PULLMAN – Hannah Wilson, a 20-year-old junior at Washington State, doesn’t typically go to college football games. That’s about to change.
Wilson purchased five WSU hats Friday at The Bookie. She bought them for herself, her parents – who live in Bend, Oregon – and an aunt and uncle from Coeur d’Alene. They’ll wear the hats at the family’s first-ever football game at the Apple Cup this week.
“We bought the tickets a while ago before we knew the team was going to be so successful,” the genetics and biology major said. “We’re all excited. My dad is growing out his mustache for the event. It’s really cool to see our team do well and people come together with support.”
The No. 8 Cougars, who were picked to finish fifth in the Pac-12 North, will host Washington on Friday with a chance to advance to the Pac-12 title game for the first time. Led by graduate transfer Gardner Minshew and his magic mustache, they’re reaching success levels rarely seen in program history.
Washington State’s victory Saturday night against Arizona gave the Cougs their sixth 10-win season; Mike Price coached three of them. The first was his 1997 squad that took on No. 1 Michigan and fell 21-16 to the Wolverines in WSU’s first Rose Bowl appearance in 67 years.
“We are getting back to the excitement like when we went to the Rose Bowl the first time,” said Price, 72, who, along with his wife Joyce, owns a cabin on Lake Coeur d’Alene. “But this one is going to have the magic. I really believe in this team.
“I love their spirit and the character of the team. And the quarterback has been superior.”
The university has taken part in a hashtag campaign on Twitter in an effort to hype Minshew’s Heisman Trophy potential. According to analytics tool Trendsmap, the hashtags #GardnerMinshew and #Minshew4Heisman picked up steam Friday in Western Washington even more than on the Palouse, with many of the tweets coming from Seattle.
Minshew took over a program that was hurting after the loss of quarterback Tyler Hilinski, who took his own life Jan. 16.
Former coach Jim Walden said no one could predict how the team would react.
“They were fighting depression from losing a teammate they all loved,” Walden said. “It’s almost like they are playing above their heads because of Hilinski. They seem to be happy. No players are complaining about not getting the ball. It’s a total team. That caught fire. It’s just been enjoyable for the entire Cougar Nation.”
He credited Minshew’s calm play for the turnaround.
“If we hadn’t had Minshew, they may be fighting for their fourth or fifth win,” Walden said. “I give Minshew that credit.”
While fans stream into Pullman to soak in the success at Martin Stadium, the feel-good team of the Pac-12 North has pushed more donors to give to the program and has provided a boost to local businesses.
Bill Stevens, WSU’s associate director of athletics, said he expects to match last season’s four sellout crowds for home games. In addition, the school has also seen a 28 percent increase, year over year, to the Cougar Athletic Fund, the fundraising arm of the university’s athletic program, Stevens said.
“We set a record last year, and we’re tracking to top that,” he said. This despite news that a controversial tweet by head coach Mike Leach might have led several donors to cancel recurring contributions to the fund.
But it might be weeks or months before the true effect of the Cougars’ strong performance through November is felt by the university, officials said last week. Admission applications aren’t due until the end of January for the school, and ticket sales can be affected by other factors such as holidays, which might have affected this weekend’s tilt with Arizona, as students had already booked flights home for Thanksgiving.
“The challenge is, there’s never sort of a one-to-one correlation for donations,” said Phil Weiler, WSU’s vice president of marketing and communications.
The GameDay effect
Outside the university, there are indications the city of Pullman has been humming with activity during a season that saw ESPN’s flagship college football program, GameDay, broadcast in the predawn hours from campus Oct. 20 before a game against Oregon.
“That was a three-hour commercial for the city of Pullman,” said Marie Dymkoski, who has been executive director of the city’s chamber of commerce for the past 11 years. “We couldn’t pay for that kind of publicity with all the money in China.”
After Lee Corso and the crew came to town, Dymkoski sent out an email to businesses in town to determine what effect, if any, ESPN had on their business. Several firms reported double-digit weekend sales, year-to-year, including apparel store College Hill Custom Threads and Zeppoz, a bowling alley, bar and casino on Bishop Boulevard.
Steven Julian, 27, is the manager of the iconic pub The Coug. He had 100 people at his bar at 6 a.m. on GameDay. Julian said he first came to WSU when the coach was Paul Wulff, who won a total of nine games in four seasons before he was replaced in 2012 by Leach.
“Before, people would come for the weekend, not the game,” Julian said. “Now there is excitement around the game itself.”
One of the areas where a city like Pullman can feel the pinch with those large crowds is overnight accommodations. Dymkoski said there are between 600 and 700 hotel beds available in town, hardly enough to meet the demand of a stadium that seats nearly 33,000 people.
“I think this is an exceptional year,” she said. “No one wants to miss anything.”
Judy Crane has operated Moscow-Pullman Bedfinders, a type of hyperlocal room-sharing company that rents out guest rooms and empty bedrooms from homeowners in the area, for the past four years. She described the week before GameDay came to town as “like pandemonium.”
“We filled to capacity on that weekend. I was almost begging for rooms,” Crane said.
Other weekends aren’t so busy. Crane rents out about 15 rooms in Pullman, and said those are usually full for home football games. It’s rare to fill rooms in Pullman and surrounding towns, she said, but that’s what happened on Oregon weekend.
Harold and Sheila Brunstad, both 74, of Port Ludlow, walked through Ferdinand’s Ice Cream Shoppe decked out in WSU gear, wolfing down ice cream cones.
Harold Brunstad, who has the license plate “Coug1B,” said he remembers when the media picked WSU to finish fifth in the Pac-12 North.
“It’s part of being a Coug,” he said. “No respect.”
Harold’s side of the family has had Cougar season tickets games dating back to the 1950s. He and his son played baseball for the Cougs and have four generations who have watched the football team’s occasional success.
“I can remember years when winning the Apple Cup was all it took to have a successful year,” Sheila Brunstad said. “The GameDay exuberance was unbelievable. … It’s so exciting.”
The couple, who often take two days to travel to and from games, are exploring ways to attend the Pac-12 Championship if WSU can beat Washington this week. A victory in the Pac-12 title game would likely send the Cougars to the Rose Bowl unless there’s a large shakeup among the teams ahead of them in the College Football Playoff rankings.
“I don’t care if we play Alabama for the national championship,” Sheila Brunstad said. “I want to be in the Rose Bowl. That’s always the goal.”