MOSCOW, Idaho – Bringing a storied team back to campus is hardly new. Schools do it all the time.
Perhaps a truer reflection of the bonds formed long ago in games, practices, in locker rooms and on road trips occurs when former teammates informally reach out and tell each other, “It has been too long. Do you want to get together and go to a game?”
Steve Ostermann, Bill Moos, Chuck Peck and Geoff Reece, members of the 1972 Washington State University football team, will be doing that Saturday when they hold a reunion of sorts on the sideline of the WSU-Oregon game.
The 1972 Cougars had their share of triumphs and subsequent accolades. They emerged from a dark period when WSU won merely seven games between 1966-72 and had its stadium, Rogers Field, destroyed by fire. They knocked on the door of competence in 1971 when they went 4-7, played within 10 points of opponents in five of their seven losses, and upset Pac-8 champion Stanford.
The following season, they were the first team to play in new Martin Stadium, which literally emerged from the ashes of Rogers Field.
Ignited by an improbable 18-17 late-game comeback win against Kansas on the road in their opener, the Cougars went on to a 7-4 season, capped by a thoroughly satisfying second-half rally to beat outstanding quarterback Sonny Sixkiller and the Washington Huskies 27-10 in a memorable Apple Cup in Spokane.
Ten years ago, when Moos was WSU’s athletics director, the team was honored at the WSU-Eastern Washington University game. Members had an opportunity to address current Cougars beforehand, and they took part in the pregame coin flip. Moos noted he won the flip. Forty years prior, as a senior and team captain, Moos had won the initial coin toss in Martin Stadium in WSU’s game against Utah.
“It had a Roman soldier wearing a laurel wreath for heads,” Ostermann said. “Tails was the backside of a center snapping a ball. The charm of the Pac-8.”
“I still have that coin,” Moos told him.
There will be no such formal recognition this time. The four Cougars from 50 years ago will have sideline passes, but there will be no spotlight on their accomplishments. The old anecdotes they recount, the old memories they dredge up, the old friendships they refresh will be for their own enjoyment.
Ostermann, a sophomore All-Pac-8 guard in 1972, was the catalyst for the informal reunion.
“I got homesick for Pullman,” he said. “You can only watch the Cougs on TV so long.”
The 2012 reunion, Moos said, “was tremendously well-attended. But we lost a lot of people since then.”
Former head coach Jim Sweeney died about six months after the reunion.
“The whole offensive coaching staff has passed away,” Moos said.
Standout running back Ken Grandberry died in February.
“We’re not doing this enough,” Moos said. “We’re not getting any younger. We’ve got to make this annual.”
In a conference call this week spanning the Northwest, Peck, a sophomore reserve quarterback in 1972; Ostermann; Reece, a sophomore center; and Moos, began erasing decades and seemed to grow younger with the retelling of each event from a half-century ago.
“I’m reminded I made a mistake,” Reece said. “I let a guy get past me, and he plowed into Charlie. Charlie, I’m really sorry.”
One of WSU’s few losses was a disappointing 44-3 defeat at the hands of eventual conference champion USC at Husky Stadium in Seattle. The Cougars had always played the Trojans tough, Peck said. Getting rolled so badly hurt, but on the return to Pullman, Moos, who could imitate nearly everyone on the team, began entertaining his fellow players with impersonations.
“We lost in a rout,” Peck said. “But I don’t think I ever laughed so hard in my life.”
The four rose to the occasion with reminiscences of their big wins in 1972. They offered equally telling memories of being part of that team that had no score attached. Their era, Moos pointed out, played out against the socially disquieting backdrop of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement. But the Cougars, who were all fifth-year coach Sweeney’s recruits by then, were tightly bonded.
“What I loved about that team is offense, defense, it didn’t matter,” Moos said.
Offensive coordinator and line coach Joe Tlller, who later went on to a successful head coaching career at the University of Wyoming and at Purdue, was fondly remembered, but not because he was a gentle soul.
“I only got Joe for one year,” said Moos, who was an all-conference tackle in 1972. “I thought I was good. I thought I was tough. But I realized real fast I wasn’t either one until he got done with me. He got every ounce of what you had in you, and a little bit more.”
About a week into preseason camp, when everyone’s endurance was beginning to flag, Tiller tightened the screws on executing plays.
“If we did not run it perfectly, Tiller would say, ‘We’ll repeat this drill after practice,’ ” Moos said. “We’d get done with practice, do our wind sprints, lift weights, then we’d come back out.”
“Without Tiller, we were also-rans,” said Ostermann, a three-time all-conference player.
“We were in great shape,” Moos said. “We were not the biggest, Os and I, but we could play so well together we could completely confuse defensive lines.”
They were masters at taking angles to thwart defensive linemen, Ostermann said. He remembers the camaraderie among the football players resonated throughout the entire WSU athletics department.
“The coaches were always helping each other out,” Ostermann said.
When he was a senior, WSU’s men’s basketball coach, George Raveling, helped Ostermann burnish his resume as he headed out into the world. Ostermann said he had included on his resume the fact he had been nominated as an academic All-America.
“Raveling told me, ‘Steve, lose the nominated.’ ”
The memorable ’72 season opening with the win against Kansas on a 2-point conversion at the end of the fourth quarter, featuring a 27-13 victory over defending Pac-8 champion Stanford in Martin Stadium and concluding with the comeback win in the Apple Cup at Albi Stadium in which the Cougars forced six Washington fumbles, blocked a punt, made three interceptions and sacked Sixkiller three times, makes Ostermann think of the current Cougars and their 17-14 win against 19th-ranked Wisconsin.
“It reminds you of the great victories from our era,” he said.
A half-century from now, perhaps some of today’s players will reunite in Pullman, too. Their predecessors from 1972 went on to successful lives. Reece published a real estate magazine. Peck was in the brokerage business, Ostermann had a sales career in Chicago and Moos was an athletics administrator, including serving as athletics director at Montana, Oregon, WSU and Nebraska.
They are all retired now, but the ties they forged on football fields 50 years ago endure unchanged, rough edges and all. Moos is always the senior, the others sophomores.
“All three of these guys, Charlie, Geoff and Steve, have had heart attacks,” Moos said. “Not the old man here.”
And what about a reunion next year?
“We’re not getting any younger,” Moos said.