clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

WSU president Kirk Schulz deserves an open mind from fans

This is Schulz’s biggest test. Bring an open mind and see how this goes.

NCAA Football: Boise State at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Bill Moos surprised everyone on Sunday, turning up at Nebraska out of nowhere as its new athletic director. It was a move that caught everyone flatfooted, and it left many stunned — including everyone at Washington State, his alma mater and the place he’d been athletic director for seven and a half years.

In the initial wave of shock, we all started to parse through what happened and what was next. There was finger pointing, searching for answers about why Moos would leave the place he called home, the place he spoke so highly of. He owned a farm just up the road! Why now and why Nebraska?

A lot of the initial blame fell on university president Kirk Schulz, who’s been on the job for just about a year and a half. Moos seemed happy and healthy before, and the biggest variable to change was the office of the president. There’s been a growing tension between school and athletic department for a while, and it seemed a lot of fans assumed that Schulz was causing upheaval.

This isn’t quite fair, though. And it’s worth exploring further.

Elson Floyd cap

Kirk Schulz is not Elson Floyd, and replacing E-Flo is an impossible task. Dr. Floyd was a special president and personality. He endeared himself to students, alumni and pretty much anyone with a connection to the Washington State Cougars. He spent countless hours developing relationships. You felt like you knew him (even if you actually didn’t), and you felt like he cared about you (which he actually did). He was an incredible leader.

This makes for a tough situation for Dr. Schulz, and I do feel for him. He was tasked with following a leader who, frankly, can’t really be followed, and with pushing the school beyond what Dr. Floyd accomplished.

It’s going to take time for him to establish himself as president and to develop a lot of the connections with students, alumni and partners that are needed to succeed. He’s not going to be the same type of president as Dr. Floyd was, either, in all likelihood. That’s OK — Schulz has his own personality and style, and should be given some time to establish himself.

Of course, it didn’t help that Schulz had a rocky start with the the most visible arm of the university: The athletic department. And it wasn’t really of his own doing.

First off, Robert Barber’s arrest and expulsion was a tenuous and difficult situation fraught with land mines for a new president. It was a difficult test right off the bat — one that he probably didn’t handle all that well as he was stretched by all the competing constituencies a president has to serve.

If you’re still upset about that, OK. Except, well ... nobody really handled it well. The police department struggled to explain itself and come to a resolution. A PR war was fought, tooth and nail, in the press and by fans online — and this included a state senator. The board of regents generally washed their hands of the situation, essentially saying “not our department.” The athletics administrators and coaches fought hard to get Barber back on the field, with the help of Barber’s own outside lawyer.

And Schulz was caught in the middle of a battle he couldn’t win, bound by school policy he wasn’t yet ready to push back on which led to a perception of passivity in the face of a volatile — and very public — fight.

NCAA Football: Stanford at Washington State
Robert Barber
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

In the end, Barber ended up back on the field, with some hard feelings in the background. Yes, defensive line coach Joe Salave’a and his wife were not happy with how things went down — and we know Joe looked after and took care of the players from the island. Salave’a ended up joining Willie Taggart’s Oregon staff, and despite the fact that it came with a substantial pay increase (one that’s in line with most defensive coordinators, including Alex Grinch), fans again were quick to blame Schulz.

In addition to the Barber situation, it was pretty clear from the start that Schulz was tasked with getting the athletics budget under control. Moos had been used to working autonomously and operating fairly freely when it came to budgeting and taking out debt. He was able to get stadium improvements approved, and they did come in on time and under budget. When the next phases of improvements, including the football operations building, came along, the amount of debt was concerning.

This likely led to some difficult early conversations between Schulz and Moos about money that led to a rocky start between the two. Leadership changes are difficult, especially when large amounts of money are on the line.

Dr. Floyd was a friend of athletics, and had been during his career. His personality also endeared him to coaches and athletes alike. He had earned the cachet that commanded the respect of the athletic department, fueled by years of experience dealing with coaches, athletes and boosters. He was beloved.

Through no fault of his own, Schulz didn’t have that same cachet. And it seems to have caused people to make some pretty quick judgments — ones they’re having a hard time letting go of — even though it’s hard to see how he could have handled all that in ways that would make everyone happy.

One of the marks of a good leader is taking the time the time to listen, learn and absorb the culture when coming into a new situation. Walking into a new job and making waves right away — shaking things up, doing it “my way” — is usually a recipe for disaster, and leads to more problems in the short- and long-term.

Schulz appears to have spent a lot of time quietly observing, listening and talking to people who know Washington State. He’s been deferential in a lot of ways, and there’s a good chance this caused some of the inaction — perceived or otherwise — around the Barber situation. He’s now had his time to learn about the school and its culture, and appears to have a solid footing.

On the athletics side, this is Schulz’s first real big decision. And he deserves a chance and an open mind from the fans, particularly given what we’ve seen so far.

NCAA Football: Boise State at Washington State
Mike Leach
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Despite being caught on their heels as Moos bolted without telling anyone, Schulz and Washington State are handling this pretty well so far. On Sunday, everyone wanted the school to say something immediately. But the school resisted that urge, put some time into crafting a statement, and spent a bit longer naming an interim candidate while thoughtfully setting up a search process.

