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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Memories of the Pac: As the conference crumbles around WSU football, a look back at 12 moments that built the Cougar foundation

By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

Yes, it’s hard to get nostalgic when the bile is still burning a hole in your esophagus.

And that’s pretty much the default condition in these parts now that the Pac-12 is rubble from grenades thrown by its own troops.

USC, UCLA, Washington and Oregon are beating feet to the Big Ten. Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah jumped overboard into the Big 12’s lifeboat. Cal and Stanford are desperate to live on airplanes whooshing to the Eastern Time Zone. The attendant palace intrigue and backstabbing around this revolt was enough to make the Medici and Pazzi come off like the Brady Bunch.

In the end, there wasn’t even one open chair for Washington State and Oregon State to fight over when the music stopped.

Maybe that new slogan should be amended to “Cougs vs. (Almost) Everybody.”

So the 108th season of football for the conference identified with some form of the word “Pacific” for most of its lifetime will be the last. OK, perhaps some perversion of the concept will survive – welcome, uh, Wyoming? – but this is the last go-round for the old gang. And though rancor will be the drink of choice at every Cougar tailgate, it does seem to be the time to look back with something other than anger. Of course, summing up 107 years of Pac-Something football – actually 102 in WSU’s case – will require this be done in shorthand.

So here’s a list of 12 significant moments in Wazzu’s football history – the most significant by this reckoning, though your mileage may vary.

Washington State quarterback Ryan Leaf celebrates after winning the 1997 Apple Cup.  (Spokesman-Review Photo Archives)
Washington State quarterback Ryan Leaf celebrates after winning the 1997 Apple Cup. (Spokesman-Review Photo Archives) Buy this photo

Scratching the 67-year itch

When the 1930 Cougars cruised through the regular season undefeated and into a Rose Bowl date with Alabama, surely no one thought it would be 67 years before they’d do it again. And they had their chances. Ties against Washington thwarted them in 1934 and ’42, as did losses in 1936 and the 1981 Apple Cup.

But after beating UCLA and USC to open the season, there was a team-of-destiny vibe around the 1997 Cougars, though the destiny would be of their own construct – and never more so than in the Apple Cup showdown in Seattle. Tied atop the Pac-10 standings with UCLA, the Cougs couldn’t stumble. So they recovered two of their own fumbles in the end zone to avoid disaster, and rode Ryan Leaf’s 358 yards passing and Lamont Thompson’s three interceptions to a 41-35 victory that ended with Leaf and head coach Mike Price swept up by a crimson mob that spilled out of the Husky Stadium stands.

“I feel we’ve touched America,” Price said. “This team is going to be remembered.”

Even if they’d do it again five years later.

Look out, No. 1

The Cougars had taken a hard turn south midway through the 1988 season, with back-to-back losses to the Arizona schools that left WSU 1-3 in the Pac-10, the conference’s leakiest defense and a date with top-ranked UCLA in Pasadena dead ahead.

And then the Cougs fell behind 27-6 to Troy Aikman and the Bruins.

But the Cougars’ sturdy offensive line eventually found its footing, giving Rich Swinton gaps to run through and Timm Rosenbach time to pass. And the maligned defense discovered its heart. An 81-yard touchdown from Rosenbach to Tim Stallworth provided a spark, and the defense produced two big turnovers before batting down three straight Aikman passes from the WSU 6-yard line in the final minute to preserve the 34-30 upset. The Cougs wouldn’t lose again, finishing with their first bowl victory in 73 seasons.

“I’m still in shock,” coach Dennis Erickson said moments after the game. Even 35 years later, that feeling lingers.

Washington State head coach Mike Leach dons a Gardner Minshew mustache following the Cougars’ defeat of Colorado on Nov. 10, 2018, at Folsom Field in Boulder, Colo.  (TYLER TJOMSLAND/The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State head coach Mike Leach dons a Gardner Minshew mustache following the Cougars’ defeat of Colorado on Nov. 10, 2018, at Folsom Field in Boulder, Colo. (TYLER TJOMSLAND/The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo

Swinging his sword

In hiring head coaches over the course of its postwar football history, WSU had imported ambitious assistants from successful programs, promoted from within and mined the Big Sky Conference, well, once too often.

Mike Leach was something else altogether – in every aspect both measurable and visceral.

A decade’s worth of winning as head coach at Texas Tech and his prolific Air Raid offense provided instant hope to a Cougar program that had languished for eight years. But that circumstance also made WSU one of the few schools that willing to throw him a lifeline after he’d filed a ham-fisted firing and a wrongful termination lawsuit against his old employer.

The Cougars embraced him in a way they had with no previous coach – in salary, resources, facilities and scheduling leeway. Leach returned the favor by taking Wazzu to six bowls in eight years, capped by a magical 11-2 season in 2018 where a loss to Washington on a snowy field kept them from playing for the Pac-12 championship. Those bowl games and Apple Cups proved to be his quicksand, and his public face could be polarizing. But Leach delivered both thrills and national credibility to a program desperate for both.

