What would happen if Washington State University became good at . . . football?
I know. Hard to imagine. Traditionally, it would be like finding Dick’s Drive-In on the cover of Zagat’s restaurant guide.
But tradition is no longer very relevant in college football. Ask anyone who’s sat through an 8 p.m. kickoff in November in Seattle or Pullman. Nationally, look at the development of the spread offense with both teams scoring in the 50s; measure the gross national product of the Power Five conferences and discover each is more affluent than Brazil.
At the commencement of football unpleasantries Friday in the 108th renewal of the state’s longest sports tradition, WSU vs. UW football, it is possible consider a most un-traditional thing — that the Cougars already are good at football. And may be so for awhile.
Would that upset the Apple cart? Er, Cup?
Well, not really. Fact is, over the past 11 games, the Huskies have won six Apple Cups, the Cougars five. In that time, Washington’s cumulative record, including bowls, is 55-82. WSU is only marginally worse, 44-91.
So in recent times, there has been a lot of bad football by both schools. Advantage, none.
This year, however the annual contest is not the traditional Effluvia Bowl. The Cougars are 8-3 and ranked 20th, while unranked UW is 5-6 and finds itself in the usual and accustomed WSU position of needing a triumph in the final regular season game to salvage dignity.
What’s going on here?
From the Cougars side, they have melded the two elements essential to success in American business: Luck and a gimmick.
The luck is having been in the Pac-12 Conference when college-sports television rights fees exploded. The $25 million-plus annual payment per school from the Pac-12 Networks has allowed the Cougars to rise from the conference ghetto. An upgraded Martin Stadium and its football operations house is in keeping with every other middle-class joint in the West Coast neighborhood. The money also affords the school the opportunity to hire a successful eccentric, Mike Leach, as coach.
The gimmick is Leach’s offense, the Air Raid, which is the sort of shiny object that has great appeal to young people, while not requiring many hulking offensive linemen who are hard to find. While some may question the term gimmick, there have been numerous presidential administrations and giant corporations that have been largely gimmicks. They all worked until they didn’t.
Speaking of long-term changes in the game, the Huskies have sought to turn their fortunes by handing the football franchise to a guy who helped make a team from Idaho, fercripesake, into a national powerhouse.
In two years, Chris Petersen has had his struggles, but the freshmen he has deployed this season have offered glimpses of imminent glory. And he’s had the best defense in the Pac-12 two years running.
It would be appropriate here to quote some Huskies players on the grand sweep of the tepid rivalry. But we cannot, as Petersen banned player interviews this week. Citing excuses such as the short week and the holiday, he has sealed off access to players on the trash-talkingest week in state sports.
Speaking of changes: Petersen’s sequestering of his players is a splendid way to help sterilize what was once a fun week. At least Leach allowed three players to speak, bravely exposing them to the risk of getting media cooties.
Leach’s big media problem? Leach.
After a triumph Saturday over Colorado, in which his star quarterback, Luke Falk, was taken off the field on a backboard and hospitalized after a blow to the head, Leach told an ESPN national TV audience that Falk “was healthy as can be. We rested him in the second half.”
A nation looks gratefully to the sky and thanks whatever deity was responsible for keeping Leach out of medical school.
Petersen at least made himself available Monday. He was asked whether WSU’s success this year and beyond had ominous portents for recruiting.
“These schools are much different,” he said. “The geography and where they’re located . . . there’s a lot of, to each his own. Some kids don’t want to live in the city; some kids don’t want to live in a smaller town.
“But at the end of the day, as coaches, no matter where you are, people get excited about guys winning games. That’s what we think about in recruiting: We’ve got to win more. Sometimes you can have the beautiful (facilities), the ‘mosts’ of everything, but if you don’t win enough, it doesn’t matter.”
Now that WSU appears to have caught up in facilities and coaching, and has the better season in 2015, it’s fair to consider that, given Pullman’s natural advantages in parking (free) and commute time (10 minutes to anywhere), they are building a colossus in the Palouse.
The Huskies’ only hope Friday is that the Cougars are inexperienced in the art of playing when they have something to lose.