Doba, Cougs look to future at South Sound meeting

LACEY — Heading into spring drills, the Cougar football team finds itself in an unfamiliar situation: trying to return to a winning record. Looking toward the future was a common theme during Wednesday's third annual South Sound Cougar Club Winter Celebration in Lacey.

Washington State coach Bill Doba believes his team can get things back on track. "We were a pretty young team last year," he said. "We have a strong nucleus coming back. Really, it's up to the kids. You've also got to be a little lucky. There were three games we could have easily won last year."

He didn't mention those games by name, but he was talking about narrow setbacks to Colorado, Oregon and Stanford.

As for luck factor, Doba pointed to two examples of from the magical 1997 season to illustrate his point. Opening the season in Pullman, UCLA needed to score on a fourth down late in the game.

"On that last play, we were lined up wrong," recalled Doba, who was the defensive coordinator at the time. "We were misaligned. If the running back had turned the other way, he would have scored the touchdown."

Instead, Leon Bender made the game-saving tackle, leading to his famous quote afterward describing L.A. players in terms usually associated with quilted Charmin.

Doba also recalled the 1997 home game against Arizona. In overtime, the Wildcats elected to win the game on a two-point conversion rather than tie things up with a PAT. Cat quarterback Ortege Jenkins tried to run it but was stopped.

"Jenkins had a guy come across wide open in the end zone on that two-point conversion," Doba said. "If he had thrown it, they would have won the game. We blew an assignment. Fortunately, Jenkins did too."

While pointing out the lack of luck in three games last season, Doba also acknowledged a couple of wins could have easily been losses for his team, which was ravaged by injuries.

Despite the first losing season since 2000 and two games (Oregon State and USC) where the Cougs were never in contention, Doba and his staff – not to mention his team – are excited about getting ready for 2005.

"We've had good workouts, and we've got some great leaders," Doba said, mentioning quarterbacks Josh Swogger and Alex Brink, punter Kyle Basler (whose parents were in attendance) and linebacker Will Derting.

Beating the Huskies went a long way toward getting the Cougs fired up during the off-season. "That Apple Cup win made the season, or at least made it bearable," Doba said. "That was huge as far as catapulting us into the off-season. It would have been tough getting them going if we had lost that game."

IN REGARD TO recruiting, the obvious name -- hometown hero Jonathan Stewart -- came up early. Stewart, regarded by many as the top running back prospect in the nation, narrowed his choices to Washington State and Oregon before signing with the Ducks.

"Our staff worked harder than anyone for Stewart," said WSU recruiting coordinator Robin Pflugrad said.

Three straight 10-win seasons helped WSU become a serious consideration for prep stars like Stewart. "That's what we've been trying to sell," Pflugrad said. "I was really hoping we could get to six wins, because then you're talking about a national program. Winning got us some recruits we wouldn't have had otherwise."

Collin Henderson, who contributed to some of those wins while playing wide receiver for the Cougs, was also at tge meeting. "I grew up as a Cougar from day one," said Henderson, who works with the Athletic Foundation. "The first couple of years I was on the team were tough ones, but then we were the first team to be in back-to-back bowl games."

The evening also featured John Johnson, senior associate Athletic Director, who talked about ongoing plans to improve all Cougar teams both on the field and in the classroom.

"We want to see post-season participation by all sports, but we want to do it with integrity," Johnson said. "The integrity of your program is only as good as the people in your program. I have seen that in the few months I've been (at WSU)."

Johnson said the athletic program needs to grow, and facilities need to be improved. Top on that list is the proposed Martin Stadium expansion.

The expansion would increase seating capacity to approximately 42,500 (up from 35,700 currently). Every Cougar home game was sold out last season, and there's a waiting list of 700 fans for season tickets. More diehard Coug fans filling the stadium sounds good to Pflugrad.

"I don't see anyone with better fans than the Cougs in the entire country," he said. "And we get to see a lot of schools."

That devotion has been personified the last couple of years by Ol' Crimson, the famed Cougar logo flag—an idea born on the football message board—that is sent across the country every week during the college football season to appear on ESPN Gameday.

South Sound Cougar Club president Frank Kirkbride arranged for the famous flag to be sent to Lacey for Wednesday's event. Doba and Pflugrad added their signatures to the flag, which was hung proudly behind the podium.

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