Relive the Roses
Aug. 26, 2007
By Jason Krump
New Year's Day, 1931.
Entering the 1997 college football season, New Year's Day of 1931 was marked in history as the last time a Washington State Cougar team had set foot on the Rose Bowl field.
Sure, there had been close calls since then. Head Coach Babe Hollingbery, who led the Cougars to the 1931 Rose Bowl, nearly led his team back to Pasadena on several other occasions.
But with the arrival of World War II came the suspension of the football program. Football returned in 1945, but Coach Hollingbery did not; and with his departure so seemingly went the Cougars' chances of smelling the roses.
It wasn't until 13 years later, in 1958, that the Cougars found themselves on the brink of another Rose Bowl trip. Entering their game against Washington, the Cougars needed a win and a California loss to Stanford in order to earn a berth to Pasadena. Washington State did its part, defeating the Huskies 18-14; however, the Rose Bowl dreams were dashed as California squeaked by Stanford 16-15.
Visions of a Rose Bowl did not reappear until over two decades later, twenty-three years to be exact. Unlike 1958, however, the 1981 team's destiny was in its own hands as a win over Washington at Husky Stadium guaranteed a Rose Bowl berth.
It was not to be, as WSU fell 23-10. The consolation prize was a trip to the Holiday Bowl, ending the Cougars' 51-year bowl game drought, but the Rose Bowl absence continued.
Another 16 years passed by before WSU once again found itself in an Apple Cup at Husky Stadium, on the brink of a trip that many Cougar fans had resigned themselves to believe would never happen again.
This Rose Bowl possibility was an opportunity that had blossomed throughout the 1997 season; however, the seeds of the team's 1997 success were actually planted at the end of the Cougars' 1996 campaign and the Apple Cup in Pullman.
'Our guys were upset. They couldn't wait to get back that next year. It broke everyone's heart and I think from then on they were on a mission.'
The Cougars began the 1996 season strongly at 5-2. During this start they upset No. 25 Oregon and No. 19 California. A bowl berth, what would be their third in five years, seemed likely.
But a four-game losing skid, capped by a 31-24 overtime defeat to Washington at Martin Stadium erased any bowl hopes WSU may have had. The Apple Cup defeat was made more excruciating as the final result negated a furious comeback by the Cougars.
One first down, 16 total yards, zero passing yards. This is what the WSU offense produced in the first half as the Cougars went into the break down 10-0.
With those statistics, things seemingly couldn't become much worse for the Cougars, but they did. A 10-point deficit soon turned to 24 as a pair of Corey Dillon touchdowns extended the Huskies' lead to 24-0 at the 7:51 mark of the third quarter. A field goal put the Cougars on the scoreboard, but they still found themselves down by three touchdowns heading into the final quarter.
However, the field goal began a string of 24 unanswered points as WSU erupted for three fourth-quarter touchdowns. The comeback was capped by a Michael Black 10-yard touchdown run with 1:18 left in regulation, bringing the game into overtime.
After Washington opened the extra session with a touchdown, WSU quickly threatened to tie the score once again, reaching the 7-yard line on a Ryan Leaf 18-yard pass to Kevin McKenzie. On the drive's third play, Black rushed to the one, but the play was nullified by a holding call, which pushed the Cougars back to the 21-yard line. On fourth and 23, Leaf completed a pass to Chad Carpenter for what would have been a potential game-tying touchdown, if not for the fact that he was ruled out of bounds, sending WSU to its fourth straight defeat.
'That was our chance to go to a bowl and we lost,' said Mike Walker, a graduate assistant coach on the 1996 team and a member of the 1981 Holiday Bowl team. 'Our guys were upset. They couldn't wait to get back that next year. It broke everyone's heart and I think from then on they were on a mission.'
'It motivated us that we knew that we were better,' Leaf said of the Cougars' finish to the 1996 season.
There would be plenty of memories of 1996 on the 1997 team. Heading into the season, the Cougars featured 15 starters among the 43 letterwinners returning.
'I thought we were very talented,' Leaf recalled. 'Hopefully, that's always the mindset of a quarterback going into a football season. I believe if you think you're not talented you're not going to be successful. I felt like we had a good team.'
Leaf's head coach shared the same belief.
'I thought we would have a pretty good team,' Mike Price said. 'In 1996, there were three games where we lost on the last play. We knew we were close.'
Despite the breadth of experience coming back, not many of the 'experts' gave the Cougars much of a chance to compete in the upper echelon of the Pacific-10 Conference in 1997, let alone ending a nearly seven decade drought.
In an annual preseason poll of West Coast media, the Cougars were picked seventh in the Pac-10, ahead of Oregon, California and Oregon State.
'Standard operating procedure for Washington State,' Price said.
It was the Cougars' intrastate rival that was garnering the attention. The media tabbed Washington as the favorite to go to the Rose Bowl, as the Huskies received 28 of 31 first place votes in the poll. Stanford was picked second and received the three remaining first place votes; USC was third, UCLA fourth.
In its preview of WSU, The Spokesman-Review said of the Cougars: 'A relatively soft three-game non-conference schedule gives the Cougars a chance to go 7-4 and qualify for a bowl - even if they're just .500 in the Pac-10.'
WSU did not have to wait long to find out where it stood in the conference. UCLA was coming into town for a visit, Aug. 30.