Jack Thompson: the all-time greatest Cougar

COUGFAN.COM IS out today with its all-time Washington State team. The choice at quarterback, Ryan Leaf, was unanimous. And if we’d polled the brain trust to pick the next in line, I’m pretty certain Jason Gesser would have dominated.

No Bledsoe. No Rosenbach, Rypien or Goddard.

And no Jack Thompson.

No Jack Thompson.

For anyone who followed Cougar football in the 1970s, the notion that Jack Thompson wouldn’t get a single vote for the all-time team is difficult to fathom. But it’s completely understandable given the holy grails that Leaf and Gesser secured for Cougar Nation.

As I noted in a column many years ago, Jack didn't beat the Dawgs. His best season was 6-5 -- one win short of an invitation to the Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl. And his NFL career stalled behind an All-Pro in Cincinnati and a porous offensive line in Tampa Bay.

But the fact is, Jack Thompson breathes rarefied air.

He wasn’t just a great college quarterback -- he was a spectacular college quarterback, finishing his WSU career as the most prolific passer in NCAA history. He was a first-team or honorable mention All-America choice three straight seasons.

More than that, Jack was the spiritual savior of Cougar football at a time nearly as dark as the non-winning seasons from 2004-2014. He doesn’t appear on CF.C's all-time team at quarterback, but we rank him in a class all his own: The Greatest Cougar Ever to Wear Crimson and Gray.

Before him, WSU had produced one winning season since 1965. As a sophomore on a weak team in 1976, he captured our imaginations with a never-say-die battle against mighty USC and uncanny two-minute drills on successive weekends against Oregon, OSU and Cal. He lit our collective Cougar flame like no one else. With Jack, we Cougar faithful were reborn. We knew that David could once again beat Goliath. He strapped us on his back and took us for a ride.

Magazine covers and Sports Illustrated features followed. Washington State was on the national map.

Throughout, he conducted himself with distinction. Personable, articulate and thoughtful, he was the guy every clear-thinking kid wanted to be.

In 1977, Thompson orchestrated the unthinkable: nail-biting road victories over Nebraska and Michigan State to open the season. The program that was in a shambles had returned to respectability.

Jack, however, was just getting started, with his remarkable character about to take center stage at another turning point for the program. In 1978, facing the specter of his fourth head coach in as many years (yes, you read that correctly), the NFL beckoned. At the same time, Hollywood came calling with the idea of a starring role in the movie Hurricane.

Serious lures for a 20-something kid.

His work, however, wasn’t done, Jack reasoned. He was in Pullman to get a degree and lead his team through the whirlwind of a revolving door in the head coach’s office.

That decision to complete his eligibility lent badly needed stability to the program and once again stoked the furnace of fan interest. When the Cougars routed Frank Kush’s heavily favored Arizona State team that September in the Sun Devils’ first-ever game as part of the Pac-10, the legend of the Throwin’ Samoan was cemented.

A year later his jersey number, 14, was retired by WSU. He and Mel Hein are the only Cougars to be so honored.

And yet the luster around Jack has only increased in the years since. That’s because he has shown a tireless commitment to Washington State University in countless ways for nearly four decades.

The quarterback debate at Ol' Wazzu will rage for generations. But for a shining moment in the late 1970s, and in the four decades since, he set the standard by which all Cougar quarterbacks — past, present and future — ought be measured.

From this corner, Jack Thompson is the greatest Cougar there ever was.

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