PULLMAN – A genuine college football environment has been missing in Pullman since Nov. 23, 2019.
It’s been that long since Washington State last welcomed fans for a home game at Gesa Field.
The COVID-19 pandemic cleared the stands in 2020 and the Cougars trudged through a four-game season.
WSU’s campus lacked its usual pep. The Palouse town had an abnormally sleepy fall.
But it’ll be electric this weekend.
When the Cougars stage their season opener Saturday against Utah State, Gesa Field will feature a full-capacity crowd. Traditional game weekend festivities have already started up.
“I’m eager for our kids to get some fans to watch them play,” coach Nick Rolovich said. “I think they’ve sacrificed a lot. I think they’ve grown stronger together. They know the fans are part of their experience. There’s an element of wanting to bring the alums (back) and make the season ticket holders proud.
“It’s definitely bringing some excitement to Saturday.”
Kickoff is slated for 8 p.m. On campus, masks are required indoors and for any unvaccinated individuals.
The Spokesman-Review discussed the return of an ordinary college football season and the atmosphere around town with Cougar players, coaches and fanatics.
A raucous gathering of spectators might provide “an extra push” for the home squad, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.
“If the fans could give us any help in slowing the offense down, it’s great,” edge rusher Ron Stone Jr. said. “Football is a game of inches. If I can get off a half step faster than that offensive tackle, then I appreciate those fans for getting me there.”
As an example of the fans’ impact, Stone thought back to 2018 – when the Cougars hosted Oregon on a magical College GameDay.
It was clear the Ducks were out of sorts on their first possession.
“You could just see that they couldn’t hear the cadence, the snap count, which was really affecting that offense,” he said. “That was something like, ‘Wow, that’s crazy.’ You could feel the vibrations everywhere.
“We love our fans here. I think it’s gonna bring a lot more energy that we missed last year.”
There’s certain to be a memorable buzz at Gesa Field on Saturday when the Cougs run through the tunnel with thousands roaring at their backs for the first time in a couple of years.
But the hysteria won’t start there.
Senior linebacker Justus Rogers is looking forward to the team’s pregame bus ride through campus, which will be bursting with a liveliness that had been bottled up in 2020.
“Traveling from the hotel, just seeing everyone waving their flags, rooting us on from out the window – that’s the biggest thing, knowing everyone is rooting for you,” Rogers said.
Newcomer Cougs performed last year in a scrimmage-like atmosphere. During the season’s lone home game, the seats at Gesa Field were filled with cardboard cutouts.
WSU has pumped in crowd noise and music in various 11-on-11 drills throughout preseason practices.
Veteran Cougars have assumed a teaching role ahead of the opener.
“I was just letting them know, it can be a lot different,” Stone said of the younger players. “You feel the energy in the crowd. Big games, you can barely hear. You’re on the sideline and you can’t even hear yourself think.”
Potential jitters aside, “it’s something really special to be a part of,” he said.
WSU’s players are relieved to be “back to routine,” star tackle Abe Lucas noted.
The Cougs lived in relative isolation last season, with their few Pac-12 games closed to the public and their classes conducted remotely.
“I remember sitting in class the other day, and coming home and having homework. I was just kinda like, ‘I haven’t done this in a year and a half,’ ” Lucas said. “It’s like, ‘OK, we’re back in it, doing this thing the way it should be.’
“Every season presents its challenges. Last year just happened to be a season with more challenges than normal.”
There was a weekly uncertainty about whether the Cougs would take the field at all.
Their home game against Cal, for instance, was called off just hours before kickoff because of COVID-19 issues in the Bears’ program.
Three of WSU’s originally scheduled seven games were axed. They didn’t play any nonconference opponents, or their Apple Cup rivals.
“It’s tough. We play this game of football our whole lives, and for us to only have four games and we see everybody else having 12, it’s like, ‘Ah, come on,’ ” senior receiver Travell Harris said. “At the same time, we control what we can control. We couldn’t really do much about it.
