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This Spring, All’s Green, Even Cougs

Sun., March 29, 1998

This will either be the most scrutinized spring of football in Washington State history, or the least.

Either the Rose Bowl experience has everyone on the bandwagon dying for a football fix, or else the revelers remain too hung over to care just yet.

Either the Cougars turn this singular momentum into an honest-to-goodness movement, or else they don’t.

I feel like a heretic to my own scripture. Spring ball actually matters.

Not that it has to matter intensely.

“Oh, just go ahead and pick us ninth,” WSU coach Mike Price told us the other day, “and we’ll just try to get through these next eight years.”

Spoken like a man with a new contract.

In fact, the Cougs may very well get picked ninth and no doubt will make good use of the motivation (Altogether now: “No one believed in us”). The best football team in school history has morphed into the greenest. At no time in the past 20 years has WSU had to replace more starters - 16 in all, plus the team’s leading receiver and the punter. Twelve of those started more than 20 games; three - Jason McEndoo, Cory Withrow and Shane Doyle - more than 30.

This is not to say that the cupboard is bare, but that there are no labels on the cans.

There are other issues. The quarterback Price expects to be running the show in September - Steve Birnbaum - will still be rehabbing his knee in April. The running back most likely to succeed - Kevin Brown - is still in junior college. There are only three scholarship receivers, and only one who’s ever caught a pass at WSU. Whichever lineman draws the short straw will be the center.

Did we say ninth? Any other year, that might be too high.

But these are the defending Pacific-10 Conference champions.

“There’s going to be a residual effect,” insisted Price. “How far that will carry us, how long the gas tank is going to stay full of that emotion, we’ll find out.”

If nothing else, Wazzu’s Class of ‘97 showed the young’uns that there is no mountain that can’t be scaled. In time.

This expedition would be prudent to set its sights on Rainier and not Everest.

There have never been back-to-back bowl teams in Cougars history, though Babe Hollingbery would have coached a few had the Alamo Bowl existed during the Depression. For the ‘98 Cougars to remedy that will require a karma in excess of even what the ‘97s enjoyed.

The schedule gives them a start.

The Cougars open the season against Illinois, then travel to Boise State and finally return home for another “road” game - that contrivance against Idaho in which the NCAA is allowing the Vandals to cook the books. These are not games to jump-start your heart, but they’re perfect for a team holding auditions at 75 percent of the positions.

Yes, if you happen across one of those infernal chat rooms devoted to all matters Cougar, you’ll see that WSU fans are already taking flak for September’s pastry-only diet. It is what it is, though it is hardly WSU’s fault that Illinois football is drowning in dismal.

Besides, you didn’t see many bowl committeemen giving the Cougs attaboys for taking those beatings at Ohio State and Michigan over the years.

Whatever the Cougars are able to sculpt out of those first three games - and you know what the faithful expect - what they achieve afterward will be far more significant.

Price’s program hardly lacks for credibility anymore. But while it wouldn’t be catastrophic if the Cougars slipped back into the Pac-10’s second division, it would mean so much more if they didn’t. By reaching the Rose Bowl, the Cougars have altered forever a state’s perceptions. They proved big-time college football can be committed on Stadium Way as well as Montlake Boulevard; the next step is to prove it in consecutive seasons.

The Cougars may never win the recruiting war with the neighbors, but already they’re winning more battles. Brown alone is evidence of that.

Of course, there are football schools and then there are football schools. As the Cougar seniors worked out for NFL scouts last week, they ran 40-yard dashes in a narrow corridor of Hollingbery Fieldhouse - saved from having to dodge the crisp volleys of the women’s tennis team by a flimsy net.

“Maybe if we’d won the Rose Bowl,” someone said, “they’d let us use the building.”

Heh, heh, heh.

In any case, it’s not all up to the players. This spring is also the time for the athletic department’s marketeers to bring their efforts up to football’s level. That may be difficult, seeing as the school is in the process of hiring a marketing director. Still, anything has to be an improvement on 1997, when the slogan was something along the lines of, “Any idea how we can sell some tickets this week?”

If they can’t sell them this spring, they never will.

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


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