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Washington State’s feud with ESPN: It’s time for ‘GameDay’ and McAfee to cool things down

By Jon Wilner Bay Area News Group

ESPN’s “College GameDay” is heading to Dallas this week for the Red River Rivalry. A special guest representing Texas or Oklahoma will undoubtedly make an appearance. So will the Washington State flag, Ol’ Crimson, which flies in the background of the “GameDay” set each week.

But will Washington State itself – the school, the team or its representatives – be part of the on-air discussion?

Let’s hope not.

Because if Kirk Herbstreit, Pat McAfee and the “GameDay” gang are talking about the Cougars, it’s a sign the adults have left the room and the gloves are off the hands.

Let’s hope the public spat between the network and the school is over. It started because of a misunderstanding by WSU coach Jake Dickert, escalated on social media when former Cougars QB Ryan Leaf got involved and peaked last weekend when McAfee, on the “GameDay” set, devolved into bully mode and told Washington State to “shut up.”

And you know who won? Nobody.

Which is exactly the same outcome we saw a few years ago when ESPN personalities mocked the Pac-12 twice in the same weekend.

In the middle of the 2017 season, then-Washington coach Chris Petersen expressed frustration with the heavy load of late kickoffs on UW’s schedule.

Petersen never mentioned ESPN by name, but that weekend, Herbstreit fired back on the “GameDay” set, proclaiming that Petersen “should be thanking ESPN” for its relationship with the Pac-12.

That night, the situation escalated as the ESPN broadcast crew in Husky Stadium ripped Petersen’s “cantankerous” and “irascible” nature. To make matters worse, sideline reporter Quint Kessenich mocked Washington’s nonconference schedule by placing three cupcakes on the turf to represent Rutgers, Montana and Fresno State.

The Huskies were furious, and a senior-level network executive called then-Washington athletic director Jen Cohen to apologize and assure her it wouldn’t happen again.

But it did.

Three weeks later, ESPN play-by-play announcer Chris Fowler tweeted the following from South Carolina: “Our crew Would be interested in seeing (Khalil) Tate and the Cats battle Wazzu. But here in SC they haven’t heard of Pac12 Network.”

Fortunately, that was the last of it – for 2017.

At the start of the following season, ESPN again went below the belt as Jones, who handles play-by-play for the network, took a shot at the Huskies following their Week 1 loss to Auburn.

“Washington Huskies took one on the chin,” Jones tweeted. “Where’s Montana?”

Relations between the network and the conference seemed to warm up for several years and were just fine this season, at least until Sept. 23 – the day Washington State beat Oregon State in what was dubbed the Pac-2 championship.

That’s when beloved “GameDay” analyst Lee Corso described the matchup as the “No one wants us bowl.” But Dickert heard it wrong – he thought Corso called it the “No one watches bowl.” (There’s a big difference, because the former is true and the latter is false.)

After an emotional victory in an emotional season that followed a catastrophic summer, Dickert used his postgame platform to criticize Corso.

Soon after the incident, Dickert and Corso spoke and patched things up. But on social media, Leaf went back and forth with Herbstreit over the “GameDay” treatment of his alma mater.

That led to McAfee going after the Cougars on the ensuing “GameDay” broadcast.

“Like, shut up! Washington State, about sick of you!” he bellowed. “Waste of time on this show …”

Now, we should mention that no school is more ingrained in the “GameDay” culture than WSU. Ol’ Crimson has made 292 consecutive appearances on the show, regardless of location, and was part of a “GameDay” commercial a few years ago. When “GameDay” visited Pullman for the first and only time, in 2018, the turnout was off the charts.

Also, let’s clarify ESPN’s role in the collapse of the Pac-12, because the network has been unfairly criticized on this front over the past few weeks. Its executives made a fair-market offer for the Pac-12 media rights last fall ($30 million per school per year), but the arrogant Pac-12 presidents declined, setting in motion the events that led to the Aug. 4 collapse.

(If you want to blame a network, blame Fox, the Big Ten’s media overlord, which orchestrated the raid of the L.A. schools in the summer of 2022 and eventually summoned the cash necessary to convince Oregon and Washington to make the jump.)

For the record, the Hotline has no issue with Corso’s comment or with Herbstreit’s social media exchange with Leaf; he took the high road.

But McAfee’s comments – “Like, shut up! Washington State, about sick of you! Waste of time on this show …” – are another matter.

Yes, he’s paid to bloviate on college football issues. But this situation is different. WSU and OSU are facing an unprecedented existential crisis. This is not a coaching gaffe or bad bounce. This is not a player under suspension or a season lost to injury. It’s not a topic that’s part of the standard “GameDay” fare.

The Cougars and Beavers are the victims of realignment at its most vicious, two schools left behind for reasons (geography and media markets) that are beyond their control.

The result is real-world stuff, not “GameDay” fodder: Diminished revenue and sliced budgets; the potential for layoffs within their athletic departments; the likelihood that sports will be cut and opportunities lost for innocent college athletes.

McAfee’s ignorance of the situation continued this week, when he went after Washington State on his show. But that’s his show, not “GameDay,” and his show doesn’t much matter to the college football machinery. “GameDay” matters. It matters a great deal.

Let’s hope ESPN executives step in before the “GameDay” cameras start rolling Saturday morning from the Red River Rivalry, because another round of salvos from the set, directed at WSU, would be inexcusable.

This was an issue between Dickert and Corso, and they have moved on. The rest of the “GameDay” crew should act like adults and do the same.