In the flat gray light of winter, it’s almost possible to forget the autumn buzz of a Cougar football Saturday.
Cars snaking down from Spokane across the Palouse hills; the Bob Robertson highlights from past games booming across Martin Stadium during warm-ups; the student section glowing orange in the sunlight.
The band marching down Colorado Street and jamming into the alley between Bohler Gym and the fieldhouse. Drummers pounding out the rhythm of the fight song with the sound of a thousand gunshots echoing in a canyon.
All leading toward the first snap of that weird oblong ball.
All in the name of moving that ball better than some kids from out of town.
As followers of Washington State University football prepare for their last big party of the season - and the biggest in more than two generations - it makes sense to ask a fundamental question: How could a mere game so capture our fancy?
“This is a simple question with an extraordinarily complicated answer,” said Michael Oriard, a Spokane native, Oregon State University professor and former pro player writing his second book on the subject.
Unraveling the mystery is not a purely academic exercise. There is a lot at stake.
Thousands of dollars are being drained from the Pullman economy alone to get local fans to Pasadena. Millions are invested in the WSU athletic program.
At kickoff, more than 40 million people will be watching the ABC-TV broadcast.
For some fans, this Rose Bowl is tinged with mortality. After all, almost none went to WSU’s last Rose Bowl, in 1931, and some fans don’t expect to be around for the Cougars’ next one.
Then there’s the issue of the school’s academic reputation as it hitches its identity to a distinctly nonacademic exercise.
To start sorting out the workings of this beast, let’s first go to the announcing booth, or at least the home of “the” announcer, Keith Jackson.
Reached by telephone, the WSU alumnus and godfather of college football broadcasting talked about a “weekly festival,” a softer, gentler event than professional football, but above all a community event that brings together divergent groups such as band parents and aging alums.
“It’s a legacy,” he said. “It’s the reaching across generations.”
Michigan - whose team he has covered an average of three times a season for 30 years - has the largest group of alumni in the country.
For the last 142 games, they’ve helped pack the Michigan stadium with more than 100,000 people.
“You see three generations every time you go to a game there,” Jackson said. “That’s why they come back. They come from the small towns. They come from the big towns. They come from every kind of ethnicity.
“In Pullman, virtually every community in the entire state is represented in the student body and faculty. The tentacles are out there.”
The community concept echoes across the Cougar faithful, from WSU sociologist and NCAA representative Irv Tallman to Jane Lawrence, director of WSU’s honors program and season ticket holder.
“There’s nothing quite like being in a stadium,” Lawrence said. “Fans from the same institution are rooting for the same team and they are all excited and can identify with the players and feel thrilled when they win and also have the agony of defeat.
“We’re going to the Rose Bowl,” she added. “Not because we couldn’t see this game better on TV but because we want to be with all the Cougars there.”
Adding to the fervor of this game is the storyline itself: WSU, the Cinderella team, defying the traditionally dire preseason predictions to take the Pac-10 championship. WSU, the outsider, potential spoiler of Big 10 powerhouse Michigan’s bid to stay No. 1 in the nation.
“There’s a lot of special interest stories in this game,” said Rick Dickson, WSU’s athletic director.
The self-contained drama of the athletic field has an appeal as old as storytelling itself. It can take much of the credit for the game’s early popularity.
In the 1880s and ‘90s, as the game was being adapted from soccer and rugby, football became extremely popular with a handful of elite Ivy League schools.
The New York press latched on in earnest, as Oregon State’s Oriard documented in “Reading Football: How the Popular Press Created An American Spectacle.”
The game’s popularity spread to the provinces, Oriard said, “and basically everyone was imitating and emulating Harvard, Yale and Princeton.”
Wannabe newspapers followed suit, imitating Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.
Meanwhile, social changes created several niches for football to fill. With the rise of industrialism and bureaucratic, white-collar work, masculinity began to be redefined outside the world of rural, physically oriented work.
“What was necessary to be a man was comparably changing,” Oriard said. “Certain anxieties naturally arise and football, as this virile manly sport that is also highly specialized and highly organized and hierarchical and everything else, nicely meets these needs.”
America was also being urbanized, with the new mass culture blurring the distinctive features of the cultural landscape.
Come the heyday era of the 1920s and ‘30s, football provided a focus of local identity and pride.
“With state universities everywhere, the team somehow belongs to everyone,” Oriard said. “… The football team becomes a way of having a sense of the distinctiveness of one’s own place.”
The game has since taken on what some consider cultlike qualities: special dress, pilgrimages, organized worshipful chants.
“I think it’s ritualistic,” said Gary Funk, author of “Major Violation: The Unbalanced Priorities in Athletics and Academics.” “It’s one of those few vestiges of our youth that we can sort of maintain. For alums and people that haven’t necessarily attended school it’s a way for a weekend to go back to those beer bash weekends of 21. There is almost a religious fervor to it sometimes.”
Which raises a second question: Is it appropriate to have so much zeal over a game at a university?
“This is one of the great dilemmas that universities are constantly facing,” Oriard said. “To put it most simply, they’ve got to manage an operation that on the one hand is part of its extracurricular educational mission and on the other hand is this huge public spectacle. We wouldn’t have problems over eligibility and academically unqualified athletes if there wasn’t this element of public spectacle.”
WSU has heard this before, with NCAA infractions in other sports, past football players occasionally in jail and current players being tagged by Sports Illustrated as having “a better chance of spending four years in the state pen than at Penn State.”
Then there’s this fall’s slogan: “Boycott TV violence - come see the Cougs in person.”
Dickson, the athletic director, pointed out that all of the football team’s 26 seniors are scheduled to graduate.
“I’m as ecstatic that we’ve done both rather than just that we had a team that’s been able to go to the Rose Bowl,” he said. “That’s the even bigger accomplishment in my mind.”
The team’s academic prowess aside, the game has grown too big to stop now.
Some schools - the University of Chicago, the University of Vermont and Seattle University, to name a few - ended their football programs over the years. But you won’t see it happen here anytime soon.
“It’s practicality,” said Sam Smith, WSU president and chairman of the NCAA executive committee.
“We are 80 miles south of Spokane. We’re 300 miles from Seattle. We would not have the visibility or the advertising or the name recognition without the athletic program. We’re not that large a school, but by the very fact that we’re in the Pac-10, we’re known by the company we keep.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo