You may think that Friday’s Apple Cup is a big game for both Washington and Washington State, given the traditional bragging rights, the unusual West Coast football stakes for each program, and even a national discussion surrounding the Cougars’ distant shot at a berth in the College Football Playoffs.
While all of that is true, there is potentially a more lasting consequence for Wazzu.
WSU has a shot at being . . . cool.
Thanks to the confluence of an iconoclastic coach, a charismatic quarterback and a relatively weak Pac-12 Conference football landscape, the Cougars’ 10-1 season is a national talker that may be reaching launch point for a new way of looking at the old cow college.
ESPN’s Game Day show, a cringe-worthy bit of fluff, hype and pointlessness, came to campus for the first time last month and was embraced like the Allies entering Paris. Naturally, the easily flattered World Wide Leader, the owner of big-time college sports, jumped into the engine of the hype train.
QB Gardner Minshew’s performance, back-story and mustache have catapulted him into the pantheon of pop-culture folk insta-heroes: The World’s Most Interesting Young Man. He even has a cinematic antecedent: Uncle Rico in Napoleon Dynamite.
Minshew’s popularity is such that it nearly and inadvertently induced an NCAA rules violation this week, when Pullman’s next door neighbor of Colfax proposed a civic celebration: Gardner Minshew Days.
The fops that run the national governing body demanded a stop, lest WSU be in violation of the prohibition against outsiders’ use of a player’s name and likeness, which might generate cash to someone other than Minshew’s employers. The kerfuffle made USA Today.
And of course, Leach is the deadpan artist of the absurd tangent, a sort of lumpy Steven Wright. Leach may be the first football coach in history to have his audience implore him not to talk football. ESPN even sent game analyst and former Huskies QB Brock Huard to accompany and film him on Leach’s daily three-mile walk from home to work. We didn’t learn much, but the suspense was tangible.
The upshot of this charm offensive — against a Pac-12 backdrop of roaring football mediocrity — is creation an image of WSU as more than UW’s little brother, more than a frontier outpost, more than a magnet for ag jokes. The school could become cool, with a cachet that attracts rather than repels.
Football success may even outstrip legendary reputation as a party school. But that may be fading, anyway. WSU has not made Princeton Review’s top 25 party schools in years. A terrible thing, adulthood.
In some ways, the potential for WSU to re-brand itself through football success is somewhat like what Gonzaga did with men’s basketball.
In the late 1990s, the small Catholic school in Spokane had declining enrollments, annual operating deficits and regular layoffs. Then in 1999, the 10th-seeded Bulldogs reached the round of eight in the NCAA basketball tournament, the start of what would become 19 consecutive tourney appearances.
Freshman enrollment, which bottomed out at 550 the year before, had 700 students after the tourney surprise, followed by 900 the next season. Now it has capped enrollment at 1,200 and has had a campus-wide facilities boom, including the $23 million McCarthey Athletic Center that was funded largely privately.
Gonzaga is hardly alone in experiencing bumps in enrollment and donations after sports success. The phenomenon even has a name: The Flutie Effect, named for Boston College QB Doug Flutie, whose touchdown pass against Miami in 1984 prompted a major spike in enrollment.
While it seems ridiculous to base a choice of college on the frivolity of touchdown passes and jump shots, the fact is that nothing gets a school’s brand in front of more eyeballs than sports, particularly in a time when social media has become the platform by which young people experience the world.
“The primary form of mass media advertising by academic institutions in the United States is, arguably, through their athletic programs,” said Harvard Business School assistant professor of marketing Doug J. Chung, who authored a study in 2013 on the subject. Among his findings were that when a school rises from mediocre to great on the football field, applications increase by 18.7 percent.
The analogy between Gonzaga and WSU’s potential is not exact. Gonzaga’s success is based partly on its domination of the weak West Coast Conference. It also helps to have the same coach, Mark Few, for two decades. Although Leach likes small-town Pullman, he has professed no particular loyalty to the school, and almost took the vacant job at Tennessee last off-season.
But it’s a good gig now, because he’s shown he can recruit to his spread offense, which can work with most good quarterbacks, and linemen who don’t have to be athletic AND 300 pounds.
What football recruits and regular students can see steadily on TV and social media is playful mustaches, 69-point scoring orgies and success. And a coach who says this about football upsets:
Yet even when the Cougars, a three-point favorite, win the Apple Cup 31-28, as I suspect they will do Friday, people will be surprised. But they will be legitimately surprised when the Cougars and Washington State become cool.
Because, well, that’s never happened.