‘(My) heart was ripped out by the Cougars.’ Thirteen Washington State fans relive one of the most discouraging nights in program history
Sept. 25, 2019 Updated Thu., Sept. 26, 2019 at 12:08 p.m.
At 49-17, Nick Smith ordered another round of shots.
Smith and seven friends had gathered in Leavenworth, Washington, for a weekend retreat, opting to take in Washington State’s game against UCLA at The Loft, a small bar located on the main drag of the Bavarian-themed village town nestled in the Cascade Mountains.
Seven Washington State alums and Smith’s girlfriend, a Wazzu convert who graduated from Central Washington, had been imbibing Jameson whiskey before switching to vodka and, if Smith’s memory serves him right, “tequila shots (were) thrown in there as well.” The party started at mini putt earlier that day.
As the Cougars began to mount a 32-point lead, and crimson cheer continued to spread through the quaint German watering hole, Smith splurged for another round of alcohol.
“This guy said, ‘Why not me?’ ” Smith recalled. “And I said, ‘Well, it looks like I’m about to win a ton of money, so why not?’ So I bought him one and sure enough, the collapse started to happen.”
Smith made what he figured was a calculated bet, placing $200 on the point spread in a game the Cougars were favored to win by 19 1/2. That money, plus the cash he’d earned from a second-place finish in his fantasy baseball league, would be enough to cover the price of a Gardner Minshew Jacksonville Jaguars jersey.
In the third quarter, with the Cougars holding a huge lead no team could conceivably squander, Smith placed a Minshew jersey in his online cart and completed the purchase from the bar stool.
As his Web order processed, the Bruins started to wake from their season-long slumber.
Two-hundred and 20 miles east, a motivated UCLA team began to chip away. Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s 37-yard touchdown strike to Chase Cota put Smith’s gamble in danger, closing the gap to 18 points at 49-31.
“It’s kind of like basically two games at that point,” Smith said.
But the Bruins kept rolling. The 49-31 score became 49-38, and 49-38 became 49-46. Even after the Cougars replied with a touchdown, the baby blue onslaught continued as Thompson-Robinson scampered into the end zone and Kyle Philips took a 69-yard punt to the house to put UCLA on top.
By the time the clock hit triple zeroes, the Cougars had lost 67-63, giving up 50 second-half points and 622 yards of offense.
The numbers at The Loft Bar and Grill were mighty impressive, too. Smith’s bet cost him $250, and he’d run up another $200 on his bar tab and dropped a few-hundred more on his new Jacksonville jersey.
“At that point, it just feels like your tab doubled and you didn’t even get to have fun with it,” Smith said. “It’s just all the sudden basically having the bartender tell you your $6, $7 shots are now $14.”
Smith’s misfortunes persisted as he rode back to the group’s cabin in the bed of a truck. Somehow, he’d managed to pocket dial 911. The police returned his call and frantically went through the emergency procedure.
He assured them it was a mistake. They responded, “Is someone forcing you to say this?”
Smith reaffirmed, “No, no we’re all good,” before eventually conceding, “(My) heart was ripped out by the Cougars.
“It just felt like everything was in shambles.”
A meltdown of epic proportion took an emotional toll on Smith, not to mention a financial one. But at least others could relate to his misery. Thousands of WSU fans were afflicted by Saturday’s result, and 13 of them took us through a day they only wish to relive in their nightmares.
Mitch Williams was holed up in his New York City apartment, hopeful the Cougars could complete a landmark day for the 2010 WSU graduate.
Earlier, he’d taken his girlfriend, Kim Geddes, Washington class of 2010, to Central Park for a row boat ride. Midway through the float, Williams reached for his drawstring bag, pulled out a small box and cracked it open as the four magic words spilled out of his mouth.
After he slipped a ring over his fiancée’s finger, Williams went back to his bag for another surprise. Grinning, he pulled out an Ol’ Crimson flag as a few friends on the shore snapped photos.
“Somewhere deep in the back of my brain I thought, ‘Well, maybe if we make this official and get married, maybe the football gods will look favorably on this and give my Cougs a break,’ ” he said.
The newly engaged couple found a UW bar to watch the Huskies play BYU, grabbed dinner with friends, then returned home to watch WSU-UCLA. Geddes fell asleep midway through the first quarter, but Williams stayed up for the Bruins’ furious second-half rally.
