Part one of three part series on WWU’s rising football team
By JOHN SLEEPER
BELLINGHAM — The drill was one in which the offense was working on play execution, strictly alone, without defenders.
A Western Washington University tailback circled out of the backfield and caught a short dump-off pass. As he turned upfield, head coach Rob Smith crept up to him, lowered his shoulders and made like Dick Butkus.
One player cracked that the 43-year-old "linebacker" shouldn’t be too difficult to juke out of his cleats. More laughs.
Moments later, when a wideout failed to hustle to run down a cornerback who had intercepted a pass, Smith blew.
"Get your ass downfield," his deep, rumbling voice shot throughout the practice field.
Players huddled for the next play.
This is not the University of Washington. Western plays in NCAA Division II. It divides money for what would be 20 full-ride scholarships among 53 players, players who didn’t appear on anyone’s blue-chip lists coming out of high school.
Smith doesn’t have a seven-figure, multi-year contract. His assistants, just four of whom are fulltime, are paid about a quarter of what UW assistants make.
Civic Stadium, capacity 4,500, will never be confused with 74,000-seat Husky Stadium.
And the attendance at Viking games is about 1/20 of what you would see at a typical UW game.
But if some don’t believe the commitment at Western is at the same level as that of a major university, they haven’t been to practice.
"The game is the same," said Smith, a former Huskies running back who was drafted by the New York Giants. "That’s what people fail to realize. I played at Washington. I was at an NFL camp. I’ve seen the ultimate levels. For us coaches, the game is the same. We work just as hard. We put in long hours. I can’t imagine anyone putting in more hours than we do."
Nor have doubters talked to athletic director Lynda Goodrich, credited by many as one who brought WWU athletics from the dark ages to a shining star.
Nor have they tracked the progress the athletic program has made in the past decade, a program that nearly had to abolish its football team on at least two occasions for financial and competitive reasons. From 1980-86, the Vikings went 11-54-1, a string in which they were winless in 1981 and had one win each in 1982 and 1983.
Since he took over in 1989, Smith is 77-37-1.
In the strictest sense of the term, this is small-time football, but it certainly has a big-time blueprint. Civic Stadium had a FieldTurf surface installed before this season. The project was a joint venture between Western, the City of Bellingham and area school districts.
"Last year, we could have hosted the (football) playoff game had the field been playable, but it wasn’t," Goodrich said. "So we had to go to Oklahoma for the playoff game."
The athletic department has an aggressive marketing program, and hired the New York-based SME/SFX Entertainment Company to create a new set of logos. SME/SFX also has designed logos for the Seattle Mariners, Georgetown University and the University of Florida, among others.
"They’re very animated and much more merchandise-friendly," WWU director of athletic marketing Steve Brummel said.
Brummel also is the backbone of Western’s three major fund-raising events.
Western Wave, WWU’s version of Husky Fever, netted $120,000 in just its fourth year. The Viking Golf Classic netted $23,000. Viking Night, in which everything from autographed sports jerseys to trips to Hawaii are auctioned, made $80,000 two weeks ago.
Such innovation is necessary for the athletic program’s survival.
"We get some state dollars and student fees, but a third of our budget has to come from self-generated dollars," Goodrich said. "That’s substantial for an institution our size. If you compare it to the University of Washington, we don’t have the television dollars. We don’t have the big donors. We don’t have the 70,000-some people coming to a football game. When you talk self-generated dollars, our gate receipts and season-ticket sales are pretty minor."
Soon, WWU sports memorabilia will be available through the Internet. Other projects are in the planning stages.
"The coaches spend it, then my AD walks in to my office and tells me we need more," Brummel said, smiling.
The success of the fundraising is largely proportional to the success of the football program, which is riding a mighty productive wave.
In just its second year in NCAA Division II competition last season, the Vikings went 8-3 and reached the first round of the national playoffs, losing to Northeastern (Okla.) State 27-24 in overtime. Western’s transition from NAIA included very few growing pains, which many attribute to Smith.
"Every year, this program has gotten better and better," said Eric Tripp, in his eighth year as a Smith assistant. "This may be a D-II program, but Rob runs it like D-I."
Certainly, the transition was made easier by the fact that Western built itself into one of the more competitive NAIA programs in the nation before the move to D-II. Under Smith, Western made its only four NAIA national playoff appearances and advanced to the NAIA championship game in 1996.
Traditionally, Northwest small colleges have been strong representatives in postseason play. Pacific Lutheran won two NAIA titles before taking the NCAA Division III championship last season. Central Washington was a heavy player in the postseason before tying for the NAIA national title in 1995.
The move to NCAA Division II also meant a financial change.
When the Vikings went to the NAIA title game at Savannah, Tenn., in 1996, the athletic department had to pay the team’s way. When last year’s team went to the first round of the playoffs in Oklahoma, the NCAA chartered a flight.
"I think it might have cost us a couple of hundred dollars, because they only allow you so much for ground transportation," Goodrich said. "It was pretty minor compared to previous years. But we didn’t make any money."
The transition also has meant that the program has had to be more creative in its recruiting. To stay competitive, Western relies greatly on transfers from larger programs to supplement the freshmen it recruits. Those transfers, the coaching staff hopes, will be able to play right away.
The 1996 team that reached the NAIA Championship game had six players who transferred from other programs. This year, they number 21.
Although the available scholarship money is one hook that attracts transfers, many mention the reputation of the school.
"I knew Western was a solid program," said offensive tackle Josh Wright, a Kamiak High School graduate who transferred from Idaho. "I remember they made the championship game in ‘96. I always heard about the heated battles they had with (Pacific Lutheran University). It seemed like year after year, a lot of a good players from (the Western 3A and 4A conferences) came here. It was known as a solid program."