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Friday, May 26, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Nowhere but up: Cougar athletics are in the abyss

Seattle Times staff reporter

Nine Pac-10 Conference football victories in a year would be one more than possible.

Get nine wins in men's or women's basketball and thoughts of a postseason tournament berth might be justified.

Nine wins in baseball wouldn't be a catbird-seat situation, but in a tough league the number would be respectable.

But nine victories by all four teams combined? During one academic year?

How 'bout them Cougs?

From the euphoric height of the school's first Rose Bowl appearance in 67 years on Jan. 1, 1998, to the present, Washington State University's athletic program has plunged to a depth believed unprecedented in any previous two-year cycle in the school's history.

Since the football season of 1997, which ended with a still-proud-to-be-a-Cougar 21-16 loss to Michigan in the Rose Bowl, WSU's five most visible sports teams have been Pac-10 patsies at 37-135 - a winning percentage of 21.5.

The football team's Pac-10 record for the past two years is 1-15. Men's basketball, 5-31. Women's basketball, 6-30. Baseball, 10-38. Volleyball, 15-21.

Football attendance was down last season. Men's basketball attendance was its lowest in 11 years.

But despite all the losing and despite Pullman remaining geographically the most isolated outpost in the Pac-10, there are people in this country who believe the Cougar direction is reversible. These people, as candidates for the athletic director position left vacant two months ago by Rick Dickson, can see light at the end of the Martin Stadium tunnel.

Ken Casavant, a professor of agricultural economics who is chairman of the search committee, and Bill Carr, half of a Florida-based executive search team charged with pointing candidates in Casavant's direction, believe the Cougar AD job is more plum than prune.

Their belief is supported by Casavant's long list of candidates that a week ago had reached 35. The group includes persons who actively are seeking the job as well as those who have been recruited to at least consider it.

"There's been a lot of interest in application and nomination," Casavant said.

Carr, by telephone from Gainesville, Fla., where he and his partner, Gene Corrigan, headquarter as management consultants, echoed Casavant.

"We feel confident that an excellent candidate will be placed in the position," Carr said.

Who are the candidates? Neither Casavant or Carr would name names. Carr offered a general picture.

"There are people surfacing from a variety of experiences," Carr said. "People who are serving as athletic directors. People who have served in that capacity. People who are assistant or associate ADs.

"People with varying levels of experience, but are very focused in the industry."

Carr and Corrigan, themselves former athletic directors, and Casavant will pare the list of candidates to an unspecified number for the consideration of Dr. V. Lane Rawlins, WSU's new president, who hopes to make the final selection sometime next month.

What makes the job attractive, according to Casavant and Carr, are factors that override recent won-loss records.

"First of all, the Pac-10 is still one of the most desirable conferences in the country," Casavant said. "Combine that with Washington State having its particularly desirable characteristics . . . its special nature. . . .

"And the timing is right with the facilities in place and with facilities in the future . . . it's a good time for someone to come in."

The focal point of the facilities upgrade is Bohler Gym, where remodeling is scheduled to be finished this summer.

Its signature element will be the weight-training room that has been in place since November 1997. There will be new offices for coaches and administrators, a volleyball arena seating 3,000, and a swimming pool with a current machine for use by the Cougar crew.

A state-of-the-art playing surface is being installed at Martin Stadium and the adjoining football practice site, which has been enclosed with a brick and wrought-iron fence.

The track has been resurfaced and Beasley Coliseum has a new basketball floor.

Much of the funding is believed in place for construction of a $14 million indoor practice facility.

Marcia Saneholtz, who is serving as interim athletic director, said the position represents "a great opportunity.

"There is a history of ups and downs and things going in cycles here. But it's a great opportunity to establish a more consistent program."

Saneholtz said she is not a candidate for the job.

Except for the won-lost records, the athletic situation is much better than it was when Dickson replaced Jim Livengood in 1994.

When Dickson arrived from Tulsa University, where he had been the athletic director, the Cougars were on NCAA probation after miscalculating the amount of scholarship dollars permitted for track and baseball.

Not long after Dickson arrived, a second infraction surfaced when it was learned that a football player had not completed a required number of academic credits to remain eligible.

"We were one step away from getting the (NCAA) death penalty," said Rod Commons, sports-information director.

One of the first things Dickson did was establish a compliance system considered a model for the industry. He also put in place an academic support program for athletes, boosted the athletic department's budget from $10 million to $18 million, and helped raise contributed funds for much of the facilities work.

Dickson was not nearly as successful in his hiring of a men's basketball coach, Kevin Eastman, to replace Kelvin Sampson and a baseball coach, Steve Farrington, to replace Chuck (Bobo) Brayton. Eastman resigned after five less-than-successful seasons; Farrington's contract was not renewed this week after six years.

The new athletic director will have the opportunity to hire the new baseball coach.

And maybe, before long, the new AD will benefit from the present nowhere-to-go-but-up situation.

As Saneholtz said: Athletic things go in cycles around WSU.

Before the Rose Bowl experience, the Cougars were in bowl games in 1994 (Alamo) and 1992 (Copper).

The men's basketball team got into the NCAA tournament in 1994.

The volleyball team made five straight NCAA tournament appearances.

A look at the Seattle Mariner roster that includes three former Cougars is evidence that baseball can thrive in the Palouse.

"It's not a stagnant situation at all," Carr said.

As proof, he cited the facilities improvements, the budget increase and the compliance and support systems that are in place.

"The program in my best judgment has come a long way," Carr said.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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