Rueben, Run

The temperature in Eugene never got above 50 degrees on Oct. 27, 1984. But you needed a pyrometer to measure the heat being generated from Rueben Mayes’ cleats.

In a rare wire-to-wire romp for the mercurial ’84 Cougs, the elusive running back from that noted football hotbed of North Battleford, Saskatchewan, ran his way into multiple record books, rushing for 357 yards on 39 carries – topping Eddie Lee Ivery’s 6-year-old NCAA record on a 4-yard run with 59 seconds left in WSU’s 50-41 victory. Tossing out his 69-yard touchdown run, that’s still an average of 7.5 yards a carry. And even in the Paleozoic Era of college football before Twitter and SportsCenter, it made a splash.

Mayes set records for self-effacement, too – his first sentiment being, “I’m just glad we won.” Maybe he understood records are written in pencil. Indiana’s Anthony Thompson tacked 20 yards on to the mark five years later against Air Force. Today, Mayes is 13th on the NCAA list, topped by Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine with 424.

Babe, Mel, Tuffy and the red uniforms

Yes, the game was far different 90 years ago, but there is no debate: Orin Ercel “Babe” Hollingbery presided over the golden age of Cougar football from 1926 to 1942, winning 93 games and producing as many as 10 teams that would have reached bowl games, had they played today when there’s one on every street corner.

As it was, they went only once – to the Rose Bowl of 1931 – falling to Alabama after a 9-0 regular season. There were four All-Americans of various stripes – Turk Edwards, Harold Ahlskog, Elmer Schwartz and Mel Hein, considered the best two-way player of his era and several thereafter. And there was Tuffy Ellingsen operating Hollingbery’s single wing – when he wasn’t playing first base, point guard or throwing the javelin.

The season’s highlight was surviving a 7-6 nail biter over USC – the Trojans’ first visit to Pullman, and something that would be revisited just once over the next 20 years. The lowlight: picking up the nickname “Red Devils” for their head-to-toe, not-at-all-crimson uniforms. Even the shoes were painted red. Hollingbery was not a fan.

“Word got around that Babe burned those uniforms,” Hein told Cougar historian Dick Fry.

To the Pac and back

For fans smarting – and justifiably – over the sabotaging of the Pac-12, there is some history to be considered.

The Cougars were not charter members when Cal, Oregon, Washington and Oregon State formed the original Pacific Coast Conference for the 1916 season. After some in-house hesitation about their worthiness – despite winning the 1916 Rose Bowl – WSU applied and joined a year later with Stanford, expansion that would eventually add USC, Idaho, Montana and UCLA.

It was never particularly an all-for-one collective and in 1958 it unraveled, spurred by a pay-for-play scandal on multiple campuses two years earlier. When the Los Angeles schools, Cal, Stanford and UW formed the Athletic Association of Western Universities after the breakup, WSU was cast adrift as an independent for three years. Some fence mending by Stanford administrators finally got the Cougars back in the fold in 1962, and the Pac-8 came into being when the Oregon schools were admitted a year later.

Seems like the Cougs could use another influential friend about now.

Washington kicker Chuck Nelson attempts a field goal during the 1982 season.  (Spokesman-Review Photo Archives)
Washington kicker Chuck Nelson attempts a field goal during the 1982 season. (Spokesman-Review Photo Archives) Buy this photo

Wide right

Chuck Nelson was without flaw. For a full calendar year heading into the Apple Cup, the UW place-kicker had made all 28 field goals he’d tried – 23 in the 1982 season alone, when one Northwest columnist even floated his name for the Heisman Trophy. He added another in the third quarter to pull the Huskies within a point of rival WSU at Martin Stadium, and then lined up from 33 yards to give the Dawgs the lead with 4½ minutes remaining.

And he missed. Not by much (“Those are good at home, but we weren’t at home,” he said), but inches outside the right upright. The collective roar and groan from the 40,000 in attendance could be heard all the way to Albion, and when the Cougars put the hammer down for a 24-20 victory, their fans uprooted a goalpost, carried it downtown and dumped it in the Palouse River.

The significance wasn’t simply Mr. Perfect slicing one. Nor that an 18-point underdog with just two wins had dashed UW’s Rose Bowl plans. But after eight straight losses to the Huskies, the Cougars had made it a rivalry again – they would win three Apple Cups in a four-year span. And it validated coach Jim Walden’s campaign to move the game out of Spokane – where it had resided since 1954 whenever it was WSU’s year to host – and back to campus.

Washington State football fans gather for the filming of ESPN’s College GameDay on Oct. 20, 2018, in Pullman.  (TYLER TJOMSLAND/The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State football fans gather for the filming of ESPN’s College GameDay on Oct. 20, 2018, in Pullman. (TYLER TJOMSLAND/The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo


For most ambitious football programs, the ultimate goal is the national championship. And Washington State would love to win one. But if those stars never align, the Cougars will always have College GameDay.

