The Pac-12's coaches, players and commissioner met the media in Burbank this week, as you may or may not have heard, to kick off the 2015 football season. In addition to the new season, the conference is also trumpeting its 100th anniversary. Originally called the Pacific Coast Conference, the Pac-12's original members were Cal, UW, Oregon and Oregon State. WSU (then WSC) joined a year later, followed by Stanford in 1918.
After a few additions. including USC, UCLA, Idaho and Montana, the conference began to unravel in the 1950s. Montana departed to join the Mountain States Conference, which would turn out to be not such a great idea. The conference then suffered a major scandal as USC, UCLA, Cal and (surprise!) Washington were found to be paying their players. The whole thing was uncovered by a disgruntled Husky coach, John Cherberg, who blew the whistle after being run off by his players. No word on whether the benefits included a new Camaro for the quarterback.
The scandal led to dissolution of the conference in 1959. Shortly afterward, some of the conference's former members, the four who were cheating and Stanford, got back together and created the Athletic Association of Western Universities (AAWU). Has quite the ring to it! In what would turn out to be a smart move, the conference reached an agreement with the Tournament of Roses to send its champion to the Rose Bowl, beginning in 1961. WSU was initially blocked from admission, but eventually gained permission and joined in 1962. They were followed by the Oregon schools in 1964. Idaho decided not to pursue admission (Derp!).
The powers-that-be finally figured out that AAWU didn't exactly roll off the tongue, and renamed the conference the Pacific-8 Conference in 1968. The membership of WSU, UW, Oregon, OSU, Cal, Stanford, UCLA and USC began playing round-robin within a few years. The son of the Pac-8 was nearly re-created when Larry Scott tried to expand into Texas in 2010. In 1978, the conference added Arizona and ASU, and expanded again in 2011 with Utah and Colorado to become the Pac-12.
Now that we've satisfied today's rabbit hole pursuit, let's talk about the greatest players in conference history. Jon Wilner published his 100th Anniversary football team this week, and there was not a WSU player included. Given WSU's paucity in the victories category throughout conference history, that isn't all that surprising on the surface. However, there are quite a few former Cougars who merit consideration. We'll take a look at a few of them here. This is by no means a comprehensive list.
Mel Hein: Hein is simultaneously a glaring omission and a difficult choice. He is a glaring omission because many consider him to be the greatest center in football history. He was an All-American in 1930 and led the Cougars to the Rose Bowl. However, the fact that he played so long ago works against him since the game has changed so dramatically.
Mike Utley: Utley has a strong argument with Hein as the greatest offensive lineman in WSU history. He was a consensus All-American in 1988, and earned MVP honors in the Aloha Bowl victory over Houston. How many offensive linemen can claim that honor? The fact that Wilner didn't even consider Utley is absurd.
Jack Thompson: Thompson has one of the stronger cases because he played for three full seasons. During those seasons, he set the three year all-time record with 7,181 passing yards. He was also the first quarterback in NCAA history to surpass 5,000 passing yards before his senior season. Thompson was first-team all-conference as both s sophomore and a senior, and was The Sporting News first team All-American in 1978. The biggest problem for the Throwin' Samoan is the fact that the conference produced so many magnificent passers.
Lamont Thompson: One of the lesser-known facts about the 1997 season is that WSU somehow survived much of the season with a really, really, REALLY bad starting corner named LeJuan Gibbons. After he got destroyed by Arizona receiver Dennis Northcutt in a nail-biting WSU win, the coaches had seen enough. Starting safety Ray Jackson was moved to corner, and an unknown freshman named Lamont Thompson was inserted as the starting safety.
Thompson announced himself in one of the biggest games in WSU history, picking off three Brock Huard passes in the Apple Cup. After a couple miserable WSU seasons and a neck injury that nearly ended his career, Thompson again stepped to the forefront in 2001, intercepting eight passes during the regular season. He also rescued WSU in the Sun Bowl against Purdue in his final game. After the Boilermakers recovered an onside kick, Thomson intercepted a Kyle Orton pass in the final seconds to secure a 33-27 victory. By the time his career ended, Thompson had the most interceptions in conference history. So why isn't he on the list? Well, those Easley and Lott guys were pretty good too.
Jason Hanson: Hanson is the most glaring omission, and Wilner completely botched this one. John Lee may have been accurate, but he also kicked off a tee for his entire career. After Hanson's freshman season in 1988, the kicking tee was outlawed in college football. It didn't matter to Hanson. After being named to a few All-American teams as a freshman, Hanson was a consensus All-American as a sophomore in 1989.
He took over punting duties in 1990, and wouldn't you know it, excelled a that too. He averaged 45.5 yards per punt, good for third-best in America. Following his senior year, The Sporting News named him its First Team All-American kicker AND punter. Hanson also set the NCAA record for longest field goal without a kicking tee, a 62-yarder against UNLV. Finally, although it doesn't have bearing on the college game, Hanson went on to arguably the greatest kicking career in NFL history. John Lee, for lack of a better term, sucked.
Incidentally, Hanson just drilled a 51-yarder against UCLA in 1988, which is airing on Pac-12 Network as this post is being written.
EDIT: Rueben Mayes: No excuse for forgetting about Rueben Mayes initially. He led the conference in rushing as both a junior and a senior. As a junior Mayes set WSU, Pac-10 and NCAA Division I records with 357 rushing yards against Oregon. He also had 216 yards against Stanford the previous week, setting WSU, Pac-10 and NCAA records for rushing yards in consecutive games (573 yards), and earned several All-America honors in the process. Also, as far as we know, Mayes never had a house bought for his parents while at WSU.
Bob Robertson: Wilner didn't name the conference's greatest announcer, but we all know it's Bob Robertson because obviously.
So that's our list. Please make your case for any and all other Cougs who merit consideration among the conference's greatest.
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