The Smilin' Irishman: 1929-2013

ONE OF THE most endearing people to ever roam the Palouse is gone. Former Cougar football coach Jim Sweeney passed away Friday night after recently being hospitalized. He was 83. He inherited a program in ruins when he arrived at WSU in 1968, but methodically built a foundation -- one that left a remarkable legacy that extended to Mike Price and remains bright today in Bill Moos.

Sweeney was in Pullman last fall for a reunion of his best Cougar team, the 1972 club, which won seven games and finished in the top 20 of both national polls. His health was failing at the time, but his personality -- as always -- stole the show.

Sweeney had just one winning season in his eight on the Palouse, yet remained popular throughout his tenure among students and alums because of his high-energy enthusiasm.

He told in an interview many years ago that he decided to resign in 1975 after a 33-21 loss to Cal in Week 3, but kept it quiet.


After a bitter, last-second loss to Washington in the final game of the season, he made it official two days later, though not without a twist thrown in along the way.

"I tell people I left there for health reasons. The alumni were sick of me," he would say.

As fate would have it, Sweeney would leave his successors, Jackie Sherrill and Warren Powers, the fruits of his best recruiting at WSU in the form of a dozen players who would go on to the NFL, including Dan Doornink, Eason Ramson, Jack Thompson and Ken Greene.

As a coach, Sweeney was known as firm, but fair, and no stranger to cussing if that was needed to get a point across. The end result was a generation of players, extending from Bozeman to Pullman and Fresno, who loved him.

Sweeney's losing record in Pullman was wedged between great success at Montana State on the front end and Fresno State on the back end. In all, he won 201 games as a college coach. He is one of only 71 coaches in the history of the college game to eclipse 200 wins.

With the blessing of author Dick Fry, we offer these memorable moments from the Sweeney Era with the following excerpt from Fry's epic book, The Crimson and the Gray...

Jim Sweeney's coaching record at Washington State belies his popularity at the school. Sweeney posted an unexceptional 29-59-1 mark at WSU. Yet he could have owned the school — and most of the sportswriters on the Pacific Coast, if he'd wanted ‘em -- because of a ready wit and Irish charm that usually disarmed his most severe critics. (And he had a surprisingly good record against the Huskies, 3-5; and it should have been 4-4)

When President Glenn Terrell announced Sweeney's hiring on January 17, 1968, he said the coach from Montana State so inspired him (in their first interview) "that I wanted to suit up."


Mike Price, Pinky Erickson, Jack Elway, Dennis Erickson, Joe Tiller, Sam Jankovich, Keith Lincoln, Sonny Holland, Ray Braun, Bill Cords, Dave Campo, Ron Mims, Kelly Skipper, Ken Greene, George Yarno, Leon Burtnett, Dave Telford and Bob Simpson.

THE RECORD: 201-153-4 overall, including 6-3 in bowl games. Won eight WAC/Big West/PCAA titles at Fresno State and three Big Sky titles at Montana State.

BEST COUGAR TEAM: 1972 club led by Ty Paine finished 7-4 and ranked in the top 20 in both national polls. Had big wins over Washington and Stanford to cap the season.

ALL-CONFERENCE PLAYERS AT WSU: Lionel Thomas, Steve Busch, Bernard Jackson, Don Sweet, Ron Mims, Bill Moos, Steve Ostermann, Tom Poe, Geoff Reece, Gary Larsen, Gavin Hedrick.

APPLE CUP RECORD: Set the WSU mark for most points in one game and largest margin of victory with a 52-26 thumping of the Dawgs in Seattle in 1973.

ON LEAVING WSU: "I tell people I left there for health reasons. The alumni were sick of me."

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It took Jim Sweeney all of one appearance — at halftime of a basketball game in old Bohler gym — to win over the student body as no football coach at WSU had since Babe Hollingbery. When he peeled off his coat, revealing a "Sweeney Red" Cougar tie, and yelled "Gimme a Ceee!," he had the students—and most of the rest of the crowd—right in his pocket.

Sweeney was 39-years-old when he came to WSU from Montana State. He was 3-6-1 his first season, and the Cougars didn't look bad. They got hammered by Arizona State, 41-14 at Tempe, but were very respectable in a 31-21 loss to UCLA (matching the Bruins 14-14 in the fourth quarter), and surprised everyone by tying Stanford 21-21.

