The Lure of the Irish

AS MUCH AS I hate to admit this, there was a time when my college football fancy turned east toward South Bend rather than south to Pullman. A dark period of my life, for sure, when the mystique of those brawling Irish lads seduced my young self away from my first – and true – love: Washington State Cougar football.

In my defense, back in late 1960s-early ‘70s Notre Dame football was—to use an entirely inappropriate analogy, but one that would've seemed logical to me then—Raquel Welch. And Cougar football was, well, more commonly akin to Ruth Buzzi.


Now, this is not to say, win or lose, my affection for Ol' Wazzu ever completely ceased. Not by a long shot. My household and heritage were solidly hued Crimson and Gray. I was well aware of the role my great-grandfather had in placing the land grant college that would become WSU in Pullman. I still had my grandpa regaling me with stories about the legendary Washington State coach, Lone Star Dietz. (So much so, in fact, that I was nearly college-aged before realizing Lone Star was not the household name Irish coach Knute Rockne was.) And, courtesy of my dad, I was no stranger to the 1930's era Cougs, particularly Mel Hein. All were worthy, if not quite equal, opponents to the deluge of Irish gridiron lore, with their mythical marquee names like Rockne, the Four Horsemen, and George "The Gipper" Gipp.


Yet, during my formative years, as Notre Dame was barely losing the Cotton Bowl to No. 1 ranked Texas on New Years Day, 1970—in still one of the greatest games I've ever seen—the Cougar season had long been over following a disastrous 1-9 campaign. And things got even worse for WSU the following year for coach Jim Sweeney and company, with another 1 win season, but this time with 10 losses. Indeed, Sweeney, known as the "Smilin' Irishman," and the Cougar Nation had little to grin about in those days.


But what really pulled me toward the Gold and Blue and away from the Crimson and Gray was not the Sports Illustrated covers, success, TV appearances, or legends—although these things helped—it was the incredible line connecting Notre Dame to my hometown of Spokane.


Three prominent Spokane athletes—Bill Etter, Bob Minnix, and Mike Oriard—of that era chose to test the "big-time" waters of college football by packing their bags for South Bend. This had an effect on the Lilac City that carries over even to this day. Just ask any male who was 7-16 years old and living in Spokane at the time.  Add to this that Oriard had not only gone to the same Catholic grade school I attended, he also happened to be an All-American and the older brother of one of my best friends!


It simply was a seduction much too powerful for a weak-willed young boy to resist.


Enter one powerful form of Cougar intervention: my cousin (and current chief of CF.C), just four months my senior, Greg Witter.


I don't think I really understood Greg's passion for the Cougs until my 9th birthday party. At my request, we all lined up and announced where we would be attending college. My jaw-dropped when, after hearing 7 Catholic schoolboy replies of "Notre Dame," Greg matter-of-factly responded "WSU."


Later that autumn, I noticed a strange phenomenon occurring on his bedroom walls. Pushed aside were his beloved SI posters of various Oakland Raiders and Los Angeles Dodgers for black and white 8 by 10 photos, supplied to him by his big brother Steve, of guys in classic football card poses, wearing Cougar uniforms, with names unrecognizable to me. Names like Steve Ostermann, Don Sweet, and Ron Mims.


But it was a photo of Cougar running back Bernard Jackson that not only had his wall's prime location, but also proved to be his most valuable tool in bringing my loyalties back home from the Golden Dome. Somehow, Greg sold me on the notion that Jackson was not only the fastest, most elusive back currently playing the game; he may just be the greatest—ever! It helped matters that Jackson nearly lived up to my cousin's hype that season, just as it helped the following year when our beloved Cougs finished 7-4 and ranked 17th and 18th in the final UPI and AP polls, respectively.


But credit for exorcizing those Irish demons from my Cougar soul belongs squarely to Greg. It was he who showed me that, while it may be quaint to have three hometown lads playing for the Irish, there were far more Spokane boys deserving of my support down in Pullman. And somehow, someway, Greg convinced me that admiring Ara Parseghian and Joe Theismann was all well and fine, but they couldn't hold a candle to Jim Sweeney and Ty Paine.


And over 30 years later, as Touchdown Jesus is my witness, I still believe him.

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