This is the second of a week-long series of posts sponsored by EA Sports NCAA Football 11.
Jeff Nusser: This is a no-brainer for me. I was a junior at WSU in 1997 and editor in chief of The Daily Evergreen. You know what that means: I had a front-row seat to perhaps the greatest sports story in the history of Washington State University. There were some expectations coming into the season -- after all, we were a Chad Carpenter toe away from going to a bowl game the year before -- but nothing could have prepared us for what we were going to witness that year.
The funny thing is that it almost didn't even get off the ground. We opened the year with UCLA, and only a game-saving stuff at the goal line by perhaps my favorite Coug of all time, Leon Bender, got the season off to a 1-0 start. We could never have imagined at the time how enormous that play would be, as that head-to-head victory over the Bruins proved to be the tiebreaker that got us to our first Rose Bowl in 67 years.
I have so many memories from that season -- Ryan Leaf doing otherworldly things; the Fab Five; the Fat Five; Michael Black running past, around and through defenders; Dorian Boose killing quarterbacks; Brandon Moore decapitating running backs -- it gives me goosebumps just thinking about it again.
Brian (cougfan): Showing our generational gap, mine is the 2002 team. The season began with WSU football being brought to my doorstep in Seattle and the birth of the Qwest Field game. It also introduced the world to Will Derting, who became a cult-like figure during his time at WSU. There wasn't a better way to start of a season than in front of a sold out Qwest Field and a standout performance from a middle linebacker, of all people.
The defense was a who's who of Cougar stars. Marcus Trufant, Erik Coleman, Rien Long, Jason David, and Karl Paymah all spent time in the rotation. Looking back on it, the star power of that defense was something we haven't seen in a long time.
On the offensive side of the ball, it was the Jason Gesser show. With Mike Bush, Devard Darling, and the rest of the Coug receivers stepping up, Gesser put on a show of fortitude and heart throughout the season, giving the fans a show the whole way. The Cougar offense was exciting to watch and much of that stemmed from Gesser being at the helm.
The season itself was in the midst of the "golden years" at WSU. The Cougs lost at Ohio State early in the season and didn't "lose" again until November. Along the way, Drew Dunning became a household name and the Cougs became the conference champions. (It wasn't a backwards pass, by the way.) In the end, it didn't matter. WSU was back in the Rose Bowl for the second time in recent history. For me, that team, and the three years culminating with the Holiday Bowl win, were the height of Cougar football.
Grady: Nothing compares to those three 10-win seasons. That may easily be the greatest era in Cougar football. And even though I was in school at WSU for the tail end of it, I still can't bring myself to place any of those teams higher than the '97 squad.
There was a certain magic behind those 1997 Cougars. Jason Gesser won games, certainly, but Ryan Leaf was a phenomenal talent. Anyone who says they foresaw the downfall of Leaf in the NFL either had intimate knowledge of Leaf's personal issues, or is lying. Because Ryan Leaf the quarterback possessed all the physical tools imaginable in a college quarterback. And the surrounding cast? Exceptional. On both sides of the ball. I still believe if Michael Black had stayed healthy throughout the whole Rose Bowl, the Cougars win that game.
There was no letdown, no you-know-whatting it, in any game. Sure, they had a rough game on the road against ASU, but that was forgivable. That team finished the regular season by storming the shores of Montlake, and tearing apart the Huskies' defense in a game they absolutely had to win. There's nothing more satisfying than humbling your rival in their house, especially when it had been previously been deemed unthinkable that the Cougs could be the dominant program in the state.
The Rose Bowl finish was disappointing, but they took Michigan to the final buzzer. They went down swinging, and they made everyone proud in the process. That year was the closest thing we've ever had to a perfect season.
Jeff: I was at that game at ASU. What a surreal experience. It was definitely a forgivable loss, but man it sure felt like a game we could have won. Even as we were coming back at the end, if only Leaf had hesitated on his cadence, rather than allowing the blitzing linebacker to time his way through the line perfectly before dislodging the ball, which would eventually be returned for a touchdown.
My most vivid memory from that game was Mike Price crying in the postgame news conference. He kept blaming himself for all of these things, and I remember thinking that he was taking it way too hard. It was only later that I realized why he was crying. They were only the No. 10 team before the loss, but Price already knew what it would take the rest of the season for all of us to figure out: That team was national championship quality.
We found that out once and for all in the Apple Cup. When Chris Jackson ran over Tony Parrish, I knew it was our day. (Putting Brock Huard on his back 30 times didn't hurt, either.) I'll never forget the feeling of storming the field at Husky Stadium and celebrating on that ugly purple W with about 5,000 of my closest friends.
To me, that's why no other team -- barring an actual national championship -- will supplant them in my eyes. They were, without a doubt, the best football team ever to don the crimson and gray.
Craig (Dancing Football): Considering the fact that I have only been a Coug fan since 2003, when I enrolled at WSU, it shouldn't take you long to guess which is my favorite football season.
My freshman year of college, the school was still buzzing about its second Rose Bowl trip in six seasons. However, reading preseason polls and predictions had me believing that I missed the glory days of Coug football. Lucky for me, the nine returning starters on defense thought differently.
My first WSU football game did little to squelch my fears. WSU played a terrible Idaho team at Qwest field and came away with about the ugliest 25 point win I've ever seen. What had me worried was the terrible play on offense. What I clearly should have been focused was the dominating shutout performance by the defense.
The defense is what made that 2003 team special. We haven't seen anything come close to it in the seasons that had followed. While Matt Kegel, Devard Darling, Sammy Moore, and Scott Lunde provided some great moments, the defense was turning close games into blowouts. It seemed that every time the opposing team came close to pulling an upset, Jason David would step in front of an out route and take it the distance. D.D. Acholonu would introduce a quarterback to the Martin Stadium turf. Will Derting would do his best to remove someone's head from his body. It was the only time as a Coug football fan I've ever felt confidence in the defense.Because of them, the Cougs were actually able to prevail in a game when their quarterback threw five interceptions. That's pretty ridiculous to think about when considering the drubbings that have been happening these last few seasons.
The defense made it's stamp on national television against the fifth-ranked Texas Longhorns and it is a big reason why Robb Akey has a head coaching job right now. That game was as much fun as I will ever have watching a Cougar football game, and I still point it out to any new person I meet who tries to scoff at our program's relevance.
Thanks to my timely arrival, I didn't see the Cougs lose a game in person my for an entire year. Maybe I should have retired while I was ahead!
Jeff: That 2003 team is actually a close second for me. The reason? I was at the 2003 Holiday Bowl on my honeymoon. How awesome is my wife?
Brian: That 1997 team may have been the best, but from 2001-2003 we saw a run of success we'd never seen before. The Cougs played an entertaining brand of football en route to those three consecutive 10-win seasons. In the last decade, I believe only Oregon and USC accomplished the same feat. It may seem like a long time ago, but there was a time when the Cougs were the powerhouse, not the doormat.
Jeff: The one weakness I see in our list here is nothing before 1997. Surely there has to be someone out there who's been around longer than us with a personal favorite not tied to the recent past. Maybe the Palouse Posse? Older? What do you all think?