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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

QB who would be king

With the majority of his course work done, Alex Brink can relax before his final WSU season to play a little

PULLMAN – The names evoke memories of darts thudding into the chests of wide receivers, of wins stirring the hearts of alumni across the state.

Jack Thompson, the Throwin’ Samoan. Mark Rypien, the eventual Super Bowl MVP. Timm Rosenbach, the victor over a top-ranked UCLA squad. Drew Bledsoe, the Apple Cup hero in the snow. Ryan Leaf, the driving force in a return to the Rose Bowl. Jason Gesser, the man who repeated the feat five years later.

Those names, Washington State quarterbacks all, were immortalized last year on a “Quarterback U.” print, honoring the procession of Cougars to gain fame in the pocket.

“You ask any Coug who the top six quarterbacks are, and those six names will come right to their minds,” said 1995 alum Mark Schuster, who produced the autographed print last year. “All those guys have a defining moment.”

In a few months, though, another quarterback will probably surpass them all in almost every statistical category over a career. Touchdowns, yards, completions, attempts – all will likely belong to this new Cougars quarterback from Eugene, Ore.

And yet …

“One of my best memories, we’re walking off the field my sophomore year after we lost to Oregon,” Alex Brink said of a November night in Pullman. “That was our seventh loss in a row, and you’re so broke down after something like that, and it was against Oregon so for me it was even worse. Like I wasn’t just completely broken by that game, I’m walking off the field and I got some guy in the stands yelling, ‘Hey Brink, why don’t you go kill yourself!’ It’s those kinds of things. You don’t forget that kind of stuff.”

Brink has started 28 games at quarterback for WSU. He’s won consecutive Apple Cups as a starter. As a junior, other Pac-10 coaches voted him as the second-best passer in the conference. He’s never missed a game because of an injury. But he has, without question, missed out on much of the adulation and adoration that his predecessors enjoyed.

So much so, that after some internal debate, this year’s football marketing campaign from the athletic department will not focus on Brink, its most obvious star player – at least in part because of fears that the fourth-year starter may not strike a chord with the school’s fan base.

But what’s wrong? Is there anything this 21-year-old can do to at long last endear himself to Cougars faithful? Why haven’t WSU fans latched onto their signal-caller already?

The takeover

One guy is a captain as a sophomore, beloved by teammates and possessing of a skill set that some first-round draft picks can’t match. The decision should be an easy one, it seems.

But it isn’t. Josh Swogger isn’t the quarterback for the Cougars, the team announces. It’s the shorter, skinnier guy standing next to him, Alex Brink.

“I love Josh,” said head coach Bill Doba, who made the call in 2005 along with Rosenbach, his quarterbacks coach. “(Swogger) was a fan favorite. He had good leadership skills, the kids liked him. He was married and had the linemen over to his house, everything. And Alex is a different type of leader. He’s not that type of guy. But he does lead by example with his work ethic and everything else.

“We kept looking at everything, and when we graded it out, the other kid was playing better.”

Brink had started five games already as a freshman, notching his first Apple Cup win in the process. But few guessed that he would still be starting in the fall of 2005, and, for whatever reason, there are still those who haven’t moved past the fact that Brink was chosen over Swogger.

Some of them may have even been in the locker room at the time.

“Josh had been there before Alex and got good relationships with the older guys,” said Mkristo Bruce, a captain alongside Brink last season. “Alex and the young guys had relationships. … There was a little gap there.”

Even still, what could have been a major problem never fully mushroomed into one – largely because of the way the two quarterbacks handled themselves throughout that 2005 season.

“Until you go through it, you don’t really understand it,” said Brink, who brings up the situation as a starting point without prompting when talking about his Cougars career. “But it is one of those things where you’re constantly being so politically correct because it has such an effect on the team. I think I learned very early on what it means to be able to handle yourself in front of the media or all those people that are so scrutinizing you.”

The arm

Brink rolls right and heaves the ball forward, trailing by six points. A 39-yard touchdown pass on this final play will give the Cougars a program-changing win over USC and send the Martin Stadium crowd into delirium.

The ball is intercepted – on the 4-yard line.

“I think fans have been conditioned over the years,” Thompson said. “They’ve seen some pretty strong arms come through the factory, as it were.

