Forty years later, 1972 Cougars still shine

TO TRULY GRASP the importance of the 1972 Washington State football season, says Tom Poe, who was a star junior linebacker on that club, you must understand the six years prior. The '72 season was more than just memorable -- it was almost a dream-come-to-life for players and fans because of the nightmarish prequel.

"Two years before, my freshman year, we were the worst team in the country," said Poe, who ranks among the most prolific tacklers in Cougar history. "And we were dealing with USC and Nebraska and schools with unlimited scholarships. There was no level playing field … so it was difficult to compete."

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In addition to being a winner, with a 7-4 record and No. 17 national ranking, the 1972 team was the first at WSU to play in the then-brand new Martin Stadium. This Saturday, as Cougar Nation cuts the ribbon on the renovated Martin, the '72 team will be on hand for a reunion.

Forty years after the fact, the pride still burns bright.

Players, coaches and other personnel from that team will be honored before the kickoff between WSU and EWU and they'll participate in the coin toss.

TY PAINE set a school record for total offense as a starter from 1970-72. He threw for 5,000 career air yards and was 2nd-team All-Coast in '72. Drafted by the New York Giants.

"I'm thrilled that they're going to be here to be part of it," said WSU Athletic Director Bill Moos, who was a senior co-captain and all-league offensive lineman for the Cougs in ‘72. "It's going to be really special."

He calls the squad "one of the premier teams" in Washington State history.

"The '72 team came off a four-win season and really found within itself the leadership and determination to turn the program around and really make a statement that year. It really was a turnaround … We've talked to our team this year about the similarities," Moos said.

To put the impact of '72 into proper perspective, consider that the seven wins equaled WSU's total from 1966 to 1970 combined.

A glimmer of what was to unfold that season could be found in the 1971 campaign. The Cougs went 4-7 that year but they were competitive week in and week out and pulled off a stunning upset of reigning and soon-to-be-repeat conference champion Stanford on the road. And five of their seven losses that year were by 10 points or less.

When the '72 team opened the season with a come-from-behind 18-17 win at Kansas, the trajectory for the turnaround was fully established.

"That game really gave us the confidence we needed, and illustrated the character of that team," said Moos, noting that the Cougs trailed 17-0 going into the fourth quarter.

They went on to beat Arizona, Idaho, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford and Washington.

For head coach Jim Sweeney, who inherited a mess in 1968 when he replaced Bert Clark, the season was part vindication and a whole lot validation. The Cougs had won five games in his first three seasons – just one each in 1969 and 1970. And they didn't just lose. Many of the setbacks were cringe inducing. In one four-week stretch in '70 against the Pac-8's four California schools the Cougars lost by an average score of 58-14.

It was a different story in '72, and the perfect cap to it all was the Apple Cup in Spokane, pitting two nationally ranked teams: the Cougars at No. 20 and the Huskies No. 17.

It was the first time both schools entered the game in the top 20.

ERIC JOHNSON was a three-year starter at WSU who went on to play in the NFL, WFL and USFL before embarking on a long career in high school and college coaching. He also appeared in several classic football movies from the ‘70s and ‘80s: Semi-Tough, North Dallas Forty, and Best of Times.

The game was a nail-biter for three quarters, with Washington leading 10-3 midway through the second half. Then the Cougars went into overdrive on both sides of the ball. Wazzu won it going away, 27-13.

Eric Johnson, the junior free safety from Moses Lake whom Sweeney had nicknamed Bambi, intercepted three Sonny Sixkiller passes, while sophomore linebacker Gary Larsen danced his way to three sacks, and junior linebacker Clyde Warehime blocked a punt.

On offensive, quarterback Ty Paine ran the option veer to perfection and scored both the tying and game-winning TDs on one-yard runs. Joe Danelo two field goals

Emotions ran high the entire day.

"The refs were kind of panicked," remembers Johnson, who is the long-time defensive coordinator at California prep powerhouse Mater Dei. "The game was kind of crazy. I mean, (Larsen) was doing dances over Sonny Sixkiller."

Despite the seven wins, no bowl berth was awaiting the Cougars. Back then, the Pac-8 only sent the conference champion to the postseason. That year it was USC.

"Today, that would have been a Holiday Bowl team, but we didn't get that opportunity," Moos said, his voice tinged with irony. "In those days, you couldn't go to a bowl unless it was the Rose Bowl."

BILL MOOS was one of two Cougar linemen named first-team all-conference in 1972. The other was sophomore Steve Ostermann.

Regardless, it was quite a note to go out on.

"It was a great end beating Stanford and then the Huskies," said Johnson, who calls the 1972 Apple Cup the highlight of his college career. "The governor gave me a trophy for defensive player of the game."

But one of the most memorable aspects of the game wasn't directly related to the play on the field.

"The Cougar fans were throwing apples at the Huskies," Johnson said with a laugh. "They were giving out apples since it was the Apple Cup and during the game, the fans were pelting them.

"They had to make an announcement to stop throwing apples."

Poe, who now lives in Black Diamond and runs Tom Poe Diamond Jewelers in Enumclaw, said he has actually had to don purple and gold on occasion in recent years. His son, T.J., played for Washington from 2005-09.

"You won't like this, but here was a time when I actually had to root for the Huskies," he said with a laugh.

But this weekend, it's all about the crimson and gray.

"I'm so excited about it," Poe said. "The more I look back at that age, the more I see that it really was a special team. Sweeney was among the best of all time – and he had great people behind him."

Moos, who helped recruit Poe out of Enumclaw High School, was one those people. Poe says.

"He was as classy then as he is now," he said.

For Moos' part, he harkens back to the old crew when he's talking to recruits.

"I tell (them) that they may have some great friends now in high school, but their best friends are going to be their teammates that they don't even know yet," he said. "That was the case for us, too."

NOW AND THEN: The Cougars' starting linebackers of 1972. (McQuarrie Photo)


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