It’s time once again to spotlight another sorry indicator of higher education’s sad state.
Exhibit A: The Fight Song, also known as the Cougar Fight Song, as in the Washington State University Cougars.
This town may have more than 20,000 people who profess to be elated with the Cougars’ 8-1 season. The Cougar emblem is painted across intersections and crimson-and-gray sweat shirts are selling like Tommy Hilfiger pants.
But when it comes to the acid test of Cougar spirit - the ability to sing the fight song on a moment’s notice - almost everyone flunks.
They don’t just sing out of tune. They flub the lyrics, if they know them at all.
“Usually I’ll sing, ‘La la la la, Washington State,”’ confessed Chris Skidmore of Walla Walla.
Others navigate the original lyrics and bottom out on the recently added ending, “Where you spell W … A … S-H-I … That’s right, there are Cougar fans who have trouble spelling the name of their state.
The Spokesman-Review learned as much this week in its first-ever WSU Fight Song Contest.
The goal was simple: find the best rendition of the 1919 classic. The rules, well, any Cougar will tell you that referees make up the rules as they go along. Why change now?
First, the loser: Rod Commons, WSU sports information director, who flat-out refused to sing.
“I’m not a Cougar,” the Oregon State graduate pleaded. “I don’t have to sing the fight song.”
Perhaps sensing that his remarks would later make the news wires from here to Pasadena, he quickly added, “I’ll tell you how bad I am - they don’t let me sing in church.”
The list of loser runners-up is long.
U.S. Rep. George Nethercutt, Class of ‘66, and Sen. Patty Murray, ‘72, were no-shows.
Pullman clothier Ken Vogel, a 1970 grad, sang, “Rah, rah, rah, rah, Washington State,” then offered up a box of Bavarian Mint chocolates. He insisted it wasn’t a bribe.
WSU President Sam Smith, accused about 10 years ago of not knowing the song, got the lyrics right but would only recite them. He did this over the phone, so there’s no being sure he didn’t have a crib sheet. Asked if he did, he paused for several seconds and said, “No.”
Mike Price, who coaches the WSU football team when he’s not singing jingles with University of Washington coach Jim Lambright, also refused to sing the fight song.
“The only time I sing it is in the stadium after victories,” he said.
Which begs the question: If you sing the song after a win, shouldn’t it be “Fought, fought, fought for Washington State/Won the victory”?
The bright light among the WSU officialdom was Connie Kravas, vice president for university advancement. With a chipper air and, dare we say, husky voice, she got so energetic she dislodged one of her well-coiffed bangs.
But at the line, “Honor and glory we must win,” she said, “Honor and glory we must sing, or win or whatever.”
Students are taught the song during orientation, for what that’s worth.
Nine members of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity couldn’t summon up the lyrics despite a group effort.
“Can you come back in five minutes?” asked B.J. Banks, a freshman from Redmond, Wash.
Several students said they’re used to reading the lyrics as they’re flashed on an electronic cheat sheet - the reader board in Martin Stadium.
Hundreds of students lined up outside the student union Thursday for free tickets to today’s contest against Stanford. Asked to sing the song, only a handful could comply.
“Any key?” said Steven Garrett, a sophomore from Spokane, offering a glimmer of hope.
The embroidery on his shirt betrayed him. He was a member of Crimson Company, the student show choir, which regularly sings a medley of WSU songs. Even then, he forgot to spell out “Washington State Cougs.” Oops. On a second try, he forgot “State.”
“I screwed up, didn’t I?” he said.
Even the most heralded of student interpretations falls short. Tom Tuttle of Tacoma, a ‘62 grad played by John Candy in the 1985 movie “Volunteers,” was seen and heard by millions as he sang the song while hacking through brush for the Peace Corps in Thailand.
But he turned lines like “Win the day for Crimson and Gray” into “Win the game for Crimson and Gray.” And he didn’t even come close to the right melody.
One of the best interpretations belongs to an Oregon State graduate (take a note, Rod Commons).
Craig McMicken, a former city manager for Yakima and Lewiston, is the son of Zella (Melcher) McMicken, a Spokane native credited with writing the Cougar Fight Song lyrics as a class assignment. Fellow music major Phyllis (Sayles) Davis wrote the melody.
“I don’t think my mother ever composed anything else,” said Craig McMicken, 71, who has a copy of the song hanging in his Florence, Ore., home.
Asked to sing, McMicken didn’t hesitate. He said “Born in the West” instead of “Best in the West,” but otherwise came through strong in the spirit department.
He’s first runner-up.
For pure zeal and nerve, the winner of the contest has to be Ryan Cooper, a Pi Kappa Alpha from Davis, Calif.
Standing at the corner of C and Colorado streets here, in broad daylight, Cooper wrapped his less-than-perfect voice around Zella Melcher’s lyrics.
It was a nervy performance, in keeping with the philosophy that you can’t spell courageous without the letters C, O, U and G. “You asked the right guy for the fight song,” he said. “I sing it in my sleep.”
OK, he spelled “Washington” W-A-S-H-I-S on his first take. But when you go looking for excellence, it pays to grade on a sliding scale.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
MEMO: Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. Listen in If you’re having trouble remembering the words and/or melody to the Cougar Fight Song (or if you never knew them), you can hear it sung by WSU student Ryan Cooper, winner of the first annual Cougar Fight Song Contest. Call Cityline, at (509) 458-8800 in Washington, or (208) 765-8811 in Idaho, on a touch-tone phone, then press 9870. Cityline is a free service, but regular long-distance charges apply. A marching band version of the fight song is available on the World Wide Web at http://www.wsu.edu/ NIS/wsufite.snd/ 2. ‘The Fight Song’ Fight, fight, fight for Washington State! Win the Victory, Win the day for Crimson and Gray! Best in the West We know you’ll all do your best, So on, on, on, on! Fight to the end! Honor and glory you must win! So fight, fight, fight for Washington State and Victory! -Words by Zella Melcher
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