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Blanchette: Cougars’ bowl history has bloomed enough to erase memories of 50-year drought

WSU’s Destiny Vaeao, left, and Ivan McClennan  dance in celebration after forcing Miami to punt in the 2015 Sun Bowl. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
WSU’s Destiny Vaeao, left, and Ivan McClennan dance in celebration after forcing Miami to punt in the 2015 Sun Bowl. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

As the source of the story was the late Carl “Tuffy” Ellingsen, there’s no possible way it could be apocryphal, so we’re taking it on an open-field run.

The setting was the 1931 Rose Bowl, Washington State warming up to play Alabama. As part of the folderol, the bowl committee and RKO Studios conspired to have a blossoming Hollywood star named Irene Dunne – fresh from her first lead role – serve as a hostess of sorts for the Cougars. Corny pictures were taken, and shortly before kickoff the future five-time Oscar nominee addressed the WSU huddle, telling the players, “We want good sportsmanship. We want good relations between the teams.”

In a 1990 Spokesman-Review interview, Ellingsen – the team’s single-wing halfback – recalled the response:

“One of our guys said, ‘We’d rather have good relations with you, Irene.’ ”

Whoever said it, let’s hope he’s in the WSU Hall of Fame.

Alas, that was pretty much the highlight of the ’31 Rose Bowl for Wazzu, which suffered a 24-0 blitzing – and then waited 67 years to make a better showing.

Circumstances have improved.

On Tuesday, the Cougars make their 13th appearance in a sanctioned bowl game, returning to the Holiday Bowl in San Diego for a third time to play the University of Minnesota.

For a school that arrived late to the modern bowl party and has a one-page resume, the Cougars are getting pretty good at it. They’re in their third game in four years under coach Mike Leach, and if doubters want to chalk that up to bowlflation, let ’em be wrong. Last year, the Cougs played in the 79th Sun Bowl; this is the 39th edition of the Holiday. Both were already established when there were half as many postseason opportunities.

Still, this much is true: No other Pac-12 school has played in as few bowls as WSU’s 12. And among the Power 5 conference teams, only Wake Forest (10), Indiana (10), Rutgers (nine) and Vanderbilt (seven) have been to the postseason less often.

Maybe that’s why the Cougs seem to have more fun when they do go.

But that goes back to the get-go. When an undefeated 1915 season – the Cougs gave up just one touchdown – got them to the 1916 Rose Bowl, the oft-told story is that coach William “Lone Star” Dietz arranged for his men to appear as football-playing extras in a remake of “Brown of Harvard” being filmed at the time. And for a salary, too. Luckily, NCAA gumshoes weren’t so diligent in those days and the statute of limitations has long since been reached.

But after blanking Brown 14-0 and then losing to Alabama 15 years later, 50 years would pass before Wazzu could say yes to a bowl invitation. That their answer had to come on a day they’d lost to rival Washington for the right to return to Pasadena was champagne cut with hemlock, but champagne nonetheless.

Likewise, losing the 1981 Holiday Bowl was less than ideal. But the fun pattern was set – the Cougars coming back from a 31-7 deficit to lose by just two, 38-36. Because look what came next:

The 1988 Aloha Bowl.

The trash talking between the two teams of Cougars – Houston and Washington State – could be heard all the way back to the mainland. The island setting made preparations, uh, casual – at one practice, kicker Jason Hanson glared at punter Rob Myers doing wind sprints and declared, “Hey, that’s about enough running.” Timm Rosenbach ran a motor scooter into a palm tree. Tuineau Alipate, a forgotten figure who’d lost his linebacking job earlier in the season, made the game-saving strip. And after Wazzu prevailed 24-22, tackle Chris Dyko declared, “Even U-Dub has more class than these guys.”

And then the deluge. More than 1,100 yards of combined offense in the Copper Bowl. Those silly swirl pants in the Alamo. The Cougs still wondering where the last 2 seconds went in the 1998 Rose Bowl. Mike Price declaring the 2001 team the best “in the history of the school” after the Sun Bowl – and then, when pressed, admitting, “Hell, I don’t know.” Oklahoma’s Teddy Lehman wondering before the 2003 Rose Bowl if Pullman Washington was the Cougars’ running back.

The sensational Holiday Bowl upset of Texas. The soul-crushing clock management meltdown in New Mexico. The Snow Bowl at last year’s Sun Bowl.

Minnesota’s campus drama has siphoned some of the anticipation from Tuesday’s date. But whatever the game, it’s hard to imagine a Cougar player skipping a bowl game a la Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, no matter the pile of pro dollars at stake. Not if he knows the history of how long it took for the Cougars to become players in the whole enterprise, and how much fun seems to result.

Good relations, if you will.

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