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Originally published August 25, 2012 at 8:05 PM | Page modified August 25, 2012 at 8:22 PM

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Pac-12 schools spending big bucks on facilities, coaches

In today's Pac-12, you need a general contractor as well as a gifted quarterback. Only a handful of schools aren't in some stage of major work on their football facilities in what is widely seen in the conference as a movement to play catch-up with some of their peers.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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To illustrate the boom in improvements to football facilities in the Pacific-12 Conference, we take you to Pullman, where the numbers two and four are graphic evidence of what's going on in the league.

The old press box WSU just tore down had two toilets. Not two restrooms, two toilets, not just to cover the media, but the stats crew, both athletic directors' contingents, the president's box and the officials' replay booth.

The new, $80-million, tri-level complex — including luxury suites and loge boxes — has 15 restrooms and 73 toilets.

And the new digs have four elevators. There were none in the old Martin Stadium, because, well, none were needed.

Four elevators seems like a lot. Then again, nothing seems like too much these days in the Pac-12, where they're spending money and setting rebar at a breakneck pace.

In today's Pac-12, you need a general contractor as well as a gifted quarterback. Only a handful of schools aren't in some stage of major work on their football facilities in what is widely seen in the conference as a movement to play catch-up with some of their peers.

"Some people call it an arms race," says Rich Rodriguez, the new Arizona football coach. "I call it reinvesting in the program."

Most of the capital improvements are happening independent of the robust new TV contracts — $3 billion over 12 years with ESPN and Fox — that begin taking effect this school year. But that media-rights windfall no doubt has helped fuel another big-ticket surge — the hiring of high-priced coaching talent, including four new head coaches.

Again, we refer you to the Palouse. The Cougars fired Paul Wulff, who was making $600,000 a year. They hired Mike Leach at $2,225,000. Can anybody name a school anywhere that cashiered one coach and paid its new one more than 3 ½ times as much?

"You'd better be investing," says Arizona State's Todd Graham. "This conference is moving forward."

When it's not millions to a head coach, it's megabucks to assistant coaches. Washington fired defensive coordinator Nick Holt, who was making a healthy $650,000, and sought out coveted Justin Wilcox at Tennessee. The Huskies are paying Wilcox $750,000 this year.

"I do know our schools are very competitive, and they've had their hands tied behind their backs in terms of facilities," says Larry Scott, the conference's bold commissioner. "When I was hired, there was a palpable sense we were falling behind, and we needed to catch up.

"It doesn't necessarily surprise me there were these pent-up desires, plans and ambitions. I think our schools are hypercompetitive."

Among the capital projects in the league:

• California is just completing its tortuous march — complete with tree-sitting protesters — to a remodeled Memorial Stadium.

• Washington is a year away from having a new south grandstand — with luxury suites and loges — as well as completing a football-operations center at the west end of Husky Stadium.

• WSU, whose stadium amenities trailed everybody in the league, not only adds the new south-side complex, but awaits a vote by its board of regents for a west-end football-operations building.

• Arizona is building a $73 million center for football operations.

• USC, which has had second-rate training facilities despite a tradition that dwarfs the rest of the league, is moving into a $70 million edifice dedicated to football. The conversation piece there is a sprawling weight room that adjoins a 40-yard indoor field. Tailback Curtis McNeal calls it a "one-of-a-kind building, better than some pro facilities I've seen."

• Not to be outdone, Oregon is at work on another monument to its nouveau-richness, a $68 million, Phil Knight-funded, football-activities facility.

For a long time, there was a sort of leaguewide inertia regarding facilities, almost a feeling that such a trend was beneath Pac-12 schools. The conference seemed to exist on its history, its academic reputation and its unmatched geography.

Then it changed. Stadiums got old; Washington's south side was almost crumbling. Athletic administrators looked around them and saw better. And the dynamic Scott entered the league.

Scott Woodward, the Washington athletic director, was on campus not long ago at Michigan State — widely considered a middle-rung Big Ten program — and was taken aback at the physical plant.

"They have nowhere near the revenue of Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State," Woodward said. "But I'm talking about first-class facilities at Michigan State."

Much as Washington had a need on its south side and Cal has long had to address Memorial Stadium — it sits directly atop the Hayward Fault — Arizona State feels Sun Devil Stadium has become outdated and is planning a major renovation that might cost $300 million.

"For us, it's keeping up with the Joneses," says ASU athletic director Steve Patterson. "We've got to be able to generate the kinds of revenues that bigger schools generate. Our goal is to get to $100 million annually within four years. That's a formidable task; last year, we were at $55, $56 million and change."

ASU's project is a bit different. It already has 50 suites and loge seating, but Patterson argues their time has come.

"A lot of this building is 50, 60 years old," he says. "It's just plain worn out." The luxury suites, he says wryly, "are lovely 1980s style. They look like sort of early 'Smokey and the Bandit.' "

Of course, the push for better facilities isn't happening in a vacuum. Elsewhere on campus, tuition is rising sharply, colleges are cutting budgets to the bone and even if capital projects are funded privately and without tax dollars, critics contend it's unseemly and out of step for athletic departments to wage an "arms race" while across the quad, academia is suffering.

Many athletic departments, in fact, receive a subsidy from the university general fund.

"A big issue on a lot of campuses right now is renovating classroom facilities," says Jason Lanter, Kutztown University professor and a past president of The Drake Group, a watchdog organization for academic integrity in college athletics. "There are a lot of campuses where residence halls and classrooms are stuck in the '60s and '70s simply because they don't have the funding."

Lanter advocates that Congress pursue a path it was on several years ago, that of investigating whether the dollar signs coveted by athletic departments dovetail with the nonprofit model of higher education.

"What is the purpose of athletic programs at major universities?" Lanter asked rhetorically. "Are they part of the values the university has?"

Woodward argues the two elements are compatible, saying, "You can have a strong academic mission with a strong and potent athletic department. The athletic department should represent the culture of the university, which is to win and compete in everything we do, and do it right."

The debate will go on, but so does the framing and finish work on the new digs around the league. On the USC campus recently, offensive tackle Kevin Graf noted there was conversation about facilities back when his brother Derek played for the Trojans a decade ago.

"When my brother was getting recruited here in 1997-98, they said he'd have the new building," Graf said. "It's about 12 years late for him."

There and elsewhere in the booming Pac-12, it's late, but the operative mantra is: Better late than never.

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

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