Using SI's formula—a decade's worth of seasons (1988 to 1997), volume of upper tier performers, and professional careers—we determined that no fewer than 14 Cougar linebackers could be considered the cream of the Pac-10 crop; a number that easily made WSU at least a runner-up for the LBU tag, we opined. We felt it also worth noting that this was without the inclusion of one of the greatest ‘backers in WSU history, Brian Forde, who graduated in 1986, and enjoyed a five-year NFL career with New Orleans and Atlanta.
Five of those WSU LB's were drafted into the NFL —Mark Fields (1st round, New Orleans, 1995),James Darling (2nd round, Philadelphia, 1997), Lewis Bush (4th round, San Diego, 1993), Chris Hayes, (7th round, New York Jets, 1996), and Dan Grayson (7th round, Pittsburgh, 1990).
Mark Fields (Getty Images)
In addition, six Cougar hit men signed as NFL free agents over that 10-year period: Maury Metcalf (Atlanta, 1989), Mark Ledbetter (New Orleans, 1990), Kurt Loertsher (Washington, 1993), Anthony McClanahan(Dallas, 1994), Ron Childs (Kansas City, 1995), and Brandon Moore (Kansas City, 1998). Six Cougs—Tuneau Alipate, Curt Newton, Mark Pimiskern, Ledbetter, Metcalf, and McClanahan—signed with our northern neighbors in the Canadian Football League.
Childs played two seasons with the Saints and still straps the pads on for fun each year for the semi-pro Idaho Falls Mustangs of the Rocky Mountain Football League.
We could have thrown an asterisk by the name of Phillip Glover, as well. Glover lettered two seasons at Wazzu and made one of the most memorable hits in Cougar history in 1995, decleating a hapless Montana return man. Despite starting two games that season and being projected as the starting WLB for '96, he transferred to Utah. There he became of the top backers in Mountain West and has had fairly steady employment in the big leagues, most recently with the Las Vegas Gladiators and Arizona Rattlers of the Arena Football League.
SIX SEASONS later and production at the LB spot has not slowed one bit at Washington State.
Three Cougar linebackers have broken into the pro ranks over that period. Steve Gleason initially signed as a free agent with Indianapolis in 2000 and has developed into one of the NFL's most respected special teams performers in his past four seasons with the New Orleans Saints.
Curtis Holden made a big impression in the Pac-10, racking up nearly 100 stops in his one and only season on the Palouse. Academics derailed his collegiate career, but he did enjoy a cup of coffee in the NFL, signing with the Saints (who else?) as a free agent in 2001. The club released him last year.
The Minnesota Vikings made Raonall Smith their second round pick in 2002—the 38th player selected overall—after a 2001 season that saw him earn second team All Pac-10 honors.
Smith's teammate, James Price, also made a name for himself in the Pac, gaining conference honorable mention in '01.
And yet another asterisk could be placed by the name Melvin Simmons. "Champ" started 10 games for the Cougs in 2000, tallying the fourth most tackles on the squad. He transferred to USC following his involvement in a much-publicized campus brawl and signed as a free agent with San Francisco last spring.
More recently, Don Jackson was named second team all-conference last season after leading the Holiday Bowl champion Cougs with 101 stops, fifth most in the Pac-10.
But the player who may end up carrying the most weight for serious LBU contention is still on the WSU roster. And he's only a junior.
Will Derting (Getty Images)
But what is lacking most in WSU's contention for the Linebacker U nickname is the absence of a certain piece of hardware in their trophy case: The Butkus Award, presented each year to the outstanding collegiate LB. It just so happens that Derting is on the watch list for this prestigious award, as well, and represents Wazzu's best chance for this honor ever. No Cougar has ever been a finalist for the award and only one Pac-10 LB has gone home with the Butkus—Southern Cal's Chris Claiborne in 1998.
Toss in some other legendary Cougar LB's—names like Mel Hein, Torgy Torgeson, Harlan Svare, Chuck Morrell, Wally Dempsey, Blain Lamoureux, Thomas Erlandson, Tom Poe, Gary Larsen, Don Hover, and Lee Blakeney--and the idea of Ol' Wazzu wearing the LBU crown doesn't seem so far fetched.
Editor's note: Though Bush finished his career at WSU as a defensive end, he began his collegiate career at the LB spot and returned to it in the NFL…Ledbetter played primarily on the defensive line, but also began at LB for WSU and was projected as a LB by NFL scouts (although he played DT in the CFL)… Hayes and Gleason have been safeties their entire pro careers, but played exclusively as LB's at WSU…and, finally, it took great restraint to leave the names of D.D. Acholonu and Isaac Brown off our list. Although both were outstanding defensive ends for the Cougs, each is currently on an NFL roster as a linebacker…seven Cougar ‘backers have signed and/or played for New Orleans over the years.