Intrigue was hard to come by at the 50th annual Sports Awards Banquet, since quite predictably:
Keynote speaker Bill Walsh managed to remind everyone in attendance how many times he’d led the San Francisco 49ers to victory in the Super Bowl.
Emcee Dennis Hull exhumed his casket of bald jokes and hockey tales.
And the Washington State Cougars won every award short of the Oscar.
Still riding the momentum of their first Pacific-10 Conference football championship and Rose Bowl appearance in 67 years, the Cougars carried off three of the five major awards Wednesday night at the Greater Spokane Sports Association’s affair at the Spokane Ag Trade Center.
The love fest started with a prolonged standing ovation for Cougar coach Mike Price when the head table was introduced and ended with the hands-down Coach of the Year proclaiming, “Let’s go to the Rose Bowl again - this was fun.”
So fun, in fact, that Price didn’t seem to mind having a target on his tie - his new eight-year, $3.75 million contract providing Hull and others with their best material.
“Geez, four years ago I was here and they were going to fire you,” ribbed Hull, making his 11th appearance as emcee. “You must have gotten a lot smarter since then.”
Hull later reminded the audience of his hockey background, noting that brother Bobby is a Hall of Famer and nephew Brett “makes $5 million dollars a year.
“Not as much as you, though, Mike,” Hull teased Price.
Even Price’s quarterback, Ryan Leaf, got in on the act when he accepted the trophy as Amateur Male Athlete of the Year.
“Think I can get a loan?” asked Leaf, still officially a struggling college student until the National Football League makes him a rich man later this spring.
Leaf actually made two trips to the mike - intercepting Cougars guard Cory Withrow before he accepted Team of the Year honors for WSU.
“If it wasn’t for guys like this…,” Leaf started in.
“Oh, now you’re saying it,” Withrow said.
The Cougars left only two of the major awards presented by the Inland Empire Sports Writers and Broadcasters to go elsewhere.
Shelly Bartlett of the University of Nebraska - and formerly of University High School - was named Amateur Female Athlete of the Year, the first gymnast to win since Laurie Bremer won the first female award in 1972.
The lone winner not available to attend was Utah Jazz guard John Stockton, named Professional Athlete of the Year for a fourth time - leaving him one shy of racer Tom Sneva and baseball star Ryne Sandberg. Stockton’s brother, Steve, accepted on his behalf - and Hull took the occasion to draw a connection with his own more famous brother.
“You’re a lot better than John, too, I’m sure,” Hull said.
The evening included a Zippergate joke or two.
“I heard it’s so bad,” Hull said, “that Randy Johnson had to give up his nickname to the president.”
If Hull was a little short on local material this year, it was probably because best source - longtime banquet caretaker Dick Wright - is back in the hospital battling cancer. A banquet crowd of 875 took time to applaud Wright’s service and dedication to the event.
“I visited him this afternoon,” Hull said, “and I noticed they were giving him Lasix. I said, ‘Dick, that’s what they give to horses,’ and he said, ‘I know - I’m in the third race.’ “
While it was definitely a Cougars evening, both Price and Withrow made it a point to mention the considerable accomplishments of the other finalists in the team and coach categories: Eastern Washington’s Big Sky football champs, Central Valley’s state championship football team and WSU’s Sweet 16 volleyball squad.
And Price, who has collected a slew of regional and national honors, seemed most happy with this one.
“You just don’t know how badly I wanted this,” he admitted. “It means a lot to me - maybe more than it should - because you’re my friends.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 5 Color Photos