3 old Cougs reflect on their QB controversies

THE TERM "quarterback controversy" is as much a part of football as Xs and Os. There haven't been a lot of them at Washington State over the decades, and the way Jeff Tuel played in spring ball there wouldn't appear to be one brewing, but the ones that did flare up over the years can still generate fiery debates among the crimson faithful. But what about the guys actually involved on the field?

Did they then, or do they now, get fired up over it?

CF.C tracked down three old Cougar signal callers to get their thoughts about one of the great fan obsessions in football.

Some "controversies" are purely fan generated (see Alex Brink vs. Gary Rogers, for instance), while others are simply settled by alternating playing time (Ricky Turner vs. Clete Casper) or injury (Turner vs. Mark Rypien). But others aren't so clean. For good or for ill, those are the ones that tend to become part of the lore of the position and the program.

Cougfan.com recently talked with three former WSU quarterbacks who were involved in not one controversy each, but two -- or in one case, three -- apiece in their time on the Palouse.

Here are some of their insights and lasting impressions -- impressions that can run deep; more than a dozen years after taking his last snap at WSU, Steve Birnbaum was emphatic that he had no desire to talk about his experiences for this story.


vs. Chuck Peck & Mike Mitchell in 1973
vs. Chuck Peck & John Hopkins in '74
vs. John Hopkins & Jack Thompson in '76

Wally Bennett's undoing proved to be himself – or, more specifically, his inability to stay healthy. He sustained season-ending injuries during two of his five seasons at WSU. Because of that, said Bennett, who has spent the last 35 years as an engineer at CH2M Hill in Bellevue, "I didn't get a lot of playing time, but I enjoyed the experience and I was glad to have the opportunity."

Bennett started his sophomore year as a third-stringer, first behind JC transfer Mike Mitchell and then junior Chuck Peck, but by the fourth game of the 1973 season, Peck was in coach Jim Sweeney's doghouse and Bennett was elevated to No. 1. That is, until the Cougars visited USC, and Bennett separated his shoulder shortly before halftime.

"We lost the game," said the Bellevue (Newport High) product, "but we had a very impressive first half and were ahead at halftime."

With Peck back at the helm, the Cougars, a pre-season Top 20 pick by Sports Illustrated, went 4-0 in November to finish with a 4-3 conference record (5-6 overall), good enough for fourth place in the Pac-8.

That made Peck the heir apparent in 1974, but Sweeney wasn't convinced, and alternated among Peck, Bennett and John Hopkins throughout the season.

"None of us really dominated," said Bennett, who continued to battle injuries that season. "We just kept trading back and forth."

"There wasn't anybody that stepped forward and showed enough consistency to be a starting quarterback," he said. "I don't know if I could have been that consistent quarterback because I proved to be a little fragile."

As a true senior in 1975, Bennett finally won the job outright, only to go down with a season-ending injury in the opening game, a victory over Kansas, and wound up redshirting. That opened the door for Hopkins, who proceeded to have a solid season that firmly ensconced him as the No. 1 quarterback going into the 1976 campaign.

Bennett was granted a fifth year of eligibility, but said he struggled in '76 with the transition from Sweeney's veer offense to Jackie Sherrill's wide-open passing attack.

Unsung sophomore Jack Thompson, on the other hand, did not.

"He had an arm that never got tired, which is something I struggled with," Bennett said of Thompson. "I had a difficult time with the amount of repetition at that level and staying injury free."

Still, Thompson remained third string behind Hopkins and Bennett. Then fate stepped into the mix. In the second quarter of the second game of the season, a losing effort at Minnesota, Hopkins had a problem with his helmet and came to the sidelines for assistance. The Cougs had no time outs left, so Sherrill ordered Bennett into the game but his helmet was back on the bench. In the brief moment of confusion and the clock ticking, Thompson unilaterally inserted himself in the game (the full tale of which can be found here).

It was a position he would never relinquish, and soon the legend of the Throwin' Samoan would be born.

Thompson's leapfrogging of the two seniors, Hopkins and Bennett, created some tension, Bennett said.

"You get along with your competitors for the position, but everybody wants to be the starter," he said. "Still, you appreciate someone else doing a good job, so it's an interesting tension."


vs. Aaron Garcia in 1989
vs. Aaron Garcia & Drew Bledsoe in '90

Junior lefty Brad Gossen was mostly an unknown commodity to Cougar fans in 1989 when he became the No. 1 quarterback following Timm Rosenbach's early departure for the NFL. But after leading the offense to 87 points and two victories – including a nationally televised nail biter over BYU – to start the Mike Price era he was the toast of Planet Coug. Buttons began circulating that read "Timm Who?" and he no longer needed his real name to be identified; the "Goose" was flying high<.br>
In the third game of that '89 season – another 40-point plus effort and win by the Cougs – Gossen injured the thumb on his passing hand. Second-year freshman Aaron Garcia took over and the Cougs proceeded to win three of their next five, with the two losses being narrow ones to nationally ranked USC and Arizona. The controversy talk was well under way: Who should be No. 1 when Gossen returns?

Gossen was back in uniform for the third-to-last game of the year, at Arizona State. Garcia started, but struggled, so Price put Gossen in and he proceeded to light up the scoreboard. The Cougs lost 44-39, and much, though not all, of the QB talk subsided. The Cougs wound up losing their next two games as well and finished the year 6-5 and bowl-less.

Gossen was determined that his final season would have a different outcome, "but my senior year is when things got a little crazy."

