Absent fans speak loudly
PULLMAN –The popular vote was cast here Saturday – well, actually in other precincts, but it was tallied here.
And the Washington State Cougars lost another landslide.
That was true on the field, as well, though at least the 42-10 drubbing administered by the 20th-ranked Oregon State Beavers at least had the feel of an actual contest for a while, and a welcome sensation it was, phantom or not.
More significant were the numbers being compiled in the Cougars’ counting house, where the algebra determined that the attendance at Martin Stadium on this brisk, mostly blue day was 16,167. That, too, was a myth, though one duly arrived at by adding up the single-game paid admits and the season tickets, plus the swipes from the student sports passes.
In reality, maybe half that number actually passed through the gates, the grandstands looking not unlike great-grandpa’s old sweater after being rescued from the moth metropolis in your attic.
Not even opposing tailbacks get to run through holes that big.
Even using the paid figure, it was the worst-attended Cougars game since the 9/11 makeup in 2001 on a Thursday night against Montana State – or, throwing out that asterisk, a November encounter in 1992 against Arizona State, when those discerning Coug fans were turned off by their team only being ranked 25th.
Saturday’s nadir had all sorts of mitigating factors – students having already bolted on Thanksgiving break, a chilly day with rain and snow in the forecast, a second straight November home game on the heels of Dad’s Day. But it all boiled down to this: The people have decided that it is not worth their investment – even if it’s already been made financially – to watch Cougar football anymore.
Of course, there’s an electoral college of sorts, too. That would be the WSU administration, and apparently its endorsement is fully behind coach Paul Wulff no matter how high the outrage or indifference piles up in Cougworld.
On a Seattle radio station last week, Cougars defensive coordinator Chris Ball said the staff has been assured by the administration that it can return intact next season. Athletic director Jim Sterk was sought for confirmation Saturday, but he declined to speak with The Spokesman-Review.
But Wulff’s answer was succinct: “I feel secure.
“We’re building something special here,” he said. “Cougar football is going to be back. There is absolutely no question.”
In his mind, anyway. But obviously there is doubt out there, and frustration, angst and vitriol. The arguments of how it got this bad and why it isn’t getting any better on the scoreboard are dissected each week – which is OK, until it starts being argued in absentia.
“I understand the frustration,” Wulff insisted, “and I’m here to fix it.”
And here comes the disconnect: The fans want to see measurable progress, however incremental, and that seems to be the least of the coach’s concerns.
“Someone was going to have to come here and fix the program,” he said. “We’re doing it and we’re doing it the only way you can do it if you’re going to expect long-term consistency.
“We could sign 20 JC kids and try to get two or three more wins, but winning two games or four games to me doesn’t matter. We’re building something to win seven, eight, nine, 10 games – that’s what we’re shooting for. We’re building something to win a lot of games every year.”
What the fed-up majority cannot bring itself to accept is the idea that this team could have been more competitive this season, even if the win total didn’t change. They have been reminded so often how the roster has been ravaged that they’ve tuned it out, no matter how legitimate the point. Nine players who started the opener against Stanford were unavailable to Wulff against OSU; so were five more who became starters.
On Saturday, exactly 13 scholarship players were available to a defense that played with courage – especially an iron 11 who were out there on nearly every snap between the first and last OSU possessions. Walk-on Easton Johnson, a receiver until three days ago, made 10 tackles.
But as the attendance reveals, these sorts of intangible victories cannot be sold indefinitely – any more than can Wulff’s contention that the youngsters his staff has recruited and signed will fulfill his pledge.
“You ask Coach Levy (receivers coach Mike Levenseller),” Wulff said. “He’s been here 18 years and he’ll tell you the kids we have coming in and committed are as good as have ever come through here. We’re fixing it.”
Problem is, you need fannies as well as faith.