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An Ode To Canned Cheese, and another notes from my PNW trip

On Boise State's unique stadium, being yourself, and more:

Good morning, and thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.

I’m finally back in Chicago after spending most of the last few days in Idaho and Washington. I spent most of that time interviewing athletic administrators at Boise State, Idaho, and Washington State, along with talking to fans, business owners, students, and more.

Earlier this week, I wrote about Idaho’s iconic Kibbie Dome, a stadium that’s more than a meme, but the home of a dang good FCS football team. I also discussed an ambitious MWC promotion/relegation plan, born out of a brainstorm from an associate athletic director at Boise State. I also wrote about how Boise State is managing to sell tickets, raise money, and build for a future beyond the Big 12…even while the team is just .500.

Flying out to Idaho, renting a car, driving 300 miles, then flying back to Chicago, isn’t cheap. I’m able to do things like this, as well as pay freelancers competitive rates, pay FOIA fees, and more, thanks to your subscriptions. We do sell ads and we are grateful for our advertising partners, but our revenue overwhelmingly comes from reader and institutional subscriptions.

I have another newsletter about Washington State and the city of Pullman that I’ll run next week, but I had a few other takeaways from the trip that I wanted to share that don’t easily fit into other newsletters:

Boy howdy Albertson’s Stadium is something else…and not just for the obvious reasons

I am not the most well-traveled college football writer by any stretch of the imagination, but I have to admit, Boise State’s football stadium is one of the most unique I’ve been around.

I mean, yes, the blue turf is pretty unique (and for what it’s worth, Boise State associate AD Mike Walsh told me the urban legends about birds crashing into the football field aren’t true), but once I got down on the field level, what actually stuck out to me were the stands. Unlike most stadiums I’m aware of, the bulk of the seating in the stadium is actually on the upper deck, rather than field level. It makes the seating look a little bit like a mushroom.

I’m told that this configuration, along with the fact that seating doesn’t completely go around the stadium yet, can be a pain in the butt when it comes to moving people around the facility. But it’s great for making the place super loud.

I wonder, if in 40 years, as college sports move in an even more explicitly professionalized model, we’ll still have stadiums like Albertson’s. I say this with love…it feels a little bit like the place was built out of Legos, with new additions and upgrades just sorta stacked on top and around stuff from the 1980s. It has luxury suites and a massive new video boardand also you have to pee in a trough. It’s imperfect and not what anybody expected it to look like back in say, 1990. I like it. But I don’t know how many imperfections get sanded down over the future relentless march toward efficiency.

Let me briefly celebrate the all-important canned cheese

If you’ve ever spent time in and around Washington State, you’ve probably heard of Cougar Gold, the school’s famous cheese-in-a-can. You wouldn’t normally think of cheese as something that would still taste good coming out of a can, but an old coworker of mine mailed me a tin for Christmas one year, and our family was hooked. I bought two more when I visited Pullman.

As I understand it, the cheese has become something of a civic institution, sold in grocery stores, referenced on billboards, etc. When you go to the tiny Moscow-Pullman airport to fly out of town, there are no restaurants. There are just a handful of vending machines…including one for Cougar Gold.

I point this out not just because you can’t buy delicious canned cheese just anywhere. I actually think there’s an important athletics-related lesson here.

Cougar Gold is made right there on campus. You can walk up to the mini restaurant on the campus creamery, go up the stairs, and watch students make the cheese right there from an observatory. Money from the cheese sales goes to support not just students, but actual research on campus.

Because the cheese has become a beloved icon beyond campus, I think it serves two important purposes. For one, it allows people to have a positive association with Washington State University that is not dependent on athletic success. You might not feel great about Wazzu if you primarily interface with the school through the football or baseball team…but nobody needs to recruit a four-star for you to enjoy eating the cheese you bought at the grocery store. It’s part of the reason so many schools have tried to set up licensing agreements with local breweries to create their own beers and other consumable products.

But not only does the cheese taste good, but also serves to remind consumers about Washington State’s rich agricultural research history. It’s a reminder that the work that happens on campus can directly impact their life and community, even if they never attend the university. It’s why many public schools have agricultural extension schools, provide financial educational services, run art galleries, etc.

My concern is that many schools, especially public schools, have forgotten to find ways to help the general public really participate and connect with their university…outside of athletics. Athletics can be a great “front porch” of a university, but if it’s the only way you’re trying to build relationships with the rest of the state, you can find yourself excusing terrible behavior to preserve that relationship, or letting your entire marketing budget depend on Beating State.

If residents don’t feel connected to a school’s mission, I worry they will be increasingly likely to feel that higher education does not share their values, is not worth supporting, or worse, should be attacked. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that many colleges are facing very difficult questions from lawmakers, activists, and the public, over whether they are properly serving who they are supposed to serve.

I don’t think you can fix that with canned cheese, even if it’s delicious. But canned cheese might be a start.

Finally, there is value in being who you are

One theme that came up in every conversation I had with staffers at Boise State, Idaho, and Washington State…was the importance of institutional alignment, and institutional comfort with being who they are.

I say this with love about all three schools…but they’re not Stanford or Michigan, and they know that. They’re not in major media markets. They’re not in huge cities. In the great Land-Grant tradition, they are mostly trying to educate “the sons of toil.” While all three schools (and athletic departments) are different, all three realize they’re not going to have the alumni network, corporate backing, or massive #brandz dollars of a Big Ten, Ivy League, or massive SEC school.

Everybody wants to improve themselves and be the best athlete, leader, athletic department, or school they can be. But there is also a risk in trying to frantically be something that you aren’t. When you’re comfortable saying “We’re an FCS school”, or “We’re a rural school” or “We’re an agricultural school”…you’re freed from the rat race of prestige and clout chasing. You’re freed and empowered to make better decisions.

I deeply think this is an important axiom to master for athletic departments and universities (not everybody needs to be UCLA! We need Cal State Fullerton too!), but as humans. We will be happier once we acknowledge what makes us who we are, not constantly chasing a brass ring that may never appear, or that might not even want if we figure out how to grab it.

If you’re going to operate out of a place like Idaho, I imagine you’re always going to have a chip on your shoulder in some way. That’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with being Idaho. All you can do is be the best Idaho you can possibly be.

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