January 1, 1998 in Sports

Puzzle Pieces Fit Together To Form Picture Of Roses

John Blanchette The Spokesman-R
 

If you had to translate chemistry into a mathematical function, would it be addition or subtraction?

Well, it can’t be answered at least not after examining the 1997 Washington State Cougars.

On the eve of the 84th Rose Bowl game and the first in 67 years to involve the Cougs the most compelling thing about WSU’s most remarkable team remains its crazy-quilt makeup.

Yes, we know if there isn’t a quarterback named Ryan Leaf pulling the trigger, no one is penning paeans to esprit de corps and Cougars aren’t crawling all over the beach like fire ants.

If he ain’t here, ye ain’t here.

Yet even Leaf himself is something of a tribute to the Cougar communion: a headstrong, hyperconfident kid who has made a considerable effort to repress his considerable ego. And it can’t all be in the name of public relations.

The Cougars chafe at being labeled misfits, because the truth is they fit marvelously. But they are the ultimate in jigsaw puzzles, put together from assorted pieces from a dozen different boxes: the former walkons who start, the receivers who weren’t, the undersized, the unrecruited, the academically challenged and, yes, the socially risky.

And what’s been forgotten is all the talent that fell through the cracks.

“You mean the guys who are hating life right now because they’re not with us at the Rose Bowl?” said senior guard Cory Withrow.

Yes, Cory. Those guys.

Turn the clock back a few years. If 1994 was stressful, at least it was successful - the Cougars reaching and winning the Alamo Bowl despite a pronounced emotional split between the offense and defense. But in 1995, the pain remained while the winning disappeared.

Still, that was the year the Cougars coaching staff thought it might just have something. Not only was there a sensational quarterback on site, but there were five talented transfers sitting out - all of them, reportedly, good enough to start.

And two have. Kevin McKenzie and Dorian Boose have made mighty contributions to the best season in WSU history.

But who remembers Paul Mickelbart, James Curtis and Trey Crayton?

Mickelbart, a highly recruited offensive lineman from Everett, had transferred from Notre Dame - but soon decided it wasn’t only that school he disliked, but school period. Crayton, a defensive back, had come from Nebraska and Curtis, a heralded running back, from San Diego State. But neither would stick.

There would be more defections. Two disgruntled part-time starters, offensive lineman Ricky Austin and defensive tackle Darryl Jones, would transfer to San Diego State. And gifted linebacker Phillip Glover split for Utah.

That’s six potential nay, likely starters gone from a team that wound up in the Rose Bowl anyway.

“It’s their loss,” said linebackers coach Jim Zeches. “I mean, I hope everything works out for them and that they’re happy. But it’s like casualties of war. You just have to go on. We worried about it about that long, because you have to be worried about the guys who want to be here.”

Because, really, they are no worry at all.

“Ricky Austin, for instance, has enormous talent,” said offensive line coach Lawrence Livingston, “probably as much as anybody we’ve got. But the thing we tried to instill in him - the intangibles, the work ethic, being the best you can be - he didn’t quite buy into all of that. The guys who remained are guys who bought in, guys you’re not constantly recruiting.”

Withrow was a little more blunt.

“Some of those guys were great players,” he said, “but they were pretty much a cancer in the program. They were nothing but negative. You can’t win games when there’s controversy in the locker room and there’s all this negative talk about the coaching staff and how things are run.

“There’s a difference between not feeling like practicing and making a huge stink and getting everybody riled up and promoting anarchy.”

Still, it would seem to argue against the theory that everything had to fall just right for the Cougars to be at this point - or that you can never develop enough depth at WSU to survive a drain of talent that substantial.

But the fact is, the Cougs survived even more - the graduation of three players into the National Football League. And yet even that, in a way, has worked in Wazzu’s favor. Scott Sanderson was an All-American on the offensive line - the best Livingston has ever coached, he said - but it’s a much better ensemble without him. The same is true of the receiving corps minus Chad Carpenter.

“We had even better talent last year,” running back Michael Black offered. “We had James Darling at middle linebacker, we had aggressive corners, we had Scott Sanderson. But we couldn’t win.

“This year, we’re more versatile. Last year, the receivers were there but Ryan didn’t throw to them. He went to one guy, and that was Carp. This year he’s spreading it around.”

Every program has attrition, losses that must be overcome. The Cougs ran into more before this year when tight end Ivan Mercer was dismissed from the team. But Love Jefferson has emerged in a way no one could have predicted.

“You don’t like to see talented guys leave,” said McKenzie, “but sometimes it’s for the best, even if you don’t see it that way at the time.”

They can certainly see it now, through rose-colored glasses.

, DataTimes MEMO: You can contact John Blanchette by voice mail at 459-5577, extension 5509.

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review

You can contact John Blanchette by voice mail at 459-5577, extension 5509.

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review


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