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Sports >  WSU football

Ralph Walter: First stop, ESPN College GameDay – then a ‘remote’ shot at the national title

UPDATED: Tue., Oct. 16, 2018

I was at a wedding reception filled with Washington State University alums Saturday night when news broke that ESPN’s College GameDay was finally coming to Pullman.

In an instant, the room went from I Do’s to Go Cougs. The only thing that could have revved up that party more would have been Lee Corso going all YMCA on the dance floor.

The buzz started shortly after 8:30 that night when ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit popped up in a Twitter video with a short message that concluded: “There’s only one place for College GameDay to go. Oregon at Washington State. We will see you in Pullman.”

As news spread that ESPN was Palouse-bound, phone screens lit up the darkened hall and folks began game-planning for Saturday’s prime-time showdown against the 12th-ranked Ducks.

It was even more fun following the flood of comments on Twitter. There was much speculation over who would be the guest picker (Steve Gleason seemed an almost unanimous No. 1), but mostly it was just Cougar fans rejoicing that they’d finally made it.

And who could blame them? Despite the best efforts of loyal Cougs – after all, the WSU flag, Ol’ Crimson, had famously been flown behind the ESPN College GameDay crew for 216 straight shows – for 15 years, there had been nothing to show for it.

Until now.

Finally, WSU diehards wrote, the Cougs had arrived. Wazzu had reached the pinnacle.

At the wedding, waiting in the beer line, I thought, why stop there? What if GameDay is just the first stop in a long, joyous ride? And on basic cable, no less!

Imagine Saturday’s clash with Oregon turns into a Wazzu rout and suddenly the Cougs vault into the Top 15. Gardner Minshew, the Mississippi Mustache, tosses six touchdown passes. He then follows up a week later with five more TD passes in a convincing win at Stanford. Suddenly, Minshew’s a legit Heisman candidate and the 7-1 Cougars make their move into the Top 10.

Victories at home over Cal and Arizona, sandwiched around a tough road win at Colorado, push Wazzu to 10-1, and suddenly the Cougs are in the College Football Playoff conversation. With the Apple Cup looming, ESPN GameDay announces its return to Pullman for a rare Friday edition.

Behind the mobile Minshew – by now known nationally as Stache Gordon – the Cougs throttle Washington by three touchdowns and finish the regular season 11-1. A revenge win over USC follows the next week in the Pac-12 Championship game, lifting WSU to a No. 4 ranking in the polls – and a Dec. 29 Orange Bowl clash against top-ranked Alabama.

In the ensuing weeks, Cougs are everywhere. Minshew, now the Heisman favorite, guest judges on the Netflix show, “Whisker Wars,” where he serenades a losing contestant with “Let it Grow,” sung to the tune of the hit “Frozen” song (yeah, that’s now in your head).

Coach Mike Leach appears on Travel Channel’s “Ghost Adventures,” offering a tour through Key West’s Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum, just 3 1/2 hours from Miami, where his Cougs are preparing for a Crimson-vs.-Crimson CFP semifinal.

The storylines are epic against Alabama: Among them, recently named Heisman-winner Minshew, who had orally committed to the Crimson Tide before accepting WSU’s offer, and linebacker Peyton Pelluer, who was also pursued by ’Bama this past off-season.

The best storyline, however, turns out to be safety Hunter Dale, who decides to punk the Tide faithful by shaving his head and having Bear Bryant’s plaid fedora tattooed on his dome during a special episode of “Ink Master,” which airs just days before the Cougs’ improbable 31-28 victory.

The win sets up a National Title Championship finale against Ohio State on Jan. 7. The game is a defensive gem, with Logan Tago’s sack of Buckeyes’ QB Dwayne Haskins in the closing seconds securing the Cougars’ 17-14 victory.

At the end of the game, cameras catch WSU defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys and former D-coordinator Alex Grinch, now at OSU, arguing at midfield over who deserves credit for the dominant Cougar defensive line. “Bravo!” Grinch says, patting himself on the back. “Whose line is it, anyway?” Claeys asks as the two are separated.

The Cougs’ national title victory fuels speculation that Leach will leave for the many coaching openings across the country, including Florida State’s, about an hour’s flight from Leach’s home in Key West. Coincidentally, he’s simultaneously having his house remodeled on HGTV’s “Love It or List It.” (At the conclusion of the show, Leach peers into the camera: “We’re going to …” he says with a wink, “LIST it.”) With that, he decides to sell his Florida home, move full time to Pullman and re-up with Wazzu for five more years.

Right around the time I was casting Minshew in a Burt Reynolds biopic, I finally found myself at the front of the wedding reception beer line.

I looked around at the jubilant WSU fans.

Of course, they didn’t need my fancy flights of imagination to celebrate. For 15 long years they had proudly flown their flag and now it had paid off. Let Alabama have its dynasty. For this week, at least, the eyes of college football were going to be on Pullman. And that was enough.

“Another Bud Light,” I said, “and go Cougs.”

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