They established a committee to work through the hiring process — Schulz, being new, shouldn’t try to do this alone, and he’s not. The committee includes women’s basketball coach June Daugherty, football legend Jack Thompson, donor/boosters Greg Rankich and Gary Schneidmiller, student-athlete Abu Kamara (track) and faculty member Nancy Swanger. It hits the right notes, and shows he’s polling a lot of smart people who know the school well.

Schulz also made it clear that his priority is making sure Mike Leach feels supported and is comfortable. This, as we know, is important to Leach — and probably most important to you. Moos and Floyd were Leach’s biggest support system, and the ones that hired him. With both gone, it’s important for Leach to have trust and a good relationship with the administration.

Whatever friction there was between Moos and Schulz doesn’t necessarily extend to Leach. The coach has made it clear that trust and transparency are what he values most, and that certainly shouldn’t be an impossible task for Schulz, of whom Leach said he’d “never had any problems with” and later added “I’ve always got along great with him.”

Kirk Schulz
Kirk Schulz
WSU Photo Services

Washington State University is not a football team or an athletic department. It’s a public university that serves students. It’s an institution of higher education that also has sports teams. Schulz’s job is to ensure a strong future for the school, to make sure there are sustainable opportunities for growth, and to continue building the prestige of the university.

Schulz reports to the board of regents, which is tasked with keeping the best interests of the school and state in mind. There are plenty of capital improvement projects to take care of — including a medical school — that extend beyond sports. The athletic department is a marketing tool, but education is the core of Schulz’s job.

That’s something to not lose sight of here. Athletics cannot be the tail that wags the dog. Schulz has undertaken a huge task in balancing the school budget and making necessary cuts and changes to make sure there’s a sustainable future at Washington State. It’s a difficult time for higher education, and WSU can’t spend money that it won’t be able to pay back.

Athletics departments are run at break-even or a small deficit on purpose. That’s the game, and how they all work — all money that comes in needs to be poured back into facilities, coaching staffs and support (not the athletes because yay amateurism). But Washington State is running at a significant deficit as it works to pay off debt from facilities upgrades. The athletic department, and its next director, need to cut spending, raise more funds or both. Otherwise, the athletic department runs the real risk of cratering under the weight of debt, something everyone wants to avoid.

To that end, Schulz needs to find a fundraiser who can organize the department to take it to the next level. Moos was loved as athletic director to start. He spoke Coug, he was an alumnus who got what it means to be a Coug. He made a splashy hire in Leach that’s worked out great. He rallied around a branding message (Wave The Flag) and marketed athletics well. That’s what Washington State needed at the time.

It’s now time to move forward, to take the next step. Fundraising lacked under Moos. Washington State needs to reorganize the foundation, alumni association and athletics fundraising. It needs to better engage its alumni base to hook them, then step those donors up the ladder and create higher-dollar donations. There likely isn’t a huge whale of a donor. The athletic department needs to chip away at donations in a more traditional way.

It needs to do this fast, too. There’s no cash influx that’ll come falling from the sky. The rosiest of Pac-12 Network revenue projections haven’t come to pass, and the cash windfall, while much better than before the new TV rights deal, isn’t enough to cover the debt taken out to fund upgrades. There’s also an expectation that future TV rights deals will be structured differently, and that there will likely be some kind of market adjustment down the line; rights deals boomed over the last decade, but consumption changes make those high-dollar deals unsustainable.

Schulz needs an athletic department that can sustain itself, and it’s not unreasonable for him to ask for a more balanced budget, better fundraising, and smarter spending. Moos brought the WSU athletics department into the 21st century; the next athletics director needs to take what he started and build upon it. There are a lot of smart people in the athletics department to tap into and empower. There already are good pieces here.

But a fresh set of eyes and a new viewpoint could be a good thing. The aforementioned budget and debt issues loom large just under the surface. The fundraising struggles have been bubbling up, as well, along with alumni relations. Moos pulled the athletic department out of its funk, and that’s been a great thing for Washington State. But it needs more now, and Schulz deserves a legitimate opportunity from alumni and fans to get it right.

I’ve seen a lot of negativity directed at Schulz, as if he fired Moos with middle fingers up. One can surmise this wasn’t exactly an amicable parting; an athletic director doesn’t up and leave without telling anyone for no reason. At the same time, it’s pretty clear Schulz has been demanding more of everyone, especially on the budgetary side. Moos believes in spending money to make money (true!) but Schulz and the regents have bristled at the amount of spending and lack of money coming in.

It’s worth remembering that this is a new president, and one that isn’t going to live up to the legacy of his predecessor right away. It’s also worth remembering he serves the school and state, not the athletic department. It’s up to him, now, to make a home run hire that can build upon what Moos did and create a sustainable future, all while engaging donors and opening up even more cash flow. It’s a tough task, but one Schulz appears to be up to.

Give it time. Let it play out with an open mind. Let’s see what Schulz can do, and what kind of hire he makes.