I originally wrote this a year or so back when CougCenter was posting readers’ favorite stories from their time at WSU. I started writing and it didn't end up being one memory, but more an essay on what it means to me to be a Coug. I didn’t get around to submitting it back then, but I felt this week seemed like an appropriate time to share my thoughts with the community. Read on if you’ve got a few minutes for a bit of nostalgia.
I wracked my brain trying to come up with one memory that really stood out to me from my 2 ½ years at our beloved university. The truth is that the ones I have from my time as an undergrad (that are family friendly) would only be good stories if I told them in a few sentences. You see, I was in Pullman at a bad time. I transferred to WSU in the fall of 2008. That’s right, the year after basketball’s Sweet 16 run and just in time for the infamous ’08 football season. I was there for three of the worst consecutive football seasons in school history. So, I thought maybe I’d give some of you older alums a little perspective from a more recent grad. Also, I’d like to share the experience of my first trip to Pullman, because I think a lot of you will identify with it and recognize that a lot of the same themes resonate for us all.
I’d never been to Pullman before I went to visit my older brother there in 2006 and to watch the home game that weekend against #3 USC. I’d also only ever been to one college football game before that weekend. That was a UW home game against Oregon and I was just a little tyke. My aunt was the only Husky in our family and she gave my dad, a Coug, some of her season tickets. So, like any self respecting Cougar dad would do, he took us in neutral colors and we cheered for the Ducks. My brother even spilled hot chocolate on the Husky fans in front of us…"accidentally".
I’ve always wanted to go to WSU. Even without setting foot on campus. My dad and older brother went there along with other relatives and friends. I remember lying on the floor in front of the TV watching the ’98 Rose Bowl as a 9 year old. I remember watching every televised game of the ’01-’03 teams and getting so emotional about it. It was MY team. My dad made sure I understood what it meant to be a Coug from a young age. I knew it was different than other schools. There’s no tangible way to describe what it means to us. It just flat out means something more. You know if you meet a fellow WSU alumnus anywhere, you’re going to be treated like an old friend. Jim Walden probably put it better than anyone:
"I can't define it; I can't tell somebody who isn't a Cougar what it's like. There's something that happens at Washington State, you quietly and subtly become infected. There are very few people I've ever met who have gone to WSU and not come away with a favorable impression ... Washington State was a passion. Being a Cougar was a passion."
The 18 year old version of me drove into Pullman the weekend of the 2006 USC game already expecting to love the place, and it blew my expectations out of the water. I’m from a really small town out in the woods on the west side, so being in an isolated location wasn’t a big deal to me. I thought the rolling hills of the Palouse were almost as gorgeous as the girls. And man, the girls! I’d never seen so many beautiful women in one place in my life. My brother was showing me around town and I was thinking "Oh my god there’s nothing but college students here, the campus is amazing, you can see INTO the stadium from the road, everyone’s a Cougar fan, my parents are 5 hours away, and there are SO MANY hot girls!" It’s every 18 year old boy’s dream. I went to a CC my first two years, so that was the closest thing to a freshman moment I got.
Walking through the atmosphere of the tailgate lot before the game had me so amped up; I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face. Then we got to the student gate and had to wait two hours to get into the stadium. My excitement only subsided temporarily while waiting in line, though. All the students were in true pre-game form, some sporting "Surrender Your Booty" t-shirts antagonizing USC’s then-QB John David Booty. The "F the Trojans" chant was started any time someone wearing SC gear walked past. One time it even started when a Trojan fan walked past with his kid on his shoulders (shame on you overzealous Cougs who started that one). They opened the gate and I remember getting great seats and looking at the USC players warming up and how huge they were. I thought Taylor Mays looked like a robot. Say what you want about him as a player, but the guy looked the part. I knew before we got to the stadium that there wasn’t a very good chance of us winning. As I said, USC was ranked third in the nation with a defense featuring Rey Maualuga/Brian Cushing/Taylor Mays. Then our punter, Darryl Blunt, got in a shoving match at midfield with some of the biggest of their big during warm-ups. The student section went nuts and that’s when I realized that everyone in the stadium was convinced we were poised for an upset. This was the Brink/Tardy/Hill/Bumpus/Gibson version of the Cougs and we were 3-1 with our only loss coming against #4 Auburn in the season opener. The atmosphere was absolutely electric.
Seeing all the traditions for the first time had me completely mesmerized. The band, the cheerleaders, dangling keys on kickoffs, "that’s another Cougar first down", the Go Cougs chant from alternating sides of the stadium, and looking behind me during the Cougar chomp and seeing thousands of arms making the same motion in unison. Even the USC cheerleaders doing that stupid "V" dance they do. As annoying as their fight song is to us, there’s something imposing and dramatic about it. I was just in awe of the whole situation. I’d never seen anything like it. The game didn’t disappoint, either. The scoring went back and forth the whole time and we were only down 21-15 early in the 4th, after an uncharacteristically consistent Loren Langley nailed his 3rd FG of the game. But SC’s Steve Smith had our number and caught his second TD pass of the day to put them up 28-15 with 5 minutes left. Smith ended up with 11 catches for 186 yards on the day, as some of you will remember how porous our pass defense seemed that year. Anyway, the Cougs came back with a big drive capped off with a Brink to Tardy swing pass to put the score at 28-22. The D put up a fight and got the ball back with about a minute left. I could tell everyone around me was thinking "Holy crap, we’re actually going to do it!" Brink put together a few passes and got us into their territory with one last chance for a hail mary in the closing seconds. It came up short and got picked off, but that was still the most exciting college football game I’ve ever seen live.
All this before I even accepted admission. After that, I followed every televised football and basketball game until I moved to Pullman two years later. And boy, did I ever walk into a situation that I didn’t expect. For the next three seasons (2008-2010) I sat through the worst football our school has probably ever seen. For you older guys, I hope you can understand the disappointment that I felt. After having been exposed to one of the most dramatic and exciting games in Martin Stadium since the Gesser years, my time on campus was spent watching 69-0 blowouts. My roommates and I walked into a game 5 minutes late one time and we were already down 21-0. The basketball team was competent during those years, but it just didn’t fill the void that football left. I wanted to relive that USC game as a current student. I wanted to be able to tell my future offspring that I was there when something memorable happened. I suppose I still can, but talking about the Crapple Cup just won’t have the same effect.
But I loved our Cougs through it. I was there with the die-hards for every home game. We didn’t have to get to the stadium early anymore; you could walk in 10 minutes before kickoff for some games and sit in the third row. We still cheered our guys on just as hard, because that’s what we do. Through thick and thin, those guys on the field are OUR guys. We support them even when they’re doing poorly because we want every Coug to succeed. We’re family, even if we’ve never met.
During my time in Pullman, the 2008 Apple Cup was the closest I ever got to an experience like that USC game. It was pure joy beating the Huskies in such dramatic fashion and sealing their winless season. I don’t normally advocate storming the field for a win over an unranked opponent, but nothing felt more right after that one. The picture taken of me, my brother, and my cousins after storming the field probably captured the biggest smile on my face, ever. That’s the closest I got to experiencing Cougar glory while I was in Pullman. I don’t have any epic sports stories from my time as an undergrad. So I know you all can identify with me when I say that we really need Mike Leach to succeed here. Our fans are so thirsty for something to cling to. We need a moment of greatness where we can be proud to say, "That’s MY team." Though you and I both know, we’ll keep saying it anyway. Go Cougs.