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Former Washington State and Iowa State coach Jim Walden knows life in college football’s small towns

UPDATED: Tue., Dec. 25, 2018, 6:15 p.m.

Iowa State football coach Jim Walden pleads for a call during game against Oklahoma State, Oct. 23, 1993, in Ames, Iowa. Walden, who coached at Iowa State and Washington State, says he already feels bad for the players who lose the Alamo Bowl. (CHARLIE NEIBERGALL / Associated Press)
Iowa State football coach Jim Walden pleads for a call during game against Oklahoma State, Oct. 23, 1993, in Ames, Iowa. Walden, who coached at Iowa State and Washington State, says he already feels bad for the players who lose the Alamo Bowl. (CHARLIE NEIBERGALL / Associated Press)
By Jason Shoot For The Spokesman-Review

Jim Walden will have a rooting interest in both teams when Washington State and Iowa State pair up in the Alamo Bowl.

As such, Walden will not cheer for either football program to win when he watches the game from the relaxed environment of his Spokane home.

“I’m a fan of both places. I have friends in both places,” said Walden, who served as the head coach at the two universities for a combined 17 seasons from 1978 through 1994. “I didn’t want to have to get in the middle of two sides, people wanting to ask me who I’m pulling for. I don’t think I could handle all that. I’ll pull for whoever has the ball, OK? I already feel bad for the team that has to lose.”

WSU (10-2) is seeking an 11th win in a season for the first time in program history. The Cyclones (8-4) finished tied for third in the Big 12 Conference and have won seven of their past eight games to overcome a sluggish start. The game kicks off Friday at 6 p.m. and will air on ESPN from the Alamodome in San Antonio.

Walden, 80, compiled a 44-52-4 record in nine seasons as the head coach at Washington State before stepping down in 1986 to pursue the same post at Iowa State. He guided the Cougars to a Holiday Bowl berth in 1981, a 38-36 loss to Brigham Young that ultimately served as Walden’s only bowl appearance in his head coaching career.

The number of bowl games available to teams has surged markedly in the decades since Walden coached, and he acknowledged that he had other teams at WSU and Iowa State that deserved a postseason nod but didn’t get one.

“I missed out on three,” Walden said. “I had a 7-4 team and two 6-5s that didn’t go. Under today’s present style we should’ve been in four bowls. The one that hurt the most was (in 1983) when we went 7-4 in the Pac-10 Conference. To not get picked to go was pretty much a slap in the face. … It took away from the effort of the players, but it also gave fodder for the schools that would use that against you: ‘You can win seven games at Washington State and not make it to a bowl game.’”

Walden said he sensed he had worn out his welcome with WSU president Sam Smith’s new administration when he resigned as head coach in 1986. He accepted a job at Iowa State, where he struggled to build a consistent winner amidst deeper-pocketed programs like Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas. During the first half of Walden’s tenure, the Cyclones were crippled by scholarship reductions related to NCAA rules violations by the previous coaching staff; Iowa State posted just one winning season en route to a 28-57-3 record in Walden’s eight years.

“They couldn’t wait for me to fail enough for them to fire me,” Walden said with a laugh. “I resigned with four games left to play (in the 1994 season). I wanted to get out of the way because we just literally did not get it done. It wasn’t rocket science.”

Walden praised WSU coach Mike Leach and Iowa State’s Matt Campbell for their teams’ success this season. Walden knows better than most what challenges the two coaches face trying to build programs that win every year, particularly in small college towns like Pullman and Ames, Iowa.

“When you call a (top) recruit and say you’re from Iowa State or Washington State, he doesn’t exactly jump for joy,” Walden said. “You have to get used to that. But you set it aside, and you plead your case. You have to get these young men to listen to you and tell them what is good about your community. Small towns are good for you. They get you out of the ’hood.

“… The biggest problem is getting their attention to start with and getting your foot in the door, getting a kid on campus to see it. That’s the hard part.”

More important than securing four-and five-star recruits, Walden said, is finding players who best fit the team and the school. That, he noted, is where Campbell and Leach have excelled.

“They’re both doing a marvelous job getting the word out,” Walden said, “and getting players to listen to what they have to sell.”

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