"It was a pretty easy choice, and I had four wonderful years in Pullman," Sheron said in a recent phone interview from the long-time dental practice he operates in Vancouver with his two sons.
By the time Sutherland's replacement, Bert Clark, took the helm in 1964, Sheron had morphed into a 6-5, 235-pound sophomore.
The timing was perfect.
Sutherland's pass-oriented offense featured a split end, flanker and wingback, but no tight end, and likely would have resulted in Sheron playing mostly on defense, or perhaps transferring. But Clark's run-oriented offense put the tight end on center stage.
The position was so new in those days that in an article on Sheron in a game-day program, the words "strong side" are put in parentheses next to the term "tight end," apparently to avoid confusion among the faithful as to where exactly he'd be on the field. In the WSU media guide to this day, he is simply listed as an E (end) and his understudy, Bob Simpson, is dubbed an OE (offensive end).
By the conclusion of the decade, thanks to the precise route running and feathery hands of John Mackey and Mike Ditka in the NFL, the tight end was a staple across the country. But in the mid-60s, especially in college, it was just gaining traction.
"Rich was the prototype of today's tight end – big, could run, soft hands, an extraordinary blocker," remembers Jerry Henderson, a Cougar quarterback from 1965-68. "He really was 20 years ahead of his time -- football was oriented toward the run in those days. The passing game was three yards and a cloud of blood."
Sheron played both ways as a sophomore, knocking heads as a linebacker on defense, but said he "loved" playing tight end. "It was built for me. I was fast enough and agile enough with my size and I could block – that was my strength. And I had good hands."
But he had no clue about the pioneering nature of his work.
"I just wanted to do the best I could with the talent I had and this was a natural position," said Sheron, who regularly gets to Pullman for games with his wife and college sweetheart, Joanie, and sometimes the grandkids too. "I didn't know I was the first tight end. As a kid, you have no sense of that kind of thing. Next week is about as far as you look."
COUGAR TIGHT ENDS|
Counting the Ways
The jersey number worn by five starting Cougar tight ends since 1964. No other number comes close to that many starters. The 89ers are Jim Forrest (pictured at right), Pat Beach, Chris Leighton, Brett Carolan, and Eric Moore.
Yardage of the longest TD pass involving a Cougar tight end: Carl Barschig (pictured at right) and QB Chuck Peck teamed up for long-distance paydirt in the 1974 Apple Cup. The second-longest tight end TD reception covered 63 yards, on an Eric Moore slant route and Chad Davis pass at ASU in 1994.
Jersey number of 1998 Rose Bowl team mainstay Love Jefferson, the only starting TE in WSU history not to wear a number in the 40s, 80s or 90s. Besides the unique number, he also owns the greatest first name of any Cougar tight end. He had 35 receptions for 526 yards from 1996-98.
Most catches in one game by a Cougar tight end: Ron Souza (pictured at right) against Oregon in 1968 and Brett Carolan against Montana in 1992. Coincidentally, Souza and Carolan went to Northern California high schools just 40 miles part.
The number of notable Cougar tight ends who hailed from rural Eastern Washington. The list starts with the Leighton brothers out of Liberty High in Spangle. Vince (1980-84; pictured at right) and Chris Leighton (1985-87) nearly owned the position for a decade. They caught a collective 84 passes for 948 yards and & 7 TDs. Other TEs from farm country were Bob Simpson (1965-67) of Edwall, Jim Forrest (1970-72) of Ephrata, Pat Beach (1978-81) of Pullman, Doug Welllsandt (1987-89) of Ritzville, and Jon Kincaid (1995-97) of Colfax. In addition, there was Jamie White (1981-84) of Lapwai, east of Lewiston, who played a little TE and OT.
Members of the WSU 1,000+ yards receiving club who are tight ends: Butch Williams (1,263), Troy Bienemann (1,072; pictured at right) and Brett Carolan (1,008). Three others narrowly missed: Doug Wellsandt (925), Cody Boyd (947) and Pat Beach (936).
