A Cougar legend died Saturday as new legends were in the making.
Carl “Tuffy” Ellingsen - who as a single-wing halfback ran, passed and kicked Washington State to its last Rose Bowl in 1931 - was 92.
It was a fate leaden with irony, under circumstances bordering on the mythic.
In the room where he drew his last breath, a television set was on, tuned to the broadcast of WSU’s football game with Arizona. A win would give the Cougars a 7-0 record for the first time since Ellingsen wore the uniform himself - a mission the Cougs accomplished in a gripping overtime despite never leading in regulation.
That part, however, Tuffy Ellingsen missed.
“He was aware of what was going on with the Cougars until about a week ago,” reported his son, Don, a Cougar Hall of Famer himself. “We were in his room, holding his hand and watching him and the ballgame.”
Tuffy Ellingsen died at halftime, and his son couldn’t resist a subdued, innocent laugh.
“Maybe if they’d been ahead,” said Don, “he’d have hung on just a little longer.”
Or maybe their success helped him hang on as long as he did.
In any case, there was no selling short the depth of feeling for Washington State in Tuffy Ellingsen - and no suggestion that his devotion stopped there.
Family, education, loyalty - all were prized far more than a college monogram.
They all came together in Spokane at Rogers High School, where Ellingsen landed seven years after his graduation from WSU. He was a fixture at the Hillyard school for the next 33 years - as a coach, teacher and athletic director - until his retirement in 1971.
He coached champions in football - five City League titles in 13 years - and spearheaded the building of Spokane’s first high school fieldhouse, which now bears his name. He watched his three sons quarterback Rogers teams - after he’d left coaching.
“He never said it was by design,” said Don, “but I’ve always thought that was true.
“Everybody always thought he’d be great at telling you all the fundamentals, but the thing I remember hearing from him was to keep my head up after the whistle so somebody wouldn’t cream you. More self-preservation than technique.”
Likewise, his inspirational methods could be, well, subtle.
“The first day I was teaching, Tuffy walked into the cafeteria and sat down with me,” remembered Ken Pelo, who launched Rogers’ successful wrestling program. “He said, ‘I’ve looked at your transcript and see you played a little football. Tonight you help coach the team.’ He gave me a sweatshirt that said ‘Rogers basketball’ on it and a pair of shoes about 10 sizes too big.
“The last week of the season he walked out on the field and said, ‘Oh, I thought I’d let you know, you’re going to coach wrestling.’ I didn’t argue with him.”
In time, Pelo would coach barbed-wire macrame if Ellingsen asked him.
Respect grew with each encounter. Pelo recalled Ellingsen’s visits to the wrestling room, demonstrating moves in suit and tie to teenage novices - and teachers’ lounge discussions on any and all subjects when he was the best informed, most convincing debater.
Wrestling may have been Ellingsen’s closet passion.
He was undefeated as a senior at WSU, wrestling heavyweight at 175 pounds. As a high school freshman in Tacoma, he’d been city champ at 95 - pinning his opponent in the title match in 6 seconds.
It was there that “Tuffy” took root.
“His mother died when he was 4,” Don Ellingsen said. “He was raised a lot by his brothers because his dad was away a lot - fishing, paving roads. He would work with his dad, mixing cement by hand, wheeling it over. He was 95 pounds and could lift 100-pound sacks of cement. That’s where Dad thinks he got the name.”
It stuck in college. Pictures of Ellingsen at WSU make him look like a body builder in an era when there was no such thing. He played first base on the baseball team, guard on the basketball team - even threw the javelin against Idaho when coach Karl Schlademan begged Buck Bailey for a fill-in.
Tuffy took second, by the way.
He met his wife, Virginia, at WSU and in time all three sons would return. They did well on the field and better in the classroom: one would become an orthodontist, two opthamologists.
In fact, of Virginia and Tuffy’s nine grandkids, six are doctors or have doctorates - and the other three are in doctoral programs.
“They always told us to keep your eye on the main event,” Don said, “and the main event wasn’t athletics.”
Still, it was athletics that got Tuffy Ellingsen to the White House - the 1930 Cougs paying a call on Herbert Hoover after knocking off Villanova to go 9-0. A month later, they were in the Rose Bowl.
“We were hoping this year,” said Don Ellingsen, “we’d be able to take him back.”
A memorial service for Carl “Tuffy” Ellingsen is scheduled for Saturday at 10 a.m. at Heritage Congregational Church, 1801 E. 29th.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 photos
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