“I was internally screaming in a nervous wreck but wasn’t able to vocalize it too much,” he said. “I live in a small, probably 650 square foot apartment in New York City, so I didn’t really have a basement to go to, or anywhere I could totally vent my frustrations.”
He was spared the ridicule from his new fiancée, snoozing on the couch, but wondered if he’d made a fatal error by marrying purple.
“The thought definitely crossed my mind as she was sleeping soundly on the couch, looking at her kind of as a, ‘What have I done?’ kind of thought,” he said. “A very light-hearted thought. But definitely still something I laughed about thinking in my brain.”
Minutes after Anthony Gordon fell to the turf, the football dropping with him, Ryan Oliver left his Tacoma apartment and took a walk for fresh air, trotting down to the Puget Sound waterfront, still trying to process the last 4 hours of chaos.
“After the fumble, the 5-on-1 (tackle) that should’ve been called down, I was getting a little anxious and antsy,” Oliver said, referring to Rodrick Fisher’s disputed turnover in the third quarter. “Then they scored and I was like, ‘Damn.’ It just kept getting worse and worse and eventually I was yelling at the TV. I was pretty annoyed, like gee, can our defense not tackle? I don’t want to go through another season of this after improving greatly over the last four years. It felt like a back step almost.”
There was nothing measured about the verbal attacks Oliver directed at his television set. The four-letter words flew out of his mouth every time the Cougars coughed up a fumble or conceded a touchdown.
“Basically profanities,” he said. “Basically all the expletives.”
Oliver, a Tacoma Community College student who hopes to attend Washington State, found some momentary solace in the cool oceanfront air, then went to a nearby convenience store for refreshments.
“(I) took a 5-minute walk,” he said. “Then I went to the 7-Eleven and got a screwdriver and a Slurpee.”
When he got home, Oliver buried his head in PlayStation games, but it didn’t wash away the bitterness and defeat.
“It was dreadful. A feeling of dread,” he said. “I didn’t want to see the rankings on Monday.”
Spokane’s Brendan Quinn reunited with three college roommates and watched the comeback unfold from Martin Stadium, where his parents have been season ticket-holders for 18 years.
During the first half, with the Cougars in control, a WSU fan holding a sign was shown on the stadium’s jumbotron.
“Up on the videoboard, I think it was in the first half they had a lady up there holding a sign and it was something like, ‘There’s a new meaning of Coug’d it. It means winning’ or whatever,” Quinn recalled. “And talk about omens. I hope she went home and burned that sign or something.”
The four ex-roommates went to the concourse at halftime and returned for the second half, sitting in a different configuration than they’d been in earlier. No biggie, at least until things started to go haywire. The quartet quickly returned to the seating order they’d employed in the first half, but their superstitions didn’t matter.
“It was one of those things, came back got a drink, came back and all the sudden things started to turn,” Quinn said. “It was like, ‘If this keeps going, we’re going to have to reshuffle back to normal because this isn’t working.’
“We all wanted to get together and head to a game. It’s a little unfortunate this is the one it ended up being.”
A current WSU undergraduate student, who wished to remain anonymous for this story, was parked at his normal seats in the first row of the student section, located just behind the Cougars’ bench.
When the clock hit zero, he bolted out of the stadium “seething and feeling sick.”
Upon returning home, he made a beeline to his bedroom and decked the large wooden door with his left hand, tearing it off the bottom hinge.
“Then proceeded to chuck everything I could find at my wall,” he said. “Not a hole in the door or anything, just won’t close now.”
In contrast, he maintains the 67-63 upset still doesn’t compare to Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals, when his beloved Vancouver Canucks lost 4-0, conceding the hardware to the Boston Bruins.
“Fourteen years old, (I) was bawling for hours,” he said. “I’ll always say that a small part of me died that night. Super Bowl 49 was bad, too; so was WSU’s loss to Stanford in ’14.”
The student said it took him 4 hours to fall asleep and “I only just regained feeling in part of my left hand,” he confessed two days later.
For the last four years, Chance and Courtney Chaffin have made a mid-September escape to the coast to celebrate their wedding anniversary. But now a few hairy football games have forced them to rethink letting the Cougars crash their special weekend.
“We’re both pretty big WSU fans and you would’ve thought we learned from last year maybe not to bring football into the anniversary weekend,” Chance said. “We haven’t quite learned our lesson yet.”
Last year, while the WSU grads were living in Eugene, they spent their anniversary weekend in Lincoln City, Oregon. While they were driving out to the coast, the Cougars were playing on the road at USC. Radio reception was spotty, but the Chaffins made it to their hotel in time to catch the second half in its entirety.