He beat out Garcia for the starting job coming out of fall camp in 1990 and looked so good doing it that Price predicted Gossen would lead the nation in passing efficiency. Mind you now, Garcia had led the Pac-10 in passing efficiency the previous season.

When the Cougars fell to 2-3, fans were talking about Garcia getting another shot at the helm. Price, however, was weighing another idea: Burning the redshirt of true freshman Drew Bledsoe. In Week Six, at USC, with the Cougars struggling on offense, Price made the Bledsoe call.

"They figured the season was pretty much lost, so why not give the young guy some experience," Gossen said. "That was kind of a tough year."

Making matters worse was discord among the players -- not the quarterbacks themselves; they actually got along pretty well, but other teammates had vocal opinions on who should be playing: Gossen, Garcia or Bledsoe?

"There was not a consensus my last year on who should be playing," he said. "That made things kind of difficult."

Two weeks after the USC game, Gossen's troublesome right non-throwing shoulder had finally reached the point he needed surgery, so he missed the final three games of the season and his career. He completed 96 of 160 passes for 1,128 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions in ‘90.

With the future clearly in Bledsoe's hands, Garcia transferred to Sacramento State and then launched a stellar career in the Arena Football League that's still ongoing with the San Antonio Talons.

Gossen lives in Orange County, Calif., where he grew up, and owns an employee benefits administration business. He said he has never regretted his time in Pullman.

"It was a great five years, and I wouldn't have changed anything."


vs. Steve Birnbaum in 1998
vs. Steve Birnbaum & Jason Gesser in '99

Paul Mencke grew up playing football in the backyard of his Spokane home and dreaming about being the Cougars' quarterback. He never would have guessed it would actually happen. He also never guessed he would spend much of his time at starter battling for his job.

The situation was set up by Ryan Leaf's early departure for the NFL. Steve Birnbaum had been No. 2 behind Leaf in 1997 and Mencke was a redshirt freshman at No. 4 behind senior Dave Muir, but heading toward 1998 it looked like newly signed JC transfer Bryan Paul, who had spurned offers from California and Pittsburgh to sign with the Cougars, would be the leading contender to start.

Instead, Paul struggled to grasp the intricacies of Price's offense and never played a down for the Cougars before transferring. Birnbaum, who had missed spring ball with a knee injury, won the job in August and started the first six games before knee and elbow injuries shelved him for the next three weeks.

Enter Mencke, who had seen action in five of those first six games -- thus fueling the controversy fire.

"It was living a dream, but once you become the quarterback and start a few games, you start to see the politics of it," said the Spokane (Lewis and Clark) product. "There are advantages and disadvantages of politics, but it becomes a little more of a business than when you're a young kid throwing in the backyard."

Mencke described the back-and-forth of the 1998 season, in which the Cougars went winless in conference play and became the first defending Pac-10 champion to fall to last place during the ensuing season as "living in kind of a contradiction."

Mencke had a team-high 10 touchdowns, but also threw 11 interceptions and completed just 45.5 percent of his passes. Birnbaum's completion rate was slightly better, but he only threw six touchdowns, while being intercepted 11 times.

"It was draining because it was always who's going to step up, who's going to start this week and you'd be thinking can I just get a few series to show that I can get rolling here," Mencke said. "But it was also exciting because you're in a battle with someone for the starting job."

When Mencke came off the bench to fire three TDs against Stanford and then followed up a week later with a 12-for-20, 156-yard effort in relief against the Huskies, the debate over the position was supercharged going into the off season.

In August camp, the question was put to Price daily. But it wasn't just Mencke or Birnbaum anymore. It was now Mencke, Birnbaum or second-year freshman Jason Gesser?

When Price finally announced before the opener against Utah that Birnbaum would be No. 1 and Gesser No. 2, the Cougan.com message board -- all of one-year-old at the time -- erupted in conflict.

Matters appeared to become more muddled in Week Two when Gesser went 11-for-23 for 120 yards in relief work at Stanford. An unprecedented loss to Idaho a week later fanned the anti-Birnbaum flames, but it became moot the following week when Gesser suffered a thumb injury against Arizona and didn't return until the final two games of the season -- the last of which he started.

Gesser's presence made the situation "that much more complex and dynamic," said Mencke, who wound up playing both receiver and QB that season. "As a young adult at the time, those things are sometimes hard to manage in your mind. … You don't always understand the intricacies and nuances of it.

"You just (want to go) full steam ahead and do what you can when you get out on the field."

Mencke admitted it was hard not knowing whether he would get those opportunities every week.

"It would be like, ‘Yeah, I'm pissed off today because I think I should be starting and that person is starting.' "

He credited his dad for giving him some needed perspective about the situation.

"I was able to step back and look at it and say hey, this is a privilege to be able to get a free education and be able to attend the school I always wanted to."

Now, Mencke is teaching at that very school. After five years as a businessman in the Tacoma area, he returned to WSU to earn his Ph.D in education, and has spent the last three years as a professor in the university's College of Education.

"It's really nice being back in Pullman," he said. "I love teaching here."

In fact, Birnbaum, who lives in the Seattle area, stays with the Menckes when he comes over for games.

Mencke said he prefers to not dwell on the past, but instead focus on his life now. Ironically, his now-6-year-old son found out that Daddy was a former football player from someone at daycare.

"You live in your glory days of being 21 and 22, but now I feel like I'm in my glory days," he said. "I look back at the past with excitement because it was a great time in my life, but I try to live in the present."


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