Wulff's costly departure raises issues of priorities

When officials from Washington's universities and colleges are pressing state lawmakers to look elsewhere for budget cuts, we're pretty sure the athletic directors won't be leading the charge.

Scrutiny of college athletic programs -- at Washington State University and the University of Washington, at least -- can only detract from the narrative.

Here's the story our friends in Pullman want legislators to be thinking about -- the state has already cut funding for Washington State University by 60 percent over the last four years.

Over in Seattle, state funding for the University of Washington has been cut in half, from $400 million to $200 million.

Certainly, tuition increases, donations and other sources have done much to soften the blow at both schools but the decline in state funding is still painful.

The bottom line at WSU is about a 12 percent reduction in the school's workforce -- more than 500 jobs -- along with the elimination of entire fields of study.

As the state Legislature meets in special session in Olympia this month to find another $2 billion to cut from the state's general fund, WSU President Elson Floyd and UW President Michael Young are delivering a consistent message:

Additional cuts at UW and WSU would threaten the ability of these major institutions to continue providing quality education for Washington's residents.

At the risk of stating the obvious -- this seems like a particularly bad time to pay Paul Wulff $600,000 not to coach Cougar football.

The money spent on college sports is mind-boggling enough. In the most recent survey of state salaries, UW football coach Steve Sarkisian came out on top, with $1.98 million in gross pay for 2010.

UW basketball coach Lorenzo Roma was paid $1.14 million last year, making him the second highest paid state employee.

But at least they draw their astronomical pay for coaching. Wulff's salary is small by comparison, but next year he'll be paid to not do his job.

We know college athletics -- especially football -- are supposed to be viewed in a bubble, where revenues pay the freight without the state's help, and winning seasons serve as free advertising for academic programs.

UW's athletic department has claimed to be self-sufficient for years. The picture at WSU isn't quite as rosy. The athletic budget is $38 million, with about $5.3 million coming from the university's general fund, according to The Associated Press.

That's about to change. The Pac-12's new $3 billion, 12-year television deal calls for equal revenue sharing, which means WSU and other smaller schools will each collect more than $20 million annually.

Who can blame Cougar fans for feeling giddy over trading Wulff, who posted a 9-40 record over four years, for Mike Leach, the 2008 national coach of the year.

All 10 of Leach's Texas Tech teams amassed winning records, and each earned an invitation to a post-season bowl game.

If nothing else comes from the nearly $3 million it cost to have Wulff sit out and Leach take over in time for the 2012, at least it bought some hope.

Truth is, we can't help but share some of the excitement about the team's prospects under new leadership.

But it's impossible not to contrast the multibillion entertainment juggernaut that college football has become with the decline in state support for academic programs.

In Olympia this month, the discussion will revolve around courses being cut, class sizes expanded and tuition rising beyond the reach of more families.

Why can't some of the money pouring into PAC-12 athletic departments do more than sustain athletic programs?

Surely, there is some better use for $600,000 in Pullman than to keep Wulff out of Martin Stadium.