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‘A lot of characters with character.’ Members of Washington State’s 1997 Rose Bowl team return for 25-year reunion

PULLMAN – Bill Doba’s Friday excursion began at 1 a.m. Pacific Time. There was a 45-minute drive from his lake home in southern Michigan to the regional airport in South Bend, Indiana, a short flight to Minneapolis, a four-hour layover, a three-hour flight to Spokane and a 90-minute drive to Pullman.

Doba, now 82 years old, made it to the Palouse in time for Washington State’s afternoon walkthrough, attended prearranged festivities for the Cougars’ 1997 Rose Bowl team and finally hit a pillow after midnight.

“You’re really a great friend of mine and I can always depend on you,” former WSU coach Mike Price told his longtime friend in front of a crowd of former Cougars letter winners – including almost two-dozen players from the ’97 football team – on Saturday afternoon at the baseball clubhouse adjacent to Bailey-Brayton Field. “He spent 21 hours yesterday getting here and drinking some beer last night watching the poor Huskies get beat.”

Price, Doba, three-fifths of the Fab Five, four-fifths of the Fat Five and a handful of other key figures from WSU’s ’97 squad returned to Pullman 25 years after their historic run to the Rose Bowl, catching up at a pregame party at the baseball complex before taking in the Cougars’ 28-9 win over California at Gesa Field.

Surrounded by former Cougar players, the three coaches – Price, Doba and defensive tackles coach Jim Zeches – teamed up to raise the Ol’ Crimson flag in the east end zone prior to Saturday’s kickoff. The team was honored on the field during the first half and ’97 highlights were displayed on the jumbotron during various breaks throughout the game.

Quarterback Ryan Leaf, unable to attend because of ESPN broadcast duties at Kansas State-Texas Tech, delivered a pregame video message on the jumbotron. Standout linebacker Steve Gleason passed on a few brief words to the group via former teammate Grady Emmerson.

“What makes this team special, I say we have a lot of characters on this football team – a lot of characters with character,” Price said. “All grew up to be wonderful men, wonderful husbands, wonderful bosses, wonderful employees.”

Price held court for 5 to 10 minutes during the pregame festivities, sharing stories and recognizing members of the ’97 team who’ve died since the Cougars played Michigan on Jan. 1, 1998, ending the program’s 67-year Rose Bowl drought. Price named two of those, Dorian Boose and Gary Holmes, before a handful of crowd members offered Leon Bender’s name.

“How can you forget Leon Bender? He had a button he could press that was right in my butt,” Price laughed. “Thank God for the defensive line coaches that kept him around, because I must have kicked him off three or four times.”

The longtime coach singled out Doba, the team’s defensive coordinator from 1994-2002, for restoring WSU’s previously maligned defense, which earned the “Palouse Posse” nickname for its dominant efforts, particularly in 1994.

“The guy that put the ‘D’ back in the word defense. We used to call it ‘efense’ when we first started out there, but Mike Zimmer and Bill Doba came,” Price said. “They changed a lot. In fact one time, the Palouse Posse that year teams averaged 2 yards a carry. Two yards a carry. My God.”

Unable to resist a timely jab at a few of his former running backs, Price added, “That’s like having (Adam) Hawkins and (Jeremy) Thielbahr in the backfield.”

With Shawn McWashington in attendance, Price also recalled a notable quote from the wide receiver following a 41-35 win in the Apple Cup, which clinched WSU’s berth in the Rose Bowl.

“There was a little mist on the field, it started to rain a little bit,” Price said. “(McWashington) somehow was quoted saying, ‘That’s not rain, that’s tears from all the Cougars that are in heaven crying because they’re so happy we finally got to the Rose Bowl.’ ”

McWashington and two other members of WSU’s “Fab Five” receiving corps, Nian Taylor and Kevin McKenzie, returned for Saturday’s reunion. “Sixty percent,” McWashington said, “you’d take that in baseball any day.”

McWashington, Taylor, McKenzie, Chris Jackson, Shawn Tims and former WSU receivers coach Mike Levenseller still keep in touch through a group text message chat exclusive to members of the “Fab Five.”

“We drop comments in there all the time about a variety of different topics and you can see the bond is still there, man,” McKenzie said. “When you do things like that, it just lasts so long.”

There’s a “Fat Five” group text chat, too. WSU’s starting offensive line, consisting of Rob Rainville, Jason McEndoo, Lee Harrison, Cory Withrow and Ryan McShane have stayed tight throughout the years.

“We’d all be arrested if it was shared,” McShane said of the content exchanged in the group chat. “We text probably four to five times per week.”

McEndoo is a tight ends coach at Oklahoma State, so the Fat Five reunited in Boise last season prior to the Cowboys’ game at Boise State.

A few of McShane’s old friends played for Michigan in the late 1990s and never miss a chance to remind him of what happened at Pasadena on New Year’s Day in 1998, but the right tackle still calls the Rose Bowl one of his top life experiences.

“It was the greatest day,” he said. “I tell my wife that it was the fourth-greatest day after wedding and kids and blah, blah, blah. But it was really No. 1.”

From a young age, Steve Birnbaum aspired to play in the “Granddaddy of the All,” watching the game annually as a Southern California native. Birnbaum, Leaf’s backup quarterback in ’97, even camped out on Colorado Avenue to stake a spot at the Rose Parade the year before the Cougars played there.

“I might have spent the night in the gutter,” he said. “Like people do, just hanging out waiting for the Rose Parade. Then 365 days later, we’re playing in it.”

Birnbaum roomed with Leaf in Pullman and the quarterbacks routinely played an older edition of the EA Sports NCAA Football video game. Leaf would use the Cougars and force Birnbaum to play as their upcoming opponent.

“I always had to make sure I didn’t play him too tough on the video game,” Birnbaum said. “Make sure we’d lose.”

With family and work obligations eating up their time these days, many of the ’97 Cougars hadn’t seen each other in person since they left the Palouse 25 years ago, but everything felt comfortable and familiar when they reconvened on Saturday.

“We were almost like a vagabond group of guys, picked toward the bottom of the conference every year,” McWashington said. “Even if you look at that recruiting class, it was eighth in the Pac-10 in 1993. It was just a bunch of guys that came together and had a common goal, just had a great time reaching it.”