“When I think of Alex, again, you’d be lying if you classified him as a strong-armed quarterback, but he’s got a whole lot of other tools.”

As the first true gunner in school history noted, Brink has never been known for throwing the deep ball. In comparison to Swogger, or even current backup Gary Rogers, Brink has always seemed like the less-gifted alternative.

Although the throw against USC isn’t necessarily indicative of Brink’s true ability to get the ball down the field, he has been hit with the “game manager” label that is often handed out like the “crafty” tag on an older pitcher who’s lost his fastball.

“People want to see Gary take a five-step drop and throw the ball 70 yards downfield,” third-string quarterback Cole Morgan said. “He can … I get that. It’s like ‘Chicks dig the long ball.’

“The thing is, in winning football you never throw the ball 70 yards downfield.”

The losses

Somehow, the Cougars manage to fumble the 2006 Apple Cup away and in the process blow their chances at a bowl bid and a return to respectability. It’s an awful loss, and the question is inevitable after a three-game losing streak to end the season. Is the year ruined?

“Look at what this team has done, battling through injuries and giving itself a chance when nobody thought we’d be here to begin with,” Brink said after that game. “People are going to say it’s a disappointment and, yeah, in some cases it is. But tell me before the season if (this) is a disappointment.”

In some circles it was said that the comment was a cop-out. That Brink had decided to settle for mediocrity, a criticism that the quarterback later would call the worst of his career.

More than a year after Swogger had announced his intent to transfer, there was that knee-jerk impulse to be politically correct, coming back to bite none other than Brink himself.

“Sometimes I feel like the way things have unfolded over the past few years, certainly not inside this program, but sometimes people on the outside get the feeling that, well, maybe he’s OK with the way the team is doing at 6-6 or 4-7 or whatever,” Brink said, looking back. “I’m not going to stand in front of (the media) and put down my teammates or the coaches or myself because we struggled at the end of the season. What happened, happened. And it was really unfortunate.”

But if there is a criticism of Brink that lands hardest, it is this: In three seasons he has had ample opportunity to help guide the Cougars to a bowl game, and in that realm he is 0 for 3. In those 28 games as a WSU starter, the team is 12-16.

Above all else, it may be the reason that boos have rained down from fans wearing crimson, why few seem ready to accept Brink’s potential place in school lore. Not just yet, they say.

“He’s gotten a bad rap,” Doba said. “People think – I’ve heard the comments – that he’s not a winner. He lost one or two high school games in three years, so he is a winner.

“There are a whole lot of other people out there, too, and he hasn’t been surrounded by a great supporting cast on either side of the ball.”


Again, though, what is it that Brink can do this season? Is it as simple as winning games, as easy as getting WSU back to a bowl game after a three-year drought?

Or is there something else?

“He just needs to assert himself as the head guy. Get over it,” Thompson said. “Sometimes you’ve just got to say ‘screw it’ mentally, internally. You have to take that attitude. ‘If you don’t like it, that’s their problem. I’m the one that’s there, pulling the trigger.’ “

On that front, Brink appears to have made headway. Even some of the public cautiousness seems to be fading away, as an older, more mature person emerges.

“I really did kind of pay attention to what people were saying, whether it was good or bad,” Brink said. “And it’s not like I didn’t know that, but I’ve really finally come to the realization that either way the praise or the criticism, it’s not going to make me any better. The only thing that’s going to matter is how I feel about myself and how my coaches and teammates feel.”

There too, Brink seems to have made progress. Teammates have come to admire their quarterback’s work ethic and have noticed an increasing willingness to be a vocal leader.

If that isn’t enough for Brink, then it appears that there’s not much more anyone can do.

“I just want him to be him,” Doba said. “I don’t think you can try to act. Acting is a great word. You can’t act. He’s got to be genuine and be himself and just produce. If he produces, everything will be just fine.”

Casting one more glance at the faces of the Cougars legends on that “Quarterback U.” print hanging in his office, Doba wondered if his player belongs with that famed group.

“I think this year will determine whether he does or not,” the coach said. “But those are pretty charismatic people if you look at them. (Guys like) Jack Thompson, they won over the fans’ support. And that’s what Alex will have to do this year to get his mug on that picture.”