OLYMPIA – It’s not always easy being a Cougar in a sea of Huskies, but at least you know who your friends are.
That’s the verdict from some far-from-Pullman fans as Washington State University girds for today’s Seattle game, part of a broader push to raise the university’s profile in the Puget Sound region.
“There are 60,000 alums in the Greater Seattle area, so you’re never quite alone in any social gathering. We’re so outnumbered by Huskies fans that there’s an almost immediate bonding,” said Greg Witter, a 1984 WSU graduate who can see arch-rival University of Washington’s Husky Stadium from his Seattle attic window.
Nine years ago, Witter, a cousin and a friend were so starved for Cougar news in Seattle that they launched www.cougfan.com, an all-Cougars news service that he says draws between 5,000 and 15,000 readers a day. The site sells ads, plowing the money into hiring correspondents and photographers.
Cougar fans proudly point to the more than 2-to-1 gap in college-boosting license-plate sales: About 12,400 WSU plates are on the road, compared with about 5,400 UW plates. WSU plates outsell UW even in King County.
“A lot of my friends that are Huskies like to call us crazy,” said Joslin Witsil, who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from WSU – and who’s been regularly attending games since age 3. “I choose to call it ‘passionate.’ “
Take, for example, 2001 alum Darin Hanson, who delayed buying a new car until Dodge made it in a WSU-like shade.
“It gives me an immense amount of pride to have a crimson car in a city of purple,” the Seattle resident said.
And that’s not all. Not only does Hanson have the obligatory sweat shirts, T-shirts and so forth, he also had WSU’s cougar-head logo tattooed on his leg.
“It’s almost ridiculous,” concedes Hanson, who has 36 tickets to today’s game against San Diego State at Qwest Field.
Of similar mind are Bruce and Debbie Lisser, a Mount Vernon, Wash., couple who’ve been following WSU sports for years.
“We didn’t make the Wisconsin game just because we were in Iowa for a wedding,” said Bruce. But their RV trundles over the mountains to every home game, year after year, with a batch of Cougarita drinks on board.
The Lissers have Cougar luggage, a Cougar barbecue, a Cougar tent.
They have a refrigerator full of Cougar Gold cheese. And wine. A watch. A “Go Cougs” arm bracelet.
“I even have a Cougar martini glass,” Bruce said. “If it has something to do with WSU, we have it, I’m quite certain.”
Still, Lisser stopped short of crimson cars or tattoos.
“I can’t remember singing the fight song when the boys were born, so I think we’re OK,” he said.
But Lisser makes it clear that he thinks his questioner – a Syracuse grad – is woefully unqualified to write about something as sacred as Cougar pride.
“You either get it or you don’t,” he said. “Cougs can be adopted, but it takes years.”
WSU has tried to raise its profile on the West Side in recent years, as it heads toward the start of a major fundraising campaign and develops its focus as a statewide organization rather than a single campus. The university has held a series of high-profile events in Seattle, including football games and research presentations, and it bought a Seattle apartment for the president when V. Lane Rawlins was in office.
New President Elson Floyd created a top administrative position for economic development shortly after taking office. John Gardner, vice president for research and economic development, will be based in Seattle.
“Pullman is the home of our oldest and largest campus and is the center of our university’s administration. And that is not going to change,” Floyd wrote in the most recent alumni newsletter.
“But Washington State University has become, by any measure, a statewide enterprise.”
To help spread that message: an army of Cougar fans and alumni, many of whom cite fond memories of the shut-down-the-town nature of game days in Pullman.
“When you’re a student, you take it for granted and don’t realize how unique an experience it is,” said Dennis Paresa, a Seattle business consultant. “I think those four years in Pullman were about the best four years of my life.”
Living in Florida several years ago, he kept his Washington license plates and their Cougar logo.
In Tampa one day, a driver behind him began honking at him and waving her hands. Startled, he pulled into a parking lot, only to find that she was following him. She turned out to be a former WSU track runner, delighted to spot a fellow Coug far from home.
Shortly thereafter, though, tragedy struck. On a trip through Alabama, Paresa woke up one morning to discover his license plates stripped from his car.
“I’m sure they’re at some bar in Alabama, probably on the wall somewhere,” he said.
In what some fans would view as the ultimate test of their parenting, the Lissers allowed their children to pick any college they wanted.
Both went to WSU, Bruce Lisser proudly reports.
“And married Cougars,” he adds.