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Leave Cougars at home

Wed., Oct. 19, 2011

The arguments/positives/rationalizations for Washington State playing one of its Pacific-12 Conference home games on a neutral football field in Seattle have been given a more breathless airing than Demi’s weight loss, and they all ring pretty true.

Well, except the one positing that Wazzu alums residing on the West Side deserve a game there.

Really? Was that IOU included with the aid package, dorm key and directions to The Coug you were issued as incoming freshmen, or was it a guaranteed coupon on the flip side of the diploma?

Surely it is a nice gesture to the Cougar constituency along the I-5 corridor that Saturday’s game against Oregon State will be played at Not-Qwest-Anymore Field, even at the dopey hour of 7:30 p.m. It’s especially nice for those who make the cross-state pilgrimage to Pullman for games more than once a year.

But as Clint Eastwood was heard to growl in the movies, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”

With the exception of last year, the Cougars having been playing annually in Seattle since 2002, but always against the likes of Nevada, Baylor and the Grambling band and not one of the Pac-12 lodge brothers. The productions have ranged from wildly successful at the gate to midding on the scoreboard to antiseptically uncollegiate in atmosphere, but there is obviously a well-considered purpose.

The attendance-challenged Cougs simply can’t draw decently with a six-game home schedule in Pullman. Currently, they can’t draw for even one. That the number inched over 30,000 last weekend for homecoming on a spectacular day against the nation’s No. 7 team featuring the Heisman front-runner quarterback was considered a triumph just short of getting ol’ Crimson behind Corso and Herbie again.

The “Wave the Flag” slogan is one thing. Might want to try “Occupy Pullman.”

Plus, a Seattle game gives the school a week of events and exposure that doesn’t just cater to alums but future students and, ahem, corporate sponsors. And the players get a spotlight moment on an NFL field, not a trifle as a recruiting incentive.

I’m probably forgetting one or two salient points, but here’s one I haven’t heard offered by athletic director Bill Moos:

Moving the game to Seattle will help the Cougars win it.

Growing the athletic program, promoting the university and turning a dollar are admirable and necessary goals. But on Saturday, isn’t the point to win the game?

One of Moos’ old mentors, Sam Jankovich, thinks so.

“I know Bill is doing this for all the right reasons,” said the former Cougar A.D. “But I would never move a conference game out of Pullman now. I think those are the games you have to win.”

There is a little irony here, of course. When Jankovich stepped into the A.D. job in 1976, the Cougars had long been playing games in Spokane, conference and otherwise, and did not stop until after he accepted a job at Miami in 1983. He also presided over moving the USC game to Seattle in 1976, the second time such a thing had been done.

“It was a political problem,” Jankovich recalled. “SC was doing some griping about having to come to Pullman and the disparity in guarantees. It was, ‘You come down here and get $295,000, and we get the bare minimum of $25,000 up there.’ In those days, there was a lot of discussion about whether we were going to be in the Pac-8 or not and SC was rather cantankerous about it all.

“I never felt threatened by it. Washington would never stand by and see Washington State not be in the conference. But it was a way to calm that down.”

In the end, the arrangement didn’t pencil out – the Cougs drew just 37,268 in the Kingdome and lost 23-14 to a USC team that finished 11-1. But the game was a tie with 15 minutes to play, and you wonder if an upset of a team that finished 11-1 might have been more likely in Pullman.

“Teams don’t like to come to Pullman,” Jankovich reasoned. “Your conference games are the most important and you want to play those games at home where it gives you an edge.

“Money is a pressure point, I know. It’s important. But I think winning in your conference is very important.”

It’s certainly not that the Cougars can’t or won’t win in Seattle. It’s that they’re gambling an advantage, without an urgency to do so. Cougar fans will surely outnumber OSU people – but instead of 10-to-1, it’ll be 3-to-1, and with far fewer students and more sit-on-their-hands adults. And chances are it’ll be an even split next year when Moos takes the Oregon game to CenturyLink.

Coach Paul Wulff has been a good soldier in this episode, not that he has a lot of capital to spend bucking the idea.

But in this case, the guy fighting for his job seems like the one who deserves to have the game played where he has the best chance of winning it.

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