“But we got full capacity now. We’re ready to go.”
Rolovich admitted earlier this week that Saturday’s game will feel “a little bit” like his Washington State debut.
For starters, the Cougar faithful haven’t had a glimpse of his run-and-shoot offense’s full potential.
WSU’s 2020 preseason was limited greatly by the pandemic, so its coach only had time to install so much of his unique scheme.
Rolovich’s first taste of a true game day in Pullman will come Saturday, too.
“That’s something I’m excited to see,” he said, “just because of how people talk about it with such passion. It’s an honest feeling.”
Cougar upperclassmen have told their coach to be prepared for a captivating scene.
“Some of our older players talk about it, ‘You’ve never seen anything like it,’ ” Rolovich said. “It all adds to this great game of college football that we all love to play.”
Offensive coordinator Brian Smith, who accompanied Rolovich to the Palouse from Hawaii in January 2020, is “very eager” to take in the game-day spectacle of this quintessential college town.
“I’ve been here a year and a half and I haven’t gotten a chance to see the stadium full,” he said. “The second-year students and these first-year students have never experienced it either. It’s an exciting time for the school and college athletics.”
WSU’s coaches were met last year with the challenging task of “figuring out different ways to get (the players) to bring juice with them” in empty venues, Smith said.
“Now it’s a different process of preparation,” he continued.
WSU’s coaches will aim to keep their players level-headed in the excitement that’s sure to abound Saturday.
A handful of Cougar fanatics, all season ticket holders, shared their thoughts on what makes autumn months in Pullman special – why they’re glad to finally be back.
“It’s like a reunion every weekend,” said Darren Coonrad, who’s hardly missed a home game in the past 25 years.
Coonrad expressed a general sentiment among WSU followers: “You look forward to that camaraderie.”
Fans from across the state flock to the Palouse for the revelries, which typically begin Thursday. The town’s population balloons each fall weekend as old friends link up.
“It’s a communal, family atmosphere,” 2001 grad Eric Mendel said. “You’re walking the streets and seeing the younger generation do exactly what you did.”
The social, tight-knit nature of Pullman during those three-day stretches has become a major talking point. It’s near impossible to replicate in a larger city.
“It surprises a lot of people. Pullman stands out among a lot of the college towns I’ve been to, and throughout the Pac-12,” said 2012 grad Curtis Klep, a former audio technician for WSU athletics. “I’ve brought a lot of people who have never been to a game and they’re always stunned by the atmosphere.
“Pullman is its own entity. (The football game) is the only thing everyone is doing. There are 30,000 people in town for a game. What else would you be doing?”
Rob Ellsworth, a 1997 grad, echoed the thought, adding that “everything centers around game weekends.”
“In L.A., there’s 50 other things going on other than the (UCLA) Bruins or (USC) Trojans games,” he said. “It’s the same in Seattle or Phoenix.
It’s also worth pointing out how rare it is for a community of this size to house a major college sports institution. According to Medium.com, Pullman is the fifth-smallest Power Five college town in the nation.
“That brings something a little bit different,” said Brandon Chapman, a WSU grad who serves as a city councilman and Pullman’s mayor pro tem. “When you’ve got a city of 200,000-plus people, that’s just not a college town. … I’ve been to a number of them. How many are small, college towns, and have a Power Five?”
With isolation comes a bond. Last fall, Cougar supporters were left feeling empty without the weekly fall tradition.
“We missed it terribly. I can’t imagine what it’d be like (for the students),” 1991 grad Jennifer Dickinson said. “The experience is such a part of emotional advancement. It’s leaving home and meeting people, and so many missed out on that.”
Town, school will benefit financially
Of course, Pullman businesses and WSU administrators are breathing a little easier after taking a big hit last year.
The school has generated an average of about $1.3 million per home game in recent years in ticket sales, Pac-12 expert Jon Wilner reported. Local spending in Pullman can surpass $2 million on game weekends, per 247Sports.com.
The Cougars are set to play seven home games this season.
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