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No sunshine and cupcakes: After filming trio of top-20 teams, HBO will give authentic look at struggling Washington State

PULLMAN – Few people residing in Pullman have benefited from Washington State’s three-game losing streak, the sudden departure of a high-profile defensive coordinator or the dramatic twists that have emerged from both events.

The season hasn’t gone according to plan for the Cougars, but it’s produced more than a few stimulating story lines for a crew of HBO producers and cameramen who’ve been temporary Pullman residents this week while gathering footage for the fourth and final episode of “24/7 College Football” – the latest offshoot of the network’s popular 24/7 sports documentary franchise.

Scene by scene and interview by interview, the cameras and producers on site, and a team of award-winning editors, narrators and writers based in New York, will try to paint a comprehensive picture of WSU’s football program, with a noted emphasis on polarizing coach Mike Leach, for a nearly hourlong segment that will air on HBO at 7 p.m. Wednesday.

Those who can’t watch the live program can access on-demand streams on HBO NOW or HBO GO, and replays will be shown throughout the week.

Members of the HBO crew visited Pullman for preliminary footage and background information during fall camp, a point when the Cougars still had aspirations to compete for a Pac-12 North title. They returned to the Palouse for a Week 2 game against Northern Colorado, when those aspirations were still intact.

“Whenever we’d do a 24/7, we’d go out ahead of time and we’d do sets of interviews, and we meet everyone here and we try to film a game, not just to have it for promo purposes or tease purposes, but to kind of get an idea of what it’s going to be like the day of the game we’re shooting, so everything’s not new,” producer Thomas Odelfelt said Wednesday evening. “So it’s almost like a dress rehearsal in that sense.”

The Cougars are mired in a three-game slump. Their defense is in shambles, their coaching staff has been reshuffled and Leach has enacted a hard social media ban for his players since Odelfelt and his crew made their last trek to the Pacific Northwest.

That hasn’t changed the objective for HBO, which also shipped film crews out to Florida, Penn State and WSU’s last opponent, Arizona State, for the first three episodes of “24/7 College Football.” The show’s mission is to capture an authentic look at each football program, and the people who comprise them, but as its newest subjects face a level of resistance the last three haven’t, WSU, unintentionally, has given the docuseries some healthy variety.

“I also think for college football fans that are going to watch these shows, a week inside and a week leading up to the game, if you’re seeing all these teams that are just rolling and all is well and it’s sunshine and cupcakes or whatever, then that after a while can become a little boring,” said Max Gershberg, another producer who’s been situated in Pullman this week.

Penn State (6-0), Florida (5-1) and Arizona State (5-1) are all top-20 programs in the country. While the fourth team featured in the “24/7” series expected to be in the Top 25 conversation, the Cougars have fallen well short of their goals, intensifying the stakes of Saturday’s home game against Colorado, which will also be highlighted during HBO’s segment on WSU.

“It’s not at all to say we were rooting for adversity here,” Gershberg added. “We were interested to get out here and we were eager to dive into the works, but hopefully this show will reveal a different kind of week, which is a team that has had some tough breaks recently and the season hasn’t gone exactly as they’d hoped to be, but then you get to see a staff and a team of players kind of work through that adversity, which should be interesting.”

“Everyone I think treats us the same and we get the access we want, so, yeah, I think it adds a wrinkle you wouldn’t have gotten otherwise and that we didn’t get with other programs, and I think that’s probably good in the big picture,” Odelfelt said.

This week, Odelfelt and Hershberg are two of the nine crew members who’ve been stationed in Pullman (they’re staying in Moscow, Idaho, actually) to track coaches, players and other staff members through game-week preparation. Early wake-up calls and late curfews have been part of the daily routine as the crew has sat in on morning meetings, evening film sessions and just about everything in between in an effort to humanize the Pac-12 athletes fans usually only see on television.

Cameras visited the residence of prolific quarterback Anthony Gordon, standout running back Max Borghi and reserve linebacker Hank Pladson on Monday. The house pup, Bailey, even got a closeup before the crew followed Gordon, Borghi and WSU’s offensive line to South Fork, a popular Pullman eatery, for their traditional Monday dinner.

“I don’t know how happy the HBO guys were with her coming up close to their million-dollar camera and stuff like that, but Bailey was around having some fun,” Gordon said.

Asked if he tidied things up before the HBO crew arrived, Gordon said, “Oh man, our house is spotless every day. We didn’t have to clean up at all. No, I’m just kidding. We did a little cleaning, nothing too crazy. Max, Hank and I care pretty clean roommates, so it wasn’t too much to clean up.”

Earlier the same day, a parade of cameras walked behind Leach on his usual route from home to work – a “walk/sprint,” Gershberg joked – and the coach complimented them for “being quite spry and quick on their feet, especially for city slickers. So I was impressed by that.”

“These guys had a whole fleet,” Leach said, “but they were probably second only to Brock Huard as far as bouncing up that hill.”

Odelfelt and Gershberg’s team filmed at Penn State two weeks ago while a separate crew handled Florida and Arizona State. About a half-dozen others are traveling to each of the four games, but aren’t necessarily on-site throughout the week. Around 15 HBO crew members will be on the ground covering Saturday’s game between the Cougars and Buffaloes.

Once it’s over, content will be sent back to editors and producers on the East Coast and the team in New York will race against the clock to prepare the hourlong show that will air Wednesday night.

“That’s also the challenge of the people in New York,” Gershberg said, “is trying to take all this fantastic content and access and these moments, and kind of distill them and aggregate them into a way that tells the comprehensive story.”

Besides the recent losing drought, Odelfelt and Gershberg have sensed some stark differences between WSU and the other programs that are being spotlighted in the “24/7” series.

“The place we are here in this kind of quaint, idyllic town in the Pacific Northwest and the stadium and the vibe on campus and then also just inside the football facility, the way things are done,” Gershberg said. “The godfather of the Air Raid offense, Mike Leach, and kind of just the whole tempo of the way the program runs, the day to day, it just seems unique from what we’ve seen at other schools, and I think it’ll be fascinating for an audience to see something that’s a little different.”

This week’s episode, centered around the Sun Devils, revealed more about the relationship between head coach Herm Edwards and special adviser Marvin Lewis; Edwards’ “Pro Model;” the rise of freshman QB Jayden Daniels and wide receiver Kyle Williams’ pursuit of a biomedical engineering degree.

The WSU segment figures to be Leach-heavy – “everything with him is a little different and unique,” Gershberg said, “and in that way it’s kind of matched expectations but perhaps exceeded them” – and Odelfelt hinted that viewers would be getting a glimpse of folks who are part of the everyday operation at WSU, but not visible on game day.

“We’ve been able to really dive into the personalities of some of the players and really see them in a light we didn’t expect, and that’s been pretty cool,” Odelfelt said. “Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is we only have 56 minutes in the show, and we shoot a lot of stuff.”

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