Dreaming or spending, Moos always thought in XL terms
Bill Moos always did kind of keep us guessing. So the other day, when his retirement from the athletic director’s job at Nebraska was announced a scant five days out, it was very much in keeping with the train of his career.
His was a careening ride on the Tilt-a-Whirl. He got jilted by his alma mater, Washington State, not once, but twice. He was the grease that coaxed college athletics’ gazillion-dollar benefactor, Phil Knight, into the sports machinery at Oregon. He was a key player in Pac-12 expansion-related politics. And he finished the whole cruise by abruptly taking a job at one of college football’s storied franchises, Nebraska, and just as abruptly, leaving it.
Moos dreamed big, and spent bigger. His habit of throwing money at challenges was taken as both visionary and alarming.
He’d come from the tiny town of Edwall west of Spokane and gone on to be an all-Pac-8 offensive lineman at Washington State. After an assistant’s stint in the WSU athletic department and several years’ apprenticeship as head guy at Montana, he figured he was a favorite when the school sought to hire an AD in 1994. Instead, he was passed over – treated, it seemed, like a late applicant from someplace like South Carolina-Upstate.
“I was crushed,” he told me in 2010. “I was devastated. I had done everything by the book to prepare myself.”
Oregon swept him up a year later, and three days after he took the job, he had finagled 15 minutes with Knight, who had never been heavily involved with athletic donations to the Ducks. Moos, the great story-teller, regaled me with a tale of sweat beads on his upper lip and a recollection he shared with Knight of how he’d worn the fledgling Nikes at a college all-star game back in 1972.
Ninety minutes later, Knight had written a check for two million to the Ducks’ drive for an indoor practice facility. A few days later, as Moos was leaving the office for golf at Eugene Country Club, Knight called, saying wait, he wanted to drop another $6 million into that kitty. Soon, his signature would be all over Oregon athletics, including a football-stadium expansion and $100 million toward a new basketball arena.
It was mostly boom times at Oregon during Moos’ tenure. He hired basketball coach Ernie Kent and the Ducks were headed to two Elite Eights. They became a national player in football with perhaps the country’s most distinctive brand.
Eventually, there would be a falling-out with Knight, the end of Moos’ Oregon regime in 2007 and a three-year period when they never talked. That ended the day Knight called Moos and congratulated him on being named the new athletic director at his alma mater.
Shortly into the tenure at WSU, the Pac-10 was swept up into the expansion frenzy. When it happened and Colorado and Utah joined the league, Moos was a key figure in arguing for long-sought revenue sharing, and in brainstorming the division alignments, allowing Stanford and Cal to be in the North but meeting their LA rivals annually.
Moos’ time at WSU was a study in extremes. He hired Mike Leach, and winning returned to WSU, but I’ve never thought of it as a particularly sagacious move. What it was, was the definitive shotgun marriage, pairing a school desperate to win and a coach nobody wanted to hire, unless you could suffer Leach’s inevitable side trips down loopy lane — like tweeting a doctored video of a Barack Obama speech. It would take a big fellow in the AD chair to manage that, and Moos figured he was the guy.
Moos, thought to be in his last AD job, gave Kent his last coaching job, and it went bust. Most perplexing was how Moos threw cash at Kent. He got a $1.4-million deal annually to start, when $1.1 or so would have sufficed nicely, inasmuch as Kent was out of coaching then. Then he rolled Kent’s contract over as the program was failing, and when the Cougars fired Kent after 2019, they consoled him with $4.2 million.
That was a window into Moos world. He wasn’t going to be high-hatted by college athletics’ elites. He wanted WSU to look like it belonged, and that thinking informed his most seminal move in Pullman.
In the Pac-12, everybody was building new facilities, and WSU jumped in with both feet, upgrading its football stadium and constructing the obligatory football-ops plant. It was dynamic – and some would say rash. Suddenly, this was Oregon but without Phil Knight. The Cougars went deeply into hock to get it done – they’re looking at a deficit that might endure for generations – and only time will tell whether it was forward-thinking or a fool’s errand.
WSU president Elson Floyd died in 2015, erasing Moos’ biggest advocate, and when replacement Kirk Schulz saw the size of the athletic deficit, you could almost hear the gasp clear to Othello.
Moos told me in 2011 that he anticipated being on the job perhaps another six years before retirement. But with Schultz’ brow furrowed and Nebraska in sight, Moos extended himself.
In Lincoln, he plunged into helping raise $80 million toward an athletic complex that just broke ground, and he hired big and blaring. Scott Frost, the football coach, got $35 million over seven years to prove Husker football excellence isn’t as dated as leisure suits, and basketball coach Fred Hoiberg was a popular choice to head a program that somehow has managed never to win an NCAA-tournament game.
To date, neither enterprise has caught fire.
Now Moos goes back to his ranch to worry about cattle, not coaches. Can’t say his time in college athletics wasn’t rousing.