The number of Super Bowl rings collected by Cougar tight ends in the NFL. Eason Ramson (pictured at right) played for the 49ers when they won it all in 1982 and Brett Carolan was a Niner when they claimed the title in 1995.
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He caught 15 passes as a sophomore on the three-win Cougar team of '64 and then attracted wide attention in '65 as a blocker -- Clark deemed him the finest on the team -- and pass-catcher on WSU's unforgettable Cardiac Kids club, which narrowly missed a Rose Bowl berth. He caught 17 passes that season, including the game winner from Tom Roth with 36 seconds left in the season opener at Iowa. He averaged a head-turning 16.6 yards per catch.
"We had just one pass play where the tight end was the primary target," Sheron recalled. "Tom (quarterback Roth) would roll out weak side and I would run a gap down the middle. That was it … Our passing attack mostly focused on (receiver) Doug Flansburg, who was a great one."
Going into his senior season in 1966, Sheron was billed as an All-America candidate, and was featured on the cover of the Cougar media guide.
Unfortunately, most of that final year for him was ruined by concussion and knee problems. He played just one-and-a-half games, catching six passes.
Still, the New York Jets saw his skill and nabbed him in the second round of the 1967 draft, the first merged draft of the NFL and AFL. He was the 37th overall pick -- a spot today that would earn $1 million-plus per year.
As interesting as he found the notion of catching Joe Namath passes, the money in pro ball was modest then, especially after the bonus wars ended with the AFL and NFL merger. Moreover, given the series of concussions he sustained in college, the idea of becoming Dr. Sheron seemed a whole lot more appealing than being Mr. Smelling Salts.
For the Cougs, however, it didn't matter which route he took out of Pullman because the path for the tight end position at WSU had been blazed in convincing fashion.
For 45 straight seasons following Sheron, the Cougars hit the field with a tight end in formation. The just-concluded campaign, featuring the no-tight-end-Air Raid, brought an end to that era.
And what an era it was.
Eleven Cougar tight ends after Sheron were NFL draft picks or free agent signees, and seven of them played at least one season in the league. Pat Beach, out of Pullman High, is the dean of them, having turned in 11 NFL campaigns.
Asked to pick the best of the best who ever played the position at WSU, Sheron remains a team player.
"Boy, there have been so many good ones, and so many who went on to the NFL. That's hard. You know, anybody who plays for the Cougs is my favorite -- I can't pick just one."
Cougfan.com isn't nearly as magnanimous. After consulting an array of long-time WSU observers, we have come up with a top 10 of the greatest ever to play tight end on the Palouse.
And while there was no shortage of candidates for the list, the race for the No. 1 spot clearly came down to two: Pat Beach and Clarence "Butch" Williams.
The case for both is compelling.
Beach, who played for the Cougs from 1978-81, was the second-most prolific pass-catching tight end in WSU history by the time he graduated, with 63 receptions for 936 yards. As a senior, he helped lead the Cougs to their first bowl game in 51 years and was named first-team All-American by The Sporting News and second-team All-American by the Newspaper Editors Association. He is the only Cougar tight end ever recognized nationally.
Williams, the son of 1960s WSU All-American back Clancy Williams, achieved something no other WSU tight end did: he was named first-team all-conference. But get this: he earned the honor threestraight seasons, from 1990-92. There's only five other Cougs in history who can boast that kind of trifecta of recognition and most of them are in the WSU hall of fame (Earl Dunlap, Ed Goddard, Hugh Campbell, Steve Ostermann and Jason Hanson). And while he was known primarily for his blocking skills, Williams also holds the WSU tight end record for receptions (95) and yards (1,263).
So who gets the No. 1 spot on our top 10 list?
The photo essay that follows provides the answer, as we offer up our picks, starting with 10 and progressing to 1, for the best of the best …
SPECIAL THANKS to former WSU assistant athletic director and sports information director Rod Commons for his incredible assistance with this project.