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Cougar Country Proud

I grew up outside of Denver. I know about football. Check that, I know about the Denver Broncos.

I’ve been in Spokane four years, and the last time I saw Inland Northwesterners get hyped up about anything the way they did with the Washington State Cougars, the 1996 Seattle Mariners were making their miracle playoff run.

But what made the ‘97 Cougs so special was that they represented the other Washington. The one that likes its traffic slower and its nose closer to the ground.

Spokane identified with the Cougs the way cities with pro sports teams identify with theirs.

“People thrive on feeling as though, ‘I’m involved in something larger than myself,”’ said Dr. Mary Dietzen, a psychologist on the North Side.

The Cougars appearance in last week’s Rose Bowl wasn’t just about playing in a game the team hadn’t been to in 67 years.

To many, the team was representing a region often short on self-esteem and paranoid about the way it’s viewed in the national media.

Though Michigan beat Wazzu, 21-16, the Wolverines couldn’t take away the pride Inland Northwesterners felt for the Cougs.

“They brought attention to the eastern side of the state,” said Maggie Devine, who watched the game with her husband, Tom, at Double Dan’s Sports Bar. “It let people know that not only is there a UW (University of Washington), but there is a Washington State University.

“The thing is, WSU alums in Seattle were excited about this too,” Devine said.

Across the way from the Devines were Jamie and Bryant McKinley. The McKinley brothers, who are both blind, wanted to listen to the game in a sports bar to soak up the atmosphere.

“Let’s face it,” Bryant said of the Cougs, “they’re kind of rag-tag rejects who have rallied an entire region together.”

Though the brothers got their degrees from Eastern Washington University, the two men say they have been long-time Cougar supporters.

“There’s an umbilical cord between Spokane and Pullman,” Jamie McKinley said. “People up here may not get down there to see them often, but they still pull for them.”

In the last four years, the biggest national stories in the Spokane area were the crash of a B-52 and a deadly shooting at Fairchild Air Force Base, the trial and conviction of four men who bombed Planned Parenthood and the newspaper as preludes to bank robberies, and an ice storm.

Even the thickest-skinned members of the community had to wonder just what was going on around here.

But this fall, with every Ryan Leaf touchdown pass and Dorian Boose sack, the shadows of negative images and past events gave way to something more refreshing.

“It was a great happening,” said Bob Materne, owner of The Swinging Doors Tavern. “I’ve never seen Spokane rally around anything that was so close to it.”

The tavern was packed on game days.

Dan Jeremiah Jr., who co-owns Double Dan’s with his father, said the Cougars helped increase business by 50 percent on Saturdays.

“Our business is predicated on what the local teams do,” Jeremiah said. “This season was comparable to the Mariners but, still, nobody gave the Cougars a chance.

“This, this was exciting. We had blind men coming in here to listen to the game!”

I remember those four Mondays in Denver after the town’s beloved football team got clobbered in four Super Bowls.

The police department reported increases in domestic violence, and psychologists said they received more calls from patients complaining of depression.

There wasn’t any of that around here at the conclusion of the Rose Bowl.

“They’re winners regardless of the outcome,” Bryant McKinley said. “I feel real happy for the program. They did what nobody expected them to do. In that respect, we’re all winners.”

, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Kevin Blocker The Spokesman-Review