Stadium renovation and the lack of donors are points of contention that Sterk's detractors point to. This may be a fair argument. Jim never seemed to be a real aggressive fundraising type (Nuss details the "push" for Martin Stadium funding at the LSU game here). It isn't as if Sterk didn't try; we saw the 10,000 donors push, his effort to move the Apple Cup temporarily to Qwest Field to generate much-needed revenue, his moderately successful Basketball Excellence fund, and the renovation campaign. In the end, though, WSU is still way behind when it comes to funding and the athletic budget compared to the rest of the BCS.
Where that small athletic budget may hurt the most is the sport in which the casual fan cast their judgment on the university: Football. In Sterk's first four years as athletic director, Coug fans saw unprecedented success on the football field, and the hope was that the program could build on that success to become a top half Pac 10 program every year. That didn't happen.
After Mike Price left for Alabama (sort of), Sterk chose Bill Doba to be his successor. Obviously, Doba's years turned out poorly. The program went into a decline off the field and that become evident on the field after Doba's departure. It is easy to say that the Doba hire may have been Sterk's worst move. It is hard to put total blame on Sterk for that one though. It seemed like a great idea, and still does, to keep a connection to the football coach who had more success at WSU than any other.
Sterk's hire of Wulff after Doba's "resignation" is obviously still up for great debate.
Even if he turns out to be a total disaster, Coug fans must remember the financial restrictions that Sterk was under when hiring Wulff. While he conducted a national search, the reality is that WSU could not offer the resources to bring in a "big name" coach. Additionally, with the headache Sterk had went through trying to keep Tony Bennett around the summer before, he probably wanted a guy that would stick around if he had that success. Paul Wulff is a Coug and would be more likely to do that than others.
Obviously, there is a possibility that Sterk could have got things right the first time when Price left, but let's not forget there aren't coaches out there clamoring for the WSU head coaching job. Even places like Notre Dame and Tennessee have been turned down by big names in recent years.
The lasting impression of Jim Sterk should be a positive one. He worked hard and brought success to many of WSU's athletic programs on and off the field. WSU athletics is in a better overall place than it was ten years ago and Sterk has left us at a time in which many of the coaches are locked up and the department can be sustained for years to come.
Thank you Mr. Sterk. Many around Coug Nation wish you great success in your future (except when the Aztecs are playing the Cougs, of course).