TV Take: Pac-12’s Cindy Brunson, Ryan Leaf make returns to Martin Stadium

Commentator Cindy Brunson chats with former WSU quarterback Ryan Leaf before the start of a game between WSU and San Jose State on Saturday at Martin Stadium in Pullman. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Former WSU quarterback Ryan Leaf chats with a San Jose State coach before the start of a Saturday’s game between WSU and San Jose State at Martin Stadium in Pullman. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Commentator Cindy Brunson reports from the sidelines during Saturday’s game between WSU and San Jose State at Martin Stadium in Pullman. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

When Andy Grammer’s song, “Back Home,” resonated through Martin Stadium Saturday night during the second quarter of Washington State’s relatively easy 31-0 win over San Jose State, it had special meaning for one member of the Pac-12 Network broadcast crew.

Cindy Brunson was back home.

No longer was she sitting in the stands, the former ESPN SportsCenter anchor was on the field, microphone in hand, serving as the sideline reporter, sure, but more importantly to her, representing Cougars everywhere.

Since she graduated in 1996, she’s returned to Washington State often, just not in this capacity with football. Nor had another of the network’s crew Saturday night, analyst Ryan Leaf, making his debut in that role after working the studio show in the past.

They were both rookies, in a sense, but veterans in other ways.

For Leaf, he spent many a Saturday exciting Cougar fans with a right arm that earned him a special spot in WSU history and a ticket to the NFL. For Brunson, as she sat in the student section in the mid-1990s, she had different goals.

“Honestly I just looked forward to talking about the Cougars on a national scene at ESPN,” she said in an interview a few hours before the game began. “That was always my goal.”

It was her goal even when she hosted the aptly named “Talking Sports” on WSU’s Cable 8. One of her guests: Ryan Leaf.

“We go way back,” she said.

After a short stint in the late ‘90s at KHQ – she said she began looking to leave when she wasn’t allowed the time to attend (on her own dime) the 1997 Rose Bowl, as Leaf and the Cougars played Michigan – and another in Portland, she arrived in Bristol in 1999.

“With my agent I said my goal is to get to ESPN,” Brunson related, “and when I get there, I want it in my contract that if Washington State goes to the Rose Bowl, that I get a window of opportunity to fly to that game.”

The agent got the clause. She was at the Rose Bowl when the Jason Gesser-led Cougars played Oklahoma in 2003.

She admits she’s a die-hard Cougar fan, first and foremost, but understands while fulfilling her sideline role she has to subjugate that to the demands of being a reporter, the ethics of which she learned at the then-named Edward R. Murrow School of Communication.

But, as an employee of the Pac-12 Networks, she can be a bit more boosterish when a non-Pac-12 school, like the Spartans or next week’s foe, Eastern Washington, is the opponent.

“We can be a little more, quote, unquote ‘Cougar friendly,’ if you will on this broadcast, because no one wants to see the Spartans beat a Pac-12 team, let alone WSU,” said Brunson, who moved west with her husband, Steve Berthiaume when in 2012 he accepted a job as the TV voice for the Arizona Diamondbacks.

It’s a bit ironic that Leaf was in the booth Saturday night, next to play-by-play voice Guy Haberman, as Brunson was sitting in the SportsCenter anchor chair when word broke of another Leaf arrest in 2012. It was part of the years of trouble Leaf has battled through.

“It was difficult,” she said. “I had to read the report on the air of him getting arrested. … It was heartbreaking. So to go from that, and to see where he is now, and to call him a colleague now at Pac-12 Network, it’s just so wonderful. It makes my heart smile.”

Leaf’s first outing as an analyst was a bit of work in progress, like a rookie quarterback in their first game.

His analysis of the Washington State’s passing game was in-depth, though he sometimes used terms, like “flipper,” that even had Haberman wondering what he meant. But if you wanted to know how a play worked, or didn’t, Leaf had the explanation. He was also willing to criticize questionable calls from everyone connected to the game, including the officials.

His constant use of first names, however, was a little jarring and he did make the rookie mistake of mentioning an on-field interloper. For a first game, though, he seemed comfortable enough to build on it next week.

It must have been comforting for Leaf to work with two long-time professionals Haberman, who was solid on the play-by-play, and Brunson, who added information when needed.

And it’s also a bit serendipitous that Brunson was in Pullman on a weekend when Washington State asked members of the Hilinski family to raise the Cougar flag following last January’s suicide in Pullman of their son and brother, Tyler, who should have been starting at quarterback Saturday.

As a journalist, Brunson matter-of-factly discussed the broadcast plans, explaining the pregame events were going to be shown during the game – the network wanted to wait until other games were finished so everyone had joined the broadcast, she said.

But it never happened in the first half, which was a glaring oversight. After all it was Washington State’s first chance to publicly acknowledged the tragedy in a football setting. Kym and Mark Hilinski, Tyler’s parents, as well as his brothers Kelly and Ryan and others, raised the Cougar flag before the game in an emotional ceremony. We didn’t see it on the broadcast until midway in the third quarter.

The came on the heels of the first mention, when athletic director Patrick Chun joined Leaf and Haberman in the booth and talked in-depth about what WSU has done and is continuing to do concerning suicide awareness.

Washington State also has a Hilinski’s Hope flag that will fly this season, a ribbon on the field for Suicide Prevention Awareness, the No. 3 decal on all WSU helmets and have kept Hilinski’s locker, named the “Locker of Hope.”

Brunson, though, said before the game she would have liked more. Voicing thoughts she said are born of her identity as a Cougar fan, she wishes WSU had opened the game with a missing-man formation, as Maryland did last week for Jordan McNair, a freshman offensive lineman who died during offseason workouts.

While she understands the university’s actions – emphasizing a message of hope and help – and the reasons behind them, she sees as a missed opportunity to give the Cougar faithful a visible chance to show their feelings.

“It’s the first home game,” she said. “The Hilinskis are here. And you can let the Hilinskis know, who, honestly after meeting Mark and his son Ryan at the airport a couple of days ago, they want a little bit more from the university.

“We want to get on our feet and give No. 3 a standing ovation and how much he meant to us and how much we loved him,” she added. “We want the Hilinskis to feel that.”