When Sweeney resurrected senior quarterback Hank Grenda, of Burnaby, British Columbia, from the discards and beat Washington 24-0 in Spokane to end that 1968 season, the future looked rosy indeed. Grenda really had a day against the Huskies. He ran three yards for WSU's opening score, kicked a 26 yard field goal, threw touchdown passes of 64 and 24 yards to flanker Freddie Moore (Washington DC) and halfback Glen Shaw (Yakima), and kicked all three extra points!

THE LUCK O' THE IRISH continued into the 1969 opener. WSU beat Illinois 19-18 at Champaign on some fourth quarter magic. Tailback Bob Ewen, of Portland, passed 20 yards to Tacoma's Ed Armstrong to make it 18-16. Then, after the two-point conversion to tie failed, the Cougars stopped the Illini, took over and drove down for a 29-yard field goal attempt by defensive back Mike Monahan, of Portland, who'd kicked a 24-yarder in the first quarter. It was blocked!

But Illinois was called for holding and Monahan got another chance from the 12. Mike booted this one right through for the win.

All of Jim Sweeney's Irish luck apparently was used up in that game. The Cougars did not win another in 1969, and lost 10 in a row before defeating Idaho 44-16 in Spokane on September 19, 1970, in the "Displaced Bowl."

Both WSU and Idaho were without home fields in the 1970 season. Washington State's stadium (the south stands and press box, built in 1926) burned in a fire on April 4, 1970. Idaho's Neale Stadium had been condemned the year before. The Vandals played their 1969 schedule at Rogers Field and had planned to play there again in 1970. After the "Sweeney Fire" (so-called because the smilin' Irishman cheered the demise of the old wooden stadium), both WSU and Idaho played their "home" football games in 1970 in Spokane's Albi Stadium. Idaho moved into its "New Idaho Stadium" (now roofed and renamed "Kibbie Dome") in 1971, but WSU's new Martin Stadium was not completed until 1972. The Cougars played all of their "home" games in Spokane in 1970 and 1971, returning to dedicate "Martin Stadium and Academic Center" against Utah on September 30, 1972. ("It was all ‘academic,'" one wag said after Utah beat the Cougars 44-25 in the dedication game.)

AFTER THOSE horrendous seasons of 1969 and 1970 when his teams went 2-19, Sweeney began to turn the WSU program around in 1971. Jim found a game breaker in Bernard Jackson, a little sprinter out of Pierce Junior College in Los Angeles, and Ty Paine, his junior quarterback from Billings, Montana, was beginning to feel at home in Sweeney's option offense. Those two, along with Ken Grandberry, of Tacoma, and Ken Lyday, Wichita Falls, Texas, operating behind some Pac-8-quality lineman such as Jim Giesa, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho; Bill Moos, Edwall; Buzz Brazeau, Pullman; Wallace Williams, Bakersfield, California; Mike Johnson, Wenatchee; and Mike Talbot, San Leandro, gave the Cougars a solid ground game.

WSU surprised Minnesota 31-20 at Minneapolis in the third game of the 1971 season. Then, after a painful 24-23 loss to California in Spokane, the Cougars turned in the upset of the year by beating Stanford, the Pac-8's two-time Rose Bowl representative (in 1971 and 1972), 24-23 on a 27-yard field goal by Don Sweet, of Vancouver, British Columbia. (Sweeney always had the right crack at the right time for the media, and they loved him. After the game, one of the great nail-biters in Cougar football history, where WSU had driven 85-yards in the final 1:40 and Sweet kicked the winning goal as time ran out, Sweeney walked into the pressroom and said, "Well, there never was any doubt, huh?")

The following week, in Spokane, Sweeney pulled the old hidden ball trick on Oregon and Jackson ran 46 yards out of punt formation for what proved to be the winning score in a 31-21 chiller. Even some of the fans who saw that game still disagree about what actually happened.

With fourth down and seven, and trailing 21-17 in the fourth quarter, the Cougars sent Jim Dodd, of Seattle, into "punt formation." The ball was snapped by center Mike Hill, of Santa Clara, California, and Dodd kicked. The ball, however, had been snapped short, to fullback Ken Grandberry. Grandberry, still bent over in blocking position, shoved the ball ahead, between Bernard Jackson's legs as he, too, stood crouched as if to block. Then Grandberry faked a hand-off to flanker Don Transeth of San Jose, California, coming around from the left side.

Oh, it was complicated! Too complicated to work, really.