“I’d thrown my phone across the hotel room and was super upset and my poor wife is just trying to enjoy the weekend and I’m inconsolable, lying face down on the bed,” Chance said. “She’s like, ‘No more football.’ ”
They decided things wouldn’t be as hectic this time with WSU expected to win big, and watched the UCLA game from an oceanside condo in Long Beach, Washington. As the Bruins started to cut into the lead, nerves grew and Courney, usually on the tamer side, began to voice frustration.
“Even she was yelling at the TV to ‘hold onto the damn ball’ as guys were putting it on the turf,” he said. “That’s how you know it’s bad.”
Chance had his phone confiscated this time, but he’d occasionally spike a pillow to the ground in excitement and punt it away when the Cougars fumbled. He eventually retreated to the deck of the condo, where it was raining, to gather himself.
“We spent most of that day out on the coast on bikes and big walks and did a couple hikes to some lighthouses nearby,” Chance said. “It ended up going really well. It would’ve been a nice cherry on top if they could’ve pulled it out, but it wasn’t meant to be.”
Shawn Koszczewski returned to Spokane in the backseat of an SUV, hashing out UCLA’s win while simultaneously working through a warm Coors Light, then a lime-flavored White Claw and finally a blueberry-infused Truly.
“I don’t recommend it,” he said. “There used to be a Grizzly (tobacco) flavor that was berry flavor and it just reminded me of the berry-flavored chewing tobacco. So I would stick to a warm Coors Light over a Truly.”
As Koszczewski walked out of the stadium, he went to use one of the portable toilets located in the Cougville fan area adjacent to Martin Stadium. Koszczewski noticed the sand pit on the far side of Rogers Field and suddenly thought of the football players who’d be running, jumping or rolling through the piece of land famously known as “Leach Beach” as punishment for their 32-point collapse.
“I just said, ‘Those poor kids are screwed,’ ” he said.
Easop Winston Jr’s late fumble was the needle that popped the balloon. As Koszczewski said, “The feeling was the inevitable was about to happen.”
Stuck behind a parade of outbound Cougar fans, Koszczewski had plenty of reflection time between Pullman and Colfax. His mind wandered from one play to the next, occasionally pausing midthought to hear his stomach growl.
“Of course the line from Pullman to Colfax was just miles long,” he said, “and at that point we’re just kind of like, ‘Why can’t there be any food open?’ ”
A few weeks earlier, Ben Gruber, a 2015 grad who’s working toward his Ph.D at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, had introduced his Chilean roommate to American football. On Saturday, the roommate got a lesson in the harsh reality that can be adoring the Cougars.
“As soon as they scored 31, I turned to my friend and I was like, ‘It’s happening again,’ or ‘I’ve seen this before,’ ” Gruber explained. “He was trying to convince me the Cougars weren’t going to blow this, but I somehow started getting that feeling once they went 31, 38, onward.”
By the fourth quarter, the sacred WSU polo Gruber has worn nearly every Saturday since 2015 was stripped off and thrown to the ground.
“I lost the shirt at some point,” he said. “The hat stayed on.”
Gruber is a longtime fan who moved to Spokane as a child after originally moving to Portland from the East Coast. He’s been attending games on the Palouse since the age of 5.
Gruber’s roommate, impartial when it came to this particular battle, enjoyed an offensive marathon that resulted in the third-largest comeback in FBS history.
“I was like, ‘This doesn’t happen. This is a basketball score. This doesn’t happen too often,’ ” Gruber said.
Another anonymous fan watched from a popular Irish bar, Dublin’s, in downtown Los Angeles, surrounded by baby blue shirts and gold-tinged headwear. Her dad attended UCLA and she was raised a Bruin, but the crimson almost seeps through her voice when she talks about the Cougars over the phone.
“Obviously, I am truly a Coug through and through,” she said. “So I walked in right there in the third quarter and it all went downhill from there.”
Seated next to a Bruin and two Cougs, she cringed whenever UCLA scooped up a fumble, causing a wave of loud eruptions from the bar’s population.
“One moment we’re on Cloud Nine and the next we’re flat on our face,” she said. “I’d like to think, you play the hand you’re dealt and you do what you can with what you have. But sometimes what you have is really a bowl of rotten eggs.”
When the final score flashed across the screen, the dispirited WSU fan polished off her beer and ordered whiskey shots.
