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Come blow your horns, Grambling

John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review

Jim Sterk doesn’t have to apologize for scheduling Grambling.

An athletic director’s gotta do what an A.D.’s gotta do. At Washington State, sometimes the duty gets extra difficult, but the fact is Sterk had plenty of company from across the nation to share the scheduling misery this winter, and he made out better than most.

Just the same, if it’s a band Wazzu is selling in Seattle, the Cougs should at least give ticket buyers college credit for music appreciation.

The Cougars formally announced their 2005 football schedule this past week – in Seattle, where exactly one-sixth of their home games will be played. Draw your own conclusions about what portion of the Wazzu constituency is being taken for granted these days.

To confirm what was never a secret, Sterk acknowledged that Grambling State – an NCAA Division I-AA school – will be the Cougars’ opponent for the now-annual Seattle game on Sept. 17. Though it had come to appear that this was a late developing union, Sterk had actually dropped Grambling’s name as a possible 2005 opponent as far back as 2002, when the Seattle concept was just gaining altitude.

Of course, this will be of no comfort to that sliver of the Wazzu fan base which thinks the Cougs should be able – and should strive – to arrange non-conference home-and-homes with, oh, Auburn, Nebraska and Florida State, and win two of the three every year.

As it happens, Auburn, Nebraska and Florida State can’t even do that.

Those three marquee programs are among the many I-A teams who have scheduled I-AA opponents for 2005, though not necessarily for the same reason Wazzu did.

Five other Pacific-10 Conference teams besides the Cougs will play I-AAs this season, as will seven of 12 Southeastern Conference teams. The Citadel has graciously agreed to be fitted for body bags in both Ole Miss and Florida State colors. Nebraska is bringing in Maine, which played some footsy with the Cougs earlier. Of last year’s Top 25 teams, at least nine have booked I-AA opponents for 2005.

The NCAA, in enforcing its curious and arbitrary scheduling and attendance requirements for I-A membership, has unwittingly made it tougher for its BCS members to goose their strength of schedule. To qualify for I-A status, a school must play at least five home games.

“So the teams that used to travel anywhere and play anybody – like the Mid-American Conference schools, who were trying to make some money – now have to play five home games,” said WSU coach Bill Doba, “so they’re not as willing to make a trip.”

Meanwhile, the mega-programs, which not only can fill 80,000-seat stadiums but must to feed their athletic beasts, remain determined to play seven home games. So there are never going to be enough I-A non-conference games to go around.

“It just makes it mathematically impossible,” Sterk said. “It opens up I-AA teams as a good alternative.”

But another NCAA rule says you can only count a victory over a I-AA toward the six you need to become bowl-eligible once every four years – though Sterk expects that to be tweaked as soon as next year.

A dog chasing its own tail comes to mind, as it does with most NCAA legislation.

Backed into a corner, Sterk probably did as well as he could fishing in the I-AA pond – at least once Oregon beat him to Montana, the only regional I-AA with fans who travel. Indeed, the Grizzlies probably would have brought more customers than any of Wazzu’s previous Seattle opponents – Nevada, Idaho and Colorado.

Grambling won’t “travel,” either, but it has an entirely different appeal.

In a football context, Grambling is the Notre Dame of historically black universities thanks largely to the hand of the now-retired Eddie Robinson – but it’s been even more successful in the 2000s. Under first Doug Williams and now Melvin Spears, the Tigers are 46-14 this decade, with three Southwestern Athletic Conference championships. They have, however, lost their two ventures against I-A foes, 52-0 to Louisville and 29-0 to San Jose State. The last time the Tigers beat a I-A opponent was 1985, though Oregon State barely qualified in those days.

And, yes, there’s that band.

Sterk didn’t take a breath Friday between announcing the opponent and touting the Tigers’ zillion-member band, which will perform in a special “fifth quarter” after the game. The showmanship of the Grambling drumline is remarkable enough to have inspired Hollywood to make a buck off it – and two years ago when San Jose State imported it to play, the Spartans drew a sellout crowd three times bigger than its normal crowd of 10,000 or so.

“I would be surprised if Qwest Field is not sold out Sept. 17,” Sterk said.

If he says so. But if it is, it’ll be high school band kids cruising the concourses, wondering what’s taking the boring football game so long to get over and the real show to start.

There is something amusing about all this, considering that the Seattle game was originally designed to give Coug alums a rallying point in an area where so many of them – 35 percent or more – live. The general attendance success WSU has had its first three tries at this has suggested it’s no longer the opponent Cougar fans come to see – only Colorado was a “name” school – but now the hook is somebody else’s band? Pity the poor marching Coug horn blowers.

Yet the game has become the centerpiece for so many Coug-related events for the I-5 crowd that president Lane Rawlins has insisted it be carried on every year.

“Our president likes it,” Doba cracked, “and so do I.”

Virtually forgotten in the process are the old subtexts. The Seattle games were supposed to help WSU attract “home” games against bigger name opponents who wouldn’t deign to travel to Pullman. So far, that’s been mostly a non-starter, although it may change.

“This was an abnormal year where we didn’t have something lined up,” said Sterk. “But in the future, we have the potential of Baylor, Utah, Ohio State, San Diego State, teams already scheduled.”

But the first two Seattle games in the current series were also on Labor Day weekend – a fine solution to the traditional problem of students bailing out of Pullman (mostly heading west) and East side fans making a last trip to the lake. Now those students must drive cross-state two weeks later, if they care enough to go – and the Pullman opener gets pushed to a Thursday night, which is unconscionably inconvenient to WSU’s long-distance fans on both sides of the state who have to work the next day.

Maybe an apology is in order, after all.

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