The sound is the first thing that gets you. It carried across campus, starting from the RV lots and floating into the air across College Hill. A dull roar of excitement and energy, punctured by loud bass, that built as you walked through campus, smacking you in the face as you reach a sea of crimson flags and thousands of your closest friends, many of which you probably didn’t even know.
It was 4:45 a.m. in Pullman, and a TV show had come to town. It only took 15 years for it to get here.
There were quiet worries in the week between College GameDay announcing it was finally coming to Pullman and the show itself on Saturday. Will they get us? I hope they do this right. Are we all going to behave and live up to the hype for GameDay?
Those questions all went out the window moments before the show, when producers explained that they needed everyone to drop their flags for a cool opening shot — and then “lose your minds” as the camera snapped back to show The Godfather Tom Pounds surrounded by a sea of screaming fans.
“I usually have some big speech, but I only have two words: HOLY SHIT” — Rece Davis, just as the show was about to go on air. The bleary-eyed crowd sprung to life again with a defending roar. And we were off.
We’re just talking about a TV show here. Boil it all down and it’s a weekly traveling college football preview show that crisscrosses the country throughout the fall, showing some of the best environments in the sport. But over the last 15 years, it’s become so much more to Washington State fans for so many reasons.
This all started wrong, too, if we’re being honest. The idea was right, born out of Pounds’ campaign to get someone to recognize a Washington State team that, at the time, was very good. The Cougs were in the middle of the best stretch in program history with three 10-win seasons in a row with a Rose Bowl appearance the year before the flag showed up on GameDay out of nowhere.
And then everything fell off a cliff.
Since that 2003 season, there’s been very few chances for GameDay to actually get to Pullman. There’s the logistical nightmare of trucking equipment and flying hosts into the middle of nowhere — we pride ourselves on the remote location because you have to work to get to Washington State, and GameDay had to work to get to Pullman. There’s also the fact that the team nose-dived into the basement of the conference, falling right out of the national consciousness.
Except for that flag. It kept showing up, appearing in the background right in frame every Saturday morning. Ol Crimson became a staple in the wee hours on the west coast, and even as the football team struggled later in the day that flag became a reason to wake up early. You had to make sure it was still there, and that the streak was intact.
There’s always been a stubborn and prideful part of being a Washington State fan or alum. It showed up in online polls, in vocal boasting about athletics, and, thanks to Pounds, in the form of a flag that wouldn’t stop waving. We want you to get why we love this place, because unless you’ve been here and done this, you won’t understand.
The truth is that GameDay understood Pullman long before it actually showed up in Pullman. Every week for the last 15 years, the show got a little bit of Washington State in the form of alumni all over the country showing up, waving the flag, and being stewards for the school spread out all across the country. One by one, week by week, all of these people, starting with Pounds, told the story of Washington State — not just by waving the flag, but meeting people who wanted to know what this was all about and showing the pride they have for their school.
In 2014, the legend of "Popcorn Guy" was born as cameras caught a Wazzu fan dumping popcorn in his mouth.— College GameDay (@CollegeGameDay) October 20, 2018
So we went to Pullman to try to find this mysterious hero.
( @goodyear) pic.twitter.com/TTgwBtxGPm
That understanding showed in the show’s cold open, in the genuine excitement from the hosts and crew, in the features about Popcorn guy and Tom Pounds, taking a moment to talk about the 3 flags and Tyler Hilinski, the crowd singing Back Home at the top of its lungs, and even in how the shots were setup — you don’t run a camera from the press box to the set, or fly a plane overhead for four hours if you’re not expecting one hell of a scene.
This wasn’t an introduction, but a culmination that’s been steadily building. As the flag kept showing up, GameDay jumped on board and played it up. There were milestones and stories that have been told on the show throughout the years. The flag hangs in the ESPN cafeteria, and the show staff has looked after Ol Crimson for years — including giving it a police escort at Washington, and falling into panic alongside Washington State fans as it got lost in the mail.
The stories aren’t really about the flag, though. They’re about the people: Tom Pounds, a booster club that pulls off logistical magic each week, and an army of flag wavers spread out across the country and world, all of whom share a bond and connection through Washington State. The school jumped on board, too, and GameDay weekend was the product of a whole ton of people from the university that you rarely see but that make game weekends run seamlessly. This all started as a campaign, but has become an identity and a point of pride.
As the GameDay bus showed up, and later as Pounds waved the flag in the dark to open the show, I felt weirdly emotional. It’s just a TV show, after all. But the people on the show and the community of Washington State have built an unlikely relationship over the last 15 years because of a waving flag and an alumni base that just kept showing up.
A lot changed in those 15 years. Since the flag started waving, Washington State has been through three athletic directors, three presidents and three football coaches. Your life has probably changed quite a bit too. But every Saturday morning, Ol Crimson showed up. No matter where you were, you could tune in and see a piece of Pullman. It’s the best of Washington State, shown weekly to the world.
GameDay needed to come to Pullman in this way. There were many times we all thought “Just show up. Throw us a bone and do a fun, commemorative show.” But that’s not how GameDay works — it’s about the environment of a big game with stakes or a story, and showing that to the world. You can’t fake that enthusiasm and energy.
A football game did happen, too, believe it or not. Another one of those fears before the weekend was that the show would overshadow the game, that everyone would crawl back into bed in the seven hours before kickoff, and that the show was the main event.
I walked onto the field at 3:30 p.m. and was hit by a wall of sound again. The student section was already full, and it was dancing. Pullman hadn’t gone to bed from Friday yet, and it didn’t matter. Martin Stadium was as packed as can be, and the energy was unlike anything I’ve seen in the last 15 years.
This was the city and school in its finest hour. It was a place where friends — family — trekked across state and country, many making plans at the last minute because of a gravitational pull that screamed you have to be here. They slept on floors, couches, and crammed into hotel rooms, improvising plans and rides because you really did have to be here.
With the rest of the college football world watching, Washington State put on a show. There were flags as far as the eye could see, and excitement you could feel everywhere in town. Given the opportunity to show off why we love this place, the Washington State community took advantage in the best way.
The sound is still what gets you. After a nervous hour and a half, Dez Patmon flashed open across the middle and went airborne in the end zone. Even if you couldn’t see him come down, the wall of sound that hit you in the chest let you know.
It was 8 p.m. in Pullman, 11 hours after Lee Corso finally put on the Coug head, just over 15 years after the GameDay flag showed up in Austin. It was as if all that pent up energy was released at once as Ol Crimson waved out a window in the end zone and fans streamed onto the field to celebrate a day they won’t forget. Wherever you were watching, you probably felt a part of that day, all because of a flag, a tradition, and a community that would not be denied.