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John Blanchette: Jack Thompson got the ball rolling in our pass-rich history

Thu., Aug. 31, 2017, 4 a.m.

Make your case that there’s been a more quarterback-rich year than 2017 in our football precincts.

From Luke Falk to Matt Linehan to Gage Gubrud to Ian Kolste, there’s an all-conference passer at each of the area’s colleges, every level. Throw in a Pac-12-caliber talent like Coeur d’Alene’s Colson Yankoff atop the high school heap. Over the mountains, there’s Russell Wilson and Jake Browning, headliners both.

So when has it been as good or better? Maybe 2014, what with Connor Halliday having 700-yard games and Vernon Adams Jr. defying both physics and logic and Brett Rypien airing out Albi Stadium. Or 1992, when Drew Bledsoe and Doug Nussmeier owned the Palouse.

And 1985 was a very good year – thanks to an earlier generation of familiar names: Rypien (Mark), Linehan (Scott), and Halliday (Duane). Rick Sloan doing his super-sub thing at Idaho. Rick Worman launching the modern era at Eastern Washington. There was even an option whiz in Gonzaga Prep’s Ron Hawkins.

But this year seems like the proverbial seventh wave and what came before simply momentum to this particular crest. And frankly, this quarterbacking thing has been going on so long hereabouts it’s difficult to remember – or pin down – when it began, and how.

Well, here’s how. It was rooted in something very un-football.

Insubordination.

Track back more than 40 years, to a September Sunday, 1976, in the old Brick House on the University of Minnesota campus, the Gophers lined up against Washington State in front of 31,627 witnesses. The Cougars trail 10-0 in the second quarter when quarterback John Hopkins comes to the sideline with what is later explained as an equipment malfunction – though nothing Janet Jackson-like.

“And I just ran in,” said Jack Thompson. “I was the third-string quarterback.”

Maybe No. 2A. Wally Bennett was more trusted to follow orders and hand off inside the opposing 20-yard-line, but Thompson had done some mop-up work in 1975 and thrown a few passes in WSU’s season opening loss the week before at Kansas.

But he hadn’t been cleared for takeoff at this moment. And instead of following through with the running play coach Jackie Sherrill had ordered up, he checked to – and completed – a pass.

“People said it was a gutsy thing to do,” Thompson recalled. “Well, yeah, but it could have been a real dumbass thing to do.”

Which is pretty much what Sherrill told him when he came to the sidelines, and not in an inside voice. Thompson had a notion he’d be a man without a team back in Pullman, which would require some ‘splainin’ to his dad about how he lost his scholarship.

He could just see the legacy: the Blowin’-it Samoan.

Except that right before halftime, Hopkins threw an interception and hurt his knee chasing down UM’s Orville Gilmore. In the locker room, offensive coordinator Bob Leahy told Sherrill he wanted to start Thompson in the second half, and Thompson responded with a 49-yard touchdown pass to Brian Kelly right away.

Hopkins was back the next week at Wisconsin – but he lasted barely a quarter, Thompson passing for 260 yards in relief.

And so was born the Throwin’ Samoan. Within four years, he’d be the NCAA passing record-holder and see his number retired.

Sherrill would play all sage and insist that he’d been bringing Thompson along slowly to start at home against Idaho, and not risk destroying his confidence against the Big Ten. Thompson had a different feeling: “I don’t think Jackie liked me much,” he said.

But Thompson loved Leahy, “who was really the mastermind. He’d be on the phone with Mouse Davis at Portland State (who conceived the original run-and-shoot offense) and he’d been with the Steelers, so every now and then he’d call Terry Bradshaw, jotting down crazy ideas.

“He’d have the quarterbacks get up and create plays – back when the shotgun was unheard of, when there were no empty backfields. We were doing some things that had never been done and we were moving the ball in big chunks.”

Consider that in 1976, the average NCAA team passed for 124 yards a game – and Thompson 252.

OK, Jack Thompson hardly invented the position around here. Bob Newman, Mel Melin, Dave Mathieson – all had been productive passers under WSU coach Jim Sutherland 15 to 20 years earlier, when his notion of throwing it 20 times a game seemed revolutionary. Ed Goddard had been an All-American three times before World War II, and Gonzaga had been coached in the 1920s by Gus Dorais, who legitimized the pass at Notre Dame throwing to a fellow named Knute Rockne. And at the small college level, Whitworth’s Denny Spurlock was a revelation as the clock struck 1960.

But Thompson’s nickname and style gave the Cougars some cachet, and his numbers put them No. 1 in one measurement, if not the standings. And it’s hard to argue with what’s followed, at WSU and neighboring schools.

Quarterbacks from our little corner of football have been No. 1 draft picks and made 400 NFL starts. They’ve won Super Bowls, Grey Cups, Arena Bowls and national championships, and continued to set records. They have evolved from dropback specialists to double-edged swords – Jason Gesser, Adams, Gubrud – keeping plays and games alive with their feet.

And Wazzu’s quarterback alums sit around and wonder what might have been had they been allowed 650 passes in a season in Mike Leach’s attack.

“Can you imagine Mark Rypien in that system?” offered Thompson, “with his gun and personality?

“You know, one thing we have in common is that we all played pretty boldly – Ryp, Drew, Timm Rosenbach. He wanted to be a linebacker. I have a picture on my desk of Gesser, parallel to the ground and five feet in the air over an Idaho defender. And Luke – remember the UCLA game when he was getting the crap beat out of him and kept coming back.

“As a group, we’re a pretty bold bunch.”

And it started with Jack Thompson putting himself in the game.

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