As the Cougars executed the play, an Oregon tackle stepped across the line of scrimmage, put his hand on Jackson's helmet momentarily and looked for the ball. The Cougar lineman peeled off as if in kick coverage, Jackson hesitated a count, and then sneaked down the east sideline 46 yards to score.

SWEENEY HAD HIS best season in 1972, going 7-4 and finishing in the top 20 of both national polls. The Cougars chalked up wins over Kansas, 18-17; Arizona, 28-6; Idaho 35-14; Oregon, 31-14; Oregon State, 37-7; Stanford, 27-13; and Washington, 27-10. For the first time in Cougar football history, WSU played a "home" game in Seattle—in Husky Stadium on November 4—and lost to USC 44-3, the only Cougar points coming on a record 50-yard field goal by Joe Danelo, of Spokane.

WSU slipped to 5-6 in 1973 and wallowed in a 2-9 morass in 1974 (including a 42-7 loss to Ohio State in another game played in Husky Stadium, and a 54-7 thumping from USC in Spokane), but Sweeney maintained his effervescence and was as popular as ever.

Two opening wins on the road in 1975 had the old smilin' Irishman positively beaming. WSU beat Kansas 18-14 at Lawrence and hammered Utah 30-14 at Salt Lake City. But then the Cougars dropped seven straight, hitting bottom in a 54-14 loss to Stanford at Palo Alto.

In the Washington game, the Cougars came to play, looking like the team that had dominated the Huskies in every department for three quarters while piling up a 27-14 lead. With 3:01 remaining and apparently driving for another score, the Cougars came up fourth and one on the Husky 14. Indecision. Timeout!

After a sideline conference, Quarterback John Hopkins huddled the Cougars and came out in running formation (no field goal, that is). But it was a pass, one of those quick, "look-in" jobs, intended for tight end Carl Barschig, of Pico Rivera, California. Barschig never got to the ball. Washington's Al Burleson stepped in front of the Cougar end, picked off Hopkins' toss and ran it back 93 yards for a touchdown. The conversion made it 27-21.

With only 2:47 left, WSU was alert for an onside kick, but the Huskies kicked it deep and the Cougars got the ball on their 20. Three plays gained eight yards and then Gavin Hedrick did his job—punted the ball 45 yards to the Huskies' Pedro Hawkins, who lost a yard on the runback attempt and was stopped on the UW 22.

Warren Moon, a sophomore who had replaced the ailing Chris Rowland at quarterback for some of the first half and all of the second, was 3 for 21 passing at this point and had been roundly booed by his own fans much of the afternoon. Now he was in an obvious passing situation again.

On first down from his own 22, Moon lofted a long one and, as Seattle Times' Dick Rockne wrote, "it appeared his twenty-second throw was to be at best an incompletion."

Two Cougars were in good position to defend against the pass, and they swatted Moon's Moon-shot—not away, but directly into the hands of Robert "Spider" Gaines, a Husky wide receiver. Gaines scored untouched on the 78-yard play.

THERE'S AN EVEN more ironic—or tragic—ending to this story. Steve Robbins' kick to break the tie appeared to have missed! Rowland, the holder, grabbed his head in despair. But an official signaled the kick good. The Huskies won 28-27, and Coach Don James was a winner in his first season at Washington, with a 6-5 record instead of the 5-6 he'd been staring at all afternoon.

"Sweeney went to see [President] Terrell the day after that game," Dr. Edward M. Bennett, a history professor and WSU's long-time Faculty Athletic Representative, recalled. "Jim was really low. He blamed himself for the loss, of course, and wanted to quit. Terrell talked him out of it. They sat down and talked about what could be done to help the program.

"By the time he got to the office on Monday morning, Sweeney was all charged up and ready to get started on his recruiting," Bennett said. "But whoever it was that usually opened the mail didn't show up that morning, so Sweeney opened it himself," Bennett recalled, shaking his head. "There was some real ‘hate stuff.'"

After Sweeney read those letters, he just sat down and wrote out his resignation.

Jim might have tumbled out of WSU, but he landed on his feet at Fresno State. His old boss at Montana State, Gene Bourdet, had moved to the San Joaquin Valley and was in need of a football coach. Sweeney signed on, and he and the Bulldog fans lived happily ever after.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Dick Fry worked at WSU for 33 years, retiring in 1985 as Manager of News Service after spending 13 years as Sports Information Director. His outstanding book, The Crimson and the Gray, a history of Cougar athletics, is referenced daily here at CF.C. We are honored Mr. Fry allowed us to republish a condensed excerpt from his work.

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