If these Washington State Cougars are indeed the ones who reach the Rose Bowl at last, they owe a small debt to the last team that had the chance.
And speaking of debts …
Let the record show that three teams turned a profit from the Apple Cup of 1981:
The Washington Huskies, who despoiled WSU’s Rose Bowl romance and booked passage to Pasadena themselves with a 23-10 victory in Seattle;
The Cougs, who ended a 50-year bowl truancy with a consolation invitation to the Holiday Bowl,
And Eastern Washington University, which banked a check for $12,500 from the Cougs, who under college football’s Byzantine TV deal of the day had to pony up a ransom for the right to have the game aired in Spokane.
Times change. Teams change.
In many respects, the 16 years since Wazzu’s last, best hope at New Year’s in Pasadena have been the Golden Age of Cougar football - four bowl trips, eight winning seasons, a rebirth of the rivalry with the Huskies, a quarterback pipeline to the pros.
It’s the setting for a diamond that could be in place by Saturday evening, if the 1997 Cougars of Mike Price fulfill a dreamy destiny.
Jim Walden thinks so, too, but back in 1981 he had a more pressing concern.
“We all knew what the reward would be,” said the Apple Cup’s all-time 2,000-word favorite. “But what bothered me more was that we hadn’t beaten Washington in seven years.
“How can it be a rivalry if one team never wins?”
Walden’s Cougars changed that - but not until the next year.
And the motivation was what they’d been denied in 1981.
“It crystallized things for me,” said Clete Casper, injured in the ‘81 Apple Cup and the quarterback for WSU’s momentous upset in 1982. “I remember coach Walden having us write down our goals before the 1982 season and my only goal was beating the Huskies.
“After what they’d taken from us, I didn’t care about anything else.”
And Walden used that bitter memory to beat UW three times in the next four years.
“For the returning letterman, that game remained in a special place in their hearts,” said Walden. “We talked about it, that we had to get it stopped. They’d taken away potentially the greatest moment in our lives, and for us to accomplish anything in the future, we had to get past Washington.”
In 1981, however, the Cougs had to get by plenty just to get to Washington.
Some of the seniors had come to school in the coachfor-a-day era of Jackie Sherrill and Warren Powers. Others had come in Walden’s first recruiting class and had endured other humiliations (see: Pacific 24, WSU 22). And without wild, narrow victories over Colorado and Arizona State in September, the Cougs of ‘81 wouldn’t have been in the position they found themselves in November.
“I remember sitting around at Taco Time with Brent White and Mark Pleis and Paul Escalera,” said Mark McKay, now a Lacrosse farmer but then a co-captain. “We were 5-0-1 and it just kind of dawned on us as we sat there that we were a pretty good team.
“There was no telling what we could accomplish.”
At 8-1-1 heading into the Apple Cup, it had become obvious. Still, even Walden was a little mystified.
“Do you realize - this is great trivia - that we only threw one touchdown pass that whole year?” Walden said. “One! Cameron Mitchell caught one, after the fact in the loss to USC. Hey, we threw the ball. We weren’t three yards and a cloud of dust. But we won eight games and threw one touchdown pass. That would be like Mike’s team being 9-1 and running for just one touchdown.”
Joked Mitchell, now an administrative judge in Richland, “I kept him out of the record books.”
The Cougs had also done it the way many say you can’t - with a two-headed quarterback. Casper and Ricky Turner were fastball and changeup - or maybe vice versa.
“And we had some of the gooniest birds you’d ever want to know,” Walden said. “I’m one of those coaches who believes you have to have character to win - but that you can’t win without characters. We had ‘em.”
It was all, as Mitchell recalled, “a little bit unreal. We hadn’t played in many big games, but yet we expected to beat them.”
Those expectations took a huge hit when Casper pulled a hamstring early in the second quarter.
“For the first time in my life, I broke loose on an option,” said Casper, a real estate executive and the color man on Fox broadcasts of WSU games. “Usually, it was five yards and a hook slide, but for whatever reason, I put a move on a guy and suddenly I’m looking at the Husky Stadium horseshoe with nobody between me and the end zone.
“Then I felt a twinge and Mark Stewart caught me from behind. On the next play, I popped it.”
Turner, a sophomore, didn’t have his good stuff that day. Just before halftime, UW’s Paul Skansi outdueled Nate Bradley for a pass in the end zone, and from a 10-7 lead the Huskies inched away - helped along by several Cougar turnovers.
The bitterness has lingered.
“You looked across at guys you were close to,” said Mitchell, “and the disappointment was so profound. Not for yourself, but for the guys you played with. You wanted something better for them.”
In that context, Walden asked his players to “act happy” for the Holiday Bowl representatives waiting outside the locker room.
“It didn’t work,” he said.
But in time, the tonic of a trip to San Diego did. Walden turned the Cougars loose early on in search of a good time, with one proviso.
“I remember the great Walden line,” said Casper. “If it isn’t done by 2 a.m., it ain’t getting done.”
But something did get done in 1981, and some of it during a disheartening loss on the green bristle of Husky Stadium.
“Washington State is a difficult place to coach, out of the mainstream of college football,” said Walden, “but from 1981 until now, I don’t know if any program of its kind that has done a better job. They’ve been to three or four bowls, won some big games, been in the Top 25. I’m proud to have had the team that helped kick that off.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review