PULLMAN – The writing’s on the wall.
And on the windowsills and light fixtures. Tables, too.
No matter what’s scribbled – names, graduation years, inside jokes, messages to other Cougs, or just the simple and oft-repeated refrain of “Go Cougs!” – the meaning is more or less the same.
This is the place.
This is the place where Cougs of all kinds – from current students and fans to alumni back in Pullman for Homecoming weekend – leave their mark. This is the place where they make memories and bonds that last a lifetime. This is the place to which they come back again and again with their own children and grandchildren and buddies from their old college crew.
“Every day is Homecoming at the Coug,” said Eric Johnson, a 1984 Washington State University alum from Spokane Valley. “You go there any time of the year, and it feels like Homecoming because the place feels like home. That’s what is just so special about it.”
Since 1932, generations of WSU students have frequented Cougar Cottage, commonly called the Coug, to rally before and after a big game, meet friends, make new ones, blow off steam after class or finals, and – later – to reminisce.
This weekend, Homecoming weekend, is one the busiest times of the year at the Coug, which celebrates 90 years in operation this fall and is frequently found at the top of “best of” lists for college bars in the state and across America.
“It’s very busy all week, open to close,” said owner Bob Cady. “Apple Cup and Homecoming are our two busiest days of the year. Alumni start showing up on Thursday.”
And, if they’re members of the Coug’s Mug Club, they start calling ahead a week or more out, asking for their personalized mugs to be fetched from storage.
Membership in Mug Club – it lasts a lifetime – hovers around 3,400. The tradition dates to the late 1970s, when the Coug first started serving beer. Pints were 25 cents.
Most members take their mugs when they graduate. But the Coug still keeps and tracks some 1,200 mugs, which staff retrieve when alumni call or email to say they’re coming to town. Cady estimates staff will be pulling some 150 mugs from storage this week.
Capacity at the Coug is 96 indoors. The patio seats another 32.
Cady added the brick terrace during his tenure. He bought the business in 2004. Other than that, not much has changed at the Coug. That’s part of its magic.
“The vibe is always the same,” said Cady, who grew up in Shelton, Washington, and studied hospitality business management at WSU before buying the business 18 years ago. He first came to the Coug as a student in the late 1990s.
“Alumni,” he said, “are just older versions of undergrads.”
That’s not a put-down. If anything, it’s a compliment. Once a Coug, always a Coug.
And Friday and Saturday nights of Homecoming weekend, clientele at the Coug is, Cady said, “mostly alumni.”
The Coug opens early for them.
Well, for game days. “We’ll never open later than 9 a.m. on a game day,” Cady said, noting the earliest the Coug opens is 6 a.m.
But keeping those long hours can be “very hard to staff.” Most of the staff at the Coug are college students.
“They really go the extra mile to make sure everything is ready for Homecoming,” Cady said. “Homecoming is a lot of fun. But it’s also really chaotic. A lull would be down to the busiest Friday night on a non-game day. It’s not much of a lull.”
Johnson can’t make it this year, missing Homecoming for one of just a handful of times since he graduated. So he made a trip a few weeks earlier, in mid-September.
“I try to get to Homecoming every year,” he said, adding, “I can’t imagine Homecoming without going to the Coug. Homecoming and the Coug are synonymous. I feel like we’re salmon going back to where we were born.
“You can almost feel the ghosts of Cougars past when you’re in there. Happy ghosts. Ghosts from happy times.”
The 1932-33 Chinook yearbook mentions Cougar Cottage opened “with a bang” that September. The first ads for the café show up in the Evergreen student newspaper that October, inviting students to drop in for a “tasty barbecued sandwich and a rich milk shake.” The Coug has been catering to students ever since.
According to a vintage menu in the Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections at WSU Libraries, coffee at the Coug cost a nickel in its first decade. Toasted sandwiches, cakes and pies made in-house, and “thick malted milks” were specialties. Soup and most sandwiches cost a dime. There was also a 10-cent, per-person minimum for service for customers who sat in the Coug’s wooden booths.
While those booths are long gone, the tradition of customers making their marks on the Coug goes back as far as the Coug goes back. In its early days, students used pen knives to carve their names into the wood.
These days, they use paint pens. The highly Instagrammable east wall is freshly painted early each August to accommodate the signatures of a new class of Cougs. Cady isn’t sure how far the painting of the wall goes back, but believes it dates to at least the 1970s.
Johnson celebrate his 21st birthday at the Coug in the 1980s. When his daughter, Grace, a senior at WSU, ended up there on her 21st birthday last October, she Facetimed him from the Coug. To this day, it remains one of his “favorite places in the world. I love the Coug,” Johnson said. “It’s a special place and always will be.”
In fact, he said, “One of the great disappointments as you move through life and navigate the world is when you show up at the Coug and your name is no longer there.”
He signed his name on a plastic cover “for a fan or something” on the ceiling back in the day. At some point, that cover was swapped. When he made the discovery, he recalled, “it was like this little part of you dies.”
Of course, Cougs and WSU fans can sign their name again and again. When he returned four years ago with some college buddies who all had kids of their own in the same freshman class as Grace, they all signed their names at the Coug once again. Johnson left a special note on the wall to his daughter: “Dad is watching.”
Johnson isn’t a member of the Mug Club. But Cady joined as an undergrad. Under his ownership, it’s become more exclusive. People have to apply. Only 25 per semester – 50 per year – are accepted. The ones who make the cut, Cady said, “tend to be leaders on campus. They tend to be really involved. They tend to represent what it means to be a Coug.”
Most weekend nights and game days patrons are lucky to get a table. On these occasions, the legendary, no-frills watering hole in the heart of Pullman’s historical College Hill neighborhood is standing-room only.
“It’s just a classic little spot,” said Johnson, a news anchor at KOMO 4, Seattle’s ABC affiliate. He has jokingly told friends when he dies he wants his wake at the Coug.
As soon as he walks through the door, “the memories, they just come flooding back. It’s easy to sit in that little pub and forget that you’re not in college anymore. I just love the timelessness of it. Even when I was in college, I imagined people 50, 60 years before me, sitting in the same place.”
All ages are welcome until 8 p.m. After that, it’s 21 and over.
If you come – for Homecoming, another game day, or a random weeknight night – don’t forget to sign the wall.