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John Blanchette: ‘Positive stubbornness’ allowed Sam Jankovich to reshape Washington State athletics

UPDATED: Wed., Oct. 30, 2019

Washington State had just swept Stanford and Cal on the road, and spirits were still high on Sunday morning as the basketball team boarded its flight at SFO.

The line in the Jetway slowed and then stopped, and George Raveling shifted the massive stack of newspapers he was cradling from one arm to the other. A fan waiting a few steps ahead took the opportunity for a little face time with the coach. Congratulations on the wins. Really like this Ehlo kid.

And eventually he dropped the hammer.

“You know, WSU would be going places if you had a different athletic director,” the fan said.

“That’s an interesting thought,” said Raveling, his eyes lighting up as he turned his head slightly to look at another man standing next to him.

Sam Jankovich. WSU’s athletic director.

For the next couple of minutes, Mr. Clueless Coug Fan railed on about Jankovich, whom he obviously did not know, while Raveling egged him on without ever actually agreeing with him – silently needling his boss with a barely detectable smirk.

Steam could be seen beginning to escape from Jankovich’s ears just about the time the line started moving again and the fan moved on.

“You SOB,” Jankovich growled to the coach.

The next year, Raveling sought out Jankovich at the Final Four in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to tell him he’d accepted the job at Iowa.

“Hardest thing I had to do,” Raveling said Wednesday. “He started crying and I started crying.”

This was some – but not the sum – of Sam Jankovich, who died in his sleep early Wednesday morning at the age of 85. Sometimes brusque, often polarizing, combustible, fiercely loyal. Also wise counsel and enduring friend.

And absolutely the right man at the right time for Washington State.

His determination in the late 1970s to expand Martin Stadium, requiring relocation of both the track and baseball facilities, and ditching Spokane as a site for home games – in particular the Apple Cup – was a pivot point in Wazzu history.

“Working his butt off, he changed the whole face of Cougar football,” said Jim Walden, whom Jankovich hired in 1977 to stop the revolving door of head coaches.

“There should be a major plaque on the wall down there because Sam made it all possible. Us old dogs remember, but the young ones should always know that we used to have to get on a bus and drive 75 miles to play our ‘home’ games against the best teams in the conference. He got that changed.”

Naturally, that steamed some Cougar Club donors in Spokane, upset the city landlords who had made a few improvements at Albi Stadium to accommodate the Cougs and riled up the usual critics of everything athletic on campus.

But here’s the thing: Nobody could take the heat like Sam Jankovich.

“He had what I’d call a positive stubbornness,” Raveling said. “When Sam had a vision of something and felt in his heart it was right, it didn’t matter what anybody else thought. Sam was destined to prove you were mistaken about it.”

He probably came by it naturally – the son of a Serbian hard rock miner in Butte, who returned home after college to coach a couple of state championship football teams. Later he joined Jim Sweeney’s staffs at both Montana State and then Wazzu.

“I’m being recruited in the late ’60s and I’d just had a visit from Washington with Jim Owens bringing the whole staff down,” recalled Bill Moos, the former Cougar AD now at Nebraska. “Sam comes in three days later in a ‘courtesy’ car that I swear had eight or nine dents in it. We’re heading down Henderson Boulevard to lunch and Sam runs out of gas! Next thing, this self-thought-of blue-chip recruit is pushing Sam’s dented car a quarter of a mile to the Chevron station.

“But guess where I ended up going to school? He could sell you.”

Former Cougar coach Dennis Erickson got the same treatment when Jankovich, who left WSU in 1983 to become AD at Miami, phoned with an offer to coach the Hurricanes.

“I told him no two or three times,” Erickson insisted. “We’d just gone to a bowl game and I liked where we were headed. He talked about having the chance to win a national championship and sold me.”

And Erickson did indeed win a national title – the third one Jankovich was a part of at Miami.

But it’s not a stretch to suggest that his essence was wrapped up in Wazzu, where his prevailing dichotomies somehow worked. And speaking of work …

“Sam worked day and night,” Walden said. “I’d get so mad at him – he’d call my coaches when they were on the road recruiting at 7:30 in the morning to see if they were still in bed. He wanted to make sure you were working, too.”

Because work was needed.

“It’s an overstatement to call it a ticking time bomb, but that was maybe the most critical time in history for athletics there – people were trying to get Washington State out of the conference,” Raveling said. “He put a saddle on his back and took them into the future.”

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