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Sports >  WSU football

John Blanchette: Greetings from pass-happy Pullman, where airing it out is nothing new

By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

If you need to put a date to it, then Jan. 4, 1976, might be as good as any.

Bob Leahy had been a third-string quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, bridging the gap between Terry Hanratty and Terry Bradshaw for about a quarter and a half on a December Sunday in 1971 before starting a coaching career at the college across town. On Christmas Eve 1975, University of Pittsburgh assistant Jackie Sherrill agreed to become the new head coach at Washington State, and just over a week later he brought Leahy along to run the offense.

Leahy had coached receivers at Pitt, which didn’t leave him much to do but noodle, what with the Panthers handing Tony Dorsett the ball 30 times a game. Sherrill preoccupied himself with defense, though he noted that he’d inherited some promising quarterbacks and receivers. So he tossed the car keys to Leahy with one order.

“Make it exciting,” Sherrill said.

And once Jack Thompson cocked his arm, it was.

“Bob was a cutting-edge kind of guy,” Thompson said, “and this was radical. We went from running the Houston veer to one back and four wides. One game I threw it 61 times. It was heresy.”

And in 1976, for the first time in WSU football history, the Cougars passed the ball more often – 40 times a game – than they ran it. Something was being hatched.

Thompson became the avatar – the Throwin’ Samoan, even now the godfather of a quarterback lineage that has produced No. 1 draft picks and a Super Bowl MVP. And recently Wazzu just closed out a chapter of its romance novel with the forward pass that probed a dizzying extreme.

Now comes a new author and a new chapter – Nick Rolovich and his run-and-shoot offense – continuing the Cougars’ passing legacy in a late-starting season truncated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“But in my biased view,” Thompson said, dialing it back 44 years, “it all started with Bob Leahy.”

Well, yes. And no.

Here’s the thing about the pass at Wazzu: Its impact is both more and less than you probably think, and the progression is by no means linear.

For example, people did start putting the school and the strategy together when Thompson – with that glorious nickname and outsized yardage numbers – gained some national profile.

But the fact is, the Cougars led all NCAA teams in passing as early as 1956, when coach Jim Sutherland alternated Bob Newman and Bunny Aldrich at quarterback and WSU set a Pacific Coast Conference record by airing it out for 206.8 yards per game – at a time when the NCAA average was 85.9.

The Cougs led the nation again in 1960 with Hugh Campbell catching an NCAA-record 66 balls. And one of Sutherland’s later passers, Dave Mathieson, threw for 363 yards in the first Apple Cup by that name in 1962 – a series record that stood for 39 years, impervious to assaults by Thompson and Ryan Leaf and Drew Bledsoe.

But when Sutherland was moved out, ground-and-pounder Bert Clark moved in and the Cougars passed just 14 times a game in 1965. So, as noted, not a linear progression.

In the ’70s and ’80s, Jim Sweeney and Jim Walden were option savants, though even they had years in which their Cougar teams threw it for 200-220 yards a game – and Sweeney was a full-on passing apostle when he resurfaced at Fresno State.

So, truly, the pattern didn’t take hold until Dennis Erickson hopscotched his way to Pullman – having first cemented the pass-most mentality across the state line at Idaho.

Erickson had apprenticed at San Jose State under Jack Elway, but they both cribbed their notes from Jack Neumeier, who’d coached Elway’s son, John, in high school. If the one-back spread offense had a single father, it was Neumeier.

“I just thought at places like Washington State you weren’t going to get the best guys who were just going to knock people around in the Pac-10, in those days,” Erickson said. “If you could spread things out, that was going to be an equalizer – or at least you’d get a matchup that could help you.”

He recalled San Jose State’s game with Baylor in 1980 and forcing the Bears’ great linebacker Mike Singletary “out of the box, making him cover people instead of running it at him.” San Jose handed Baylor its only regular-season loss.

“At first, nobody knew how to cover it,” Erickson said. “We played WSU our first game at Idaho and we get in a trips set with three wide and a tight end and put the back in motion on the first play and nobody went with him.”

Plus, there was kid appeal. Back in the late ’50s, a young Mathieson would see weekly PCC highlights in Los Angeles and fall in love with Sutherland’s attack.

It would be no different for an Alex Brink in the 2000s.

“Washington State was always high on my list of places I’d like to go, just because they threw the ball,” Brink said.

The irony, though, was that the passing numbers under Erickson weren’t outsized. They did crack the national top 10, but in 1988 the Cougars had not one but two 1,000-yard rushers in Steve Broussard and Rich Swinton, and actually ran the ball almost twice as often as they threw.

“But you’re spreading them out to do that,” he said. “Everybody thinks it’s a passing offense, but when you get down to it, you’ve still got to be able to run it.”

The Cougars’ pass-play count began inching up when Mike Price, who’d come to the strategy around the same time as his friend, succeeded Erickson. Still, Price’s best teams – in 1992, 1997 and 2002 – had virtually a 50-50 balance between pass and run calls.

“We may have run it a little more than Mike,” Erickson said, “but he had Bledsoe and Leaf, and those guys aren’t there to hand off.”

By the time Bill Doba had succeeded Price, the Cougs’ identity was well established. Except they were hardly alone.

“I set the national record (for career passing yards) against Arizona that (Florida’s) John Reaves had for seven years,” Thompson said. “My record was broken two years later, and then it seemed like it got broken on an annual basis.”

Not exactly. But in 2011, Houston’s Case Keenum pushed the record to 19,217 yards – or more than 11,000 in excess of Thompson’s total

Everyone has discovered the joys of spreading the field and stretching defenses. Despite the presence of all-conference slingers like Bledsoe, Leaf, Jason Gesser, Matt Kegel and Brink, in the two decades between the regimes of Erickson and Mike Leach, often as not the Cougars were in the middle of the Pac-10’s passing totals.

So along came Leach to rewrite the book – or set fire to it – with his Air Raid attack.

“During my time, we at least tried to have the perception of balance, and we even ran some two-tight end sets and what I would describe as more West Coast-style principles,” said Brink, now the Cougars’ radio analyst. “And that was really driven by (quarterbacks coach) Timm Rosenbach and his experience in the NFL.

“But with the Air Raid, you’re taking the tight end away completely – losing a guy at the point of attack who can affect the run game positively. You’re saying we don’t need this – we’re going to spread it and throw it every down.”

It was hard to argue with Leach’s results – until Apple Cup or bowl time – and in four of the past six years, the Cougs have led the nation in passing yards.

Now Rolovich will roll that back some with the run-and-shoot – still no tight end, but “less concerned about the pass as an extension of the run game and more wanting to get the ball downfield,” Brink said.

But it’s just another step in the evolution. Whether it started with Jim Sutherland or Bob Leahy or Dennis Erickson, one thing’s for certain.

“Over the years, Washington State has created a brand with this,” Thompson said, “and a strong one.”

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