April 16, 2011 in Sports

Blanchette: WSU hopes visit is reciprocated

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Pretty good Saturday afternoon at Albi Stadium. Lines stretched 100 deep at some autograph tables, and waiting at the front was as much face time with a football giant as any 5-year-old could handle. In the parking lot, traffic control was offered without irony. Even walk-ons who can’t move the name-recognition needle posed for cellphone snapshots with dads and undergrads.

Later, on the turf, lots of touchdowns were scored, albeit against the JVs.

And you know, it didn’t seem to matter so much that all those Washington State sweatshirts were a dozen different shades of crimson.

It made a guy wonder: why hadn’t the Cougars done something like this before?

Of course, they had – 10 years ago. And it was a pretty good idea back then, too.

Then either the coach found it inconvenient or the athletic director hadn’t seen an immediate stampede of donors and it was a goner – in much the same way that Christmas break Pac-10 basketball games were shuttled in and out of Spokane at the whim of whoever was the head coach at the time, and promoted as an afterthought.

Not that the caravan headed south on football Saturdays didn’t fickle itself down to a trickle when it felt like it, too.

Though hardly fractious enough for Jerry Springer, the relationship between Spokane and Wazzu athletics has been fitful for three decades now. Problem is, the Cougars need Spokane – or so insists athletic director Bill Moos.

Meaning they have to make Spokane need them back.

Some of that is making nice, which the Cougars did by bringing their spring-concluding scrimmage up to Albi. They were rewarded with a turnout of 4,076, which was nice, too.

Yes, a few hours earlier in Tuscaloosa, Alabama drew 92,310 to its spring game. We said nice, not nuts.

“I thought this was a real positive thing,” said freshman tight end Aaron Dunn, one of several Spokane players who returned to the stadium where they made their football bones in high school.

“It’s getting the product here and showing it to people in Spokane and hopefully it will encourage them to get down to Martin (Stadium) and pack that place.”

This concluded a week of Spokane-aimed functions that began with revealing the new uniforms and color scheme and included assorted auctions and rallies and gentle arm-twisting, the kind of blitz the Cougars really haven’t made here since the days they played actual football games here.

But it wasn’t all kissy-face.

“There are four Northwest schools (in the soon-to-be Pac-12) and three rely on fans driving up to two hours to get to venues,” Moos said. “Two of them are getting it. One isn’t – and that’s us.

“I don’t want to hear about drives.”

Whatever nits there are to pick with that argument, it’s not without logic. But logic never finds a lot of purchase when it comes to sports fandom.

And if Moos doesn’t want to hear about the drive, he will hear about the product – and whether it’s worth the drive. And that message over the last several years has been delivered in silence and will continue to be without marked, and rapid, gains against a 2011 schedule that is front-loaded with momentum builders.

That is to say, winnable games.

“Unless we’re winning,” Dunn acknowledged, “there’s not going to be butts in the seats.”

There wasn’t much way to gauge from Saturday’s exposition whether the Cougs will win or not. With 20-some players sidelined with injuries big and small, the 1s-vs.-2s format was hopelessly inconclusive. The first-string offense looked great – but so what?

“We couldn’t click like that vs. air the first two years, three years,” offered coach Paul Wulff with a sigh.

OK, progress, then.

But you get the feeling that Moos desires some instant, dramatic gains from the Spokane audience (“I think we can draw 4, 5, maybe 6,000 from here”), possibly because he’s seen it before – with Gonzaga basketball, for example, and even the phenomenon of the Spokane Shock (“those are football fans – what are they doing in the fall?”). Yet surely he knows that he’s fighting a different sort of cultural war here; when Wazzu had its greatest stretch of football success a decade ago, the school didn’t capitalize on it and attendance ebbed as soon as the victories did.

“I applaud Gonzaga and what they’ve done,” Moos said. “Once they got there, they found the formula to stay there and reinvest in their success – raising the bar in recruiting, scheduling, visibility on the national stage. And when they went from the hunter to the hunted, they were able to handle that. That’s similar to what we did at Oregon and Montana and we intend to do the same here.”

Good idea. Wish someone would have thought of it before.


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