It’s a little surreal gauging the emotional investment the Wazzu fan base had getting those ESPN trucks on campus for, well, a TV show. But these things take on a life of their own, and for Wazzu, it started back in 2003, when an alum named Tom Pounds flew a Cougar flag – it’s come to be known as Ol’ Crimson – in the crowd behind the GameDay set at the University of Texas, the start of a come-to-our-campus campaign. It quickly became a GameDay fixture, with Pounds aided by fellow grads, some fund-raising, a website and plenty of media attention and air miles.

At last, 15 years later, pay dirt. Rece Davis signed on at 6 a.m. PDT from the set on Stadium Way in front of a throng that topped 10,000. WSU legend Drew Bledsoe sat in as the guest picker. And when Lee Corso donned one of Butch the mascot’s spare heads to signal his prediction, the merely delirious became unglued.

Oh, yes. There was a football game, too. WSU 34, Oregon 20.

We do know Jack

The story he loves to tell is that he ran on to the field when the starting quarterback came off with an equipment issue – without getting the order from his coach. “The third-string quarterback,” said Jack Thompson, “(doing) a real dumb-ass thing.”

That was during a 1976 game at Minnesota, and later he would replace John Hopkins when the starter was injured making a tackle after an interception. Thompson quickly hooked up with Brian Kelly on a 49-yard touchdown pass – and just as quickly would come to be known as the Throwin’ Samoan, still one of college football’s most inspired nicknames.

When he left WSU, he was the NCAA’s most prolific passer with 7,818 career yards, and the Pac-10 record holder for touchdown passes. But then, he never really left. His passing legacy has been embraced and enhanced by quarterbacks that have become Super Bowl MVPs and No. 1 draft picks, and continues today. And Thompson himself remains attached to the program as its most present and identifiable alum, no less a touchstone than the Cougar logo or Bob Robertson’s baritone.

Huskies quarterback Mark Brunell receives cold shoulders from Anthony McClanahan, left, and Brian Ford in the 1992 Apple Cup.  (Spokesman-Review Photo Archives)
Huskies quarterback Mark Brunell receives cold shoulders from Anthony McClanahan, left, and Brian Ford in the 1992 Apple Cup. (Spokesman-Review Photo Archives) Buy this photo

Snow day

Speaking of the late Bob Rob, the legendary radio voice easily admitted to any gaffes he’d made from the booth over the years – the most notable being getting the receiver wrong on one of the most enduring highlights in the school’s football history.

It was understandable – Phillip Bobo and C.J. Davis collided as Bobo hauled in Drew Bledsoe’s bomb that traveled 58 yards in the air, the two sliding into a snow bank beyond the end zone. It was the play that launched the Cougars to a 42-23 pasting of rival Washington in the famed 1992 “Snow Bowl” – Martin Stadium’s turf covered in a white sheet from ongoing flurries.

As much as any of WSU’s Apple Cup wins, it was a statement. The Huskies had won a national championship in 1991 and were going to the Rose Bowl again win or lose, but the Cougars were hearing talk that they’d be shut out of the postseason. Delivering such a dramatic beat down flipped the script. But then, it’s always a statement game.

“You wouldn’t believe,” linebacker Kurt Loertscher said, “how much we hate them.”

The biggest hit

Just how does one define the Cougar spirit? Is it epitomized by the Ol’ Crimson cadre that keeps the flag flying each week? Is it just the natural camaraderie that comes from being thrown together on College Hill for four years? An underdog’s pride? An appreciation for the next party?

Terry Smith defined it his own way on an October Saturday in 1970 at Albi Stadium where Stanford was pouring it on the Cougs. Fueled by drink and disgust, the 27-year-old Vietnam vet from Richland vaulted out of the east stands and collided with running back Eric Cross on the 1-yard line after the Cougar defense couldn’t get the job done. Smith got hauled off to jail, fans passed the hat for his bail and Stanford coach John Ralston later called it “the toughest hit of the day.”

“I actually had this moment of clarity – how stupid this was and how I’d better not do it,” Smith said back in 1998. “But all of a sudden, he was at the 5-yard line and I was out there.”

The Holiday spirit

For all the enduring desire to cap a season with a bowl trip, Washington State’s success in the postseason has been fitful – an 8-10 record with many of the wins against unheralded opponents, as well as a few embarrassing losses. That’s why beating Texas in the 2003 Holiday Bowl remains a benchmark.

The Longhorns were ranked No. 5, and had been a likely Bowl Championship Series participant before Kansas State upset Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game. They had a budding superstar in freshman quarterback Vince Young and they were, well, Texas. And coach Bill Doba’s Cougars outclassed them 28-20 – riding Matt Kegel’s passing and closing out the Longhorns with big defensive plays by Will Derting and D.D. Acholonu.

It capped three straight 10-win seasons for the Cougs – something no Pac program had accomplished since USC in the early 1930s.