LOS ANGELES — Just days into his job as president of Washington State University, Lane Rawlins cut to the chase with one of the candidates for the WSU athletic director's job.
"Do you like small towns?" Rawlins asked Jim Sterk.
"I grew up three miles away from a town that had no stoplight," Sterk replied.
Satisfied by Sterk's response, and his worthy range of experience, Rawlins bit on a guy who was born in Bellingham and grew up in Nooksack Valley.
It was small enough that he played three sports and still got recruited to be an emergency trumpet player in the school band.
Now, as the Cougars get ready to put behind them an eventful December and play in the Rose Bowl on Wednesday against Oklahoma, there are those who think Sterk, 46, made a small-town-guy decision in the wake of the surprise move by Mike Price to Alabama.
Certainly it was easier, temporarily at least, to hire Bill Doba to succeed Price.
Nothing pressures an athletic director like opening up a job and doing a whirlwind tour around the nation to find a football coach, upon whose success the athletic program, and the athletic director's job, might depend.
"It's an easier move," said Sterk, watching a WSU workout at Los Angeles Coliseum, "but I felt it was the right move.
"Kids play their hearts out for Bill Doba. If I had opened it up, we wouldn't have been able to continue to move ahead, rather than step backward. We could have lost players."
WSU's recent athletic history suggests Sterk acted wisely in picking somebody who appreciates the difficulty of winning in Pullman.
The last basketball coach to succeed in Pullman, Kelvin Sampson, came off the staff of ex-WSU coach Len Stevens. The two who have succeeded Sampson — Kevin Eastman and Paul Graham — were outsiders overseeing a program that is still trying to climb out of a crater.
The athletic director who hired Eastman and Graham was another outsider, Rick Dickson, who flitted to Tulane when he had a chance. His other basketball hire resulted in the misbegotten reign of women's coach Jenny Przekwas, whom Sterk fired in March.
By now, Sterk should be equipped to make the tough call when it's needed. He interned at North Carolina under current Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner John Swofford, he spent three years as ticket manager and assistant business manager at Maine, where it got so cold at night the shampoo on the bathroom windowsill would freeze in the plastic bottle.
His mentor both at Maine and then Tulane (1990-95) was Kevin White, now the athletic director at Notre Dame.
At Tulane, Sterk was going to be an internal assistant when a death in the department prompted White to switch Sterk to fund raising.
Sterk doesn't strike you as somebody who would be a good glad-hander. He's admittedly shy, almost bookish. But White talked him into it.
"If you like being around people, you can do it," Sterk said. "But I'm not a hard-seller."
Ironically, fund raising is probably where the Cougars most need Sterk to work magic. His message of his first two years to boosters has been a combination of challenge and education; not all of them realize that WSU lags badly behind its Northwest neighbors in athletic donations.
"We don't have the cash machine of Husky Stadium or the Tyee Club," Sterk said.
"But they're starting to support (the program) in that way. I challenge them: 'Here are the facts.' "
Nobody told him it would be easy in Pullman, and it hasn't been. Not that the Price bombshell caught him by surprise, but he might have been alerted earlier if he had gotten the courtesy of protocol from Alabama Athletic Director Mal Moore, who never asked to speak to Price.
"Afterward," Sterk said, smiling wanly, "they asked for forgiveness."
He could be changing coaches in his two most important programs in a three-month period. In his fourth year, Graham presides over a program that is 29-63, and just 7-47 in Pac-10 games entering Thursday night's conference opener with USC.
"We've gotten better," Sterk said, "but we need to get a lot better heading into the Pac-10. I think they'll give everybody a run for their money.
"So we'll see at the end."
Sterk takes the optimist's view that in an uncertain world, Pullman is an oasis, not a liability.
"The USCs and UCLAs of the world don't realize we've got an advantage," he said.
"When 9/11 happened, there was no safer place to be."
A guy from Nashville, say, wouldn't know that as well as somebody from Nooksack Valley.