“I prayed, I hoped, I wished, but nothing happened,” she said. “Lo and behold, we lost and we lost terribly. And it was awful.”
Jeremy Feigen, a 2011 WSU grad who resides in Santa Monica, California, started watching at home with his wife, but she fell asleep as the Cougars grabbed a 25-point lead in the third quarter.
“The next day I told her we lost,” Feigen said, “and she thought I was joking.”
Feigen was there in 2012 when the Cougars wasted a 31-14 fourth-quarter lead against Colorado. He went to the 2013 New Mexico Bowl, when Colorado State roared back from a 45-30 fourth-quarter deficit. And he was still a student when Cal overcame 11 points in the fourth quarter five years ago to notch a 60-59 win in Pullman.
“It’s a lot harder to escape when you’re at the game, so I feel for the people that were there for sure,” Feigen said. “But in my case, I was able to just go to Netflix, try and find something that was going to make me laugh and try to just escape from what just happened.”
Feigen’s show of choice?
“ ‘Caddyshack,’ I guess, softened the blow a little bit,” he laughed.
Nobody was closer to the scene of the crime than Jack McGrath, a longtime Pullman resident who works on the officiating crew. McGrath is on the line of scrimmage for every snap at Martin Stadium, as the self-proclaimed “down box guy.” It’s his job to flash the sign that indicates first, second, third or fourth down.
“My friends say it’s the best seat in the house,” McGrath said. “Well, yeah, except you’re not sitting.”
McGrath, who obtained his bachelor’s degree from WSU in 1973 and master’s ’77, taught in the Pullman School District for 33 years and keeps busy working high school football games when he’s not at Martin Stadium. McGrath’s wife, Debbie McNeil, works alongside him, jotting down the spot of the ball every play.
Although his closet is lined with WSU apparel, McGrath takes a professional approach to his role, “and you don’t get too worried about calls you might have disagreed with or that you agreed with.”
But, when he gets home, McGrath often tries to find television replays, “Then I always pick up the paper the next day to see if it was really true to see if we lost.”
The Cougars and Bruins combined for 130 points and over 1,200 yards, which meant plenty of trips up and down the sideline for the 68-year-old McGrath.
“I’ve got several friends around that know I’m on the crew and they’re watching the game, so they’ll usually text me or send me pictures of their TV or of me on the sideline. They’ll ask, ‘How are your legs?’ ” he said. “… Making the trips up and down the field, I don’t feel it during the game with the adrenaline, but the next day it feels really good to sit in the chair and watch NFL football.”
Paul Rosien and 11-year-old son Brennan made a quick jaunt over to Pullman Saturday. At one point or another, a father needs to introduce his cub to the not-so-glorious side of Wazzu fandom. Brennan got a small taste during the 2018 Apple Cup, and you might say Saturday completed his education.
“He was struggling with the calls,” Paul said. “He was struggling anytime something bad happened.”
When the game ended, Paul turned to his son and said, “You’ve just been introduced to a very painful aspect of being a Coug fan.
“I kind of reminded him of the Coug’d it phrase that was before my time, that we’ve seen more than enough times over the years. Haven’t seen a lot of that lately.”
The two drove to Spokane in silence, then shared more pain Sunday as they traveled home to Seattle, listening on the radio as their beloved Seahawks fell apart in a 33-27 loss to the Saints.
“It was quiet for both games, I think,” Rosien said.
Thank goodness Mark Evers had Bob Seger tickets.
“Unlike many Cougar grads,” the Sumner, Washington, resident said, “I had a great Saturday night.”
The famous singer/songwriter had originally rescheduled his Tacoma Dome concert after having back surgery, then scrubbed his February performance because of weather. Evers found his escape in heartland rock and roll, only pulling his phone out occasionally to keep tabs on WSU
“Bob probably got on at 9, so I was following most of the first half. Then I got comfortable,” Evers said. “Although as a Cougar grad, you never feel comfortable I guess.”
Evers’ mom, a 79-year-old who lives in Redmond, Washington, sent him a text midway through the game, half-heartedly joking that he should make Rose Bowl reservations. A follow-up text later on suggested maybe he hold off.
“It was shocking, but it wasn’t,” said Evers, noting a number of Seger enthusiasts were frantically checking the score as they filed out of the concert venue.
“All of us Cougars have seen this before,” he said, “but I’ve got to believe this is the most shocking of all those games, though.”
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