The Birth of a Fan

SPOKANE -- My first Cougar football game was the 1966 season-opener with Cal. It was a beautiful, sun-drenched Spokane afternoon in which the Cougars -- coming off the Cardiac Kids' great 1965 season -- were expected to shine. They didn't.

WSU dominated on the field, but lost on the board, 21-6, when the Bears scored on a 71-yard interception return, a 108-yard missed field goal return and a 73-yard punt return. To this day, it ranks as one of the strangest and most painful football games I ever saw. Still, as a grade-schooler watching my first college game, the color and pageantry were something to remember.

The Cougs managed only three wins in ten tries that season, but some of the standout players on that team -- center Ron Vrilcak, receiver Doug Flansburg, and running back Dave Petersen -- remain as vivid in my mind as the stars from the amazing 1997 team.

Another memorable moment, this one more pleasant, occurred two years later -- also in Spokane -- when I saw my first Apple Cup. On that day in 1968, Hank Grenda, a senior kicker and back-up quarterback, made the first and only start of his Cougar signal-calling career. The result was like something out of a fairy tale, almost too fantastic to believe. Grenda kicked, passed or ran for every point in a 24-0 Cougar victory. And he started, if memory serves, simply because first-year Cougar head coach Jim Sweeney had a hunch Grenda was the man to go with.

Grenda's performance is my earliest and most indelible memory of Cougar spirit -- the feisty underdog who stares adversity in the face, defies the odds and wins. Put to music, the game would have been called the "Impossible Dream." The victory brought an upbeat end to a tough 3-6-1 season.

Years later, I have witnessed many great games and seen the Cougars play in storied venues including Columbus, Ann Arbor, Knoxville and Pasadena.

While all were great experiences, it is a long ago Apple Cup that still stirs the most magic and memories of what it means to be a Cougar.


* The 1968 Apple Cup victory -- the Cougars' first conference win since downing Oregon in 1966 -- also turned out to be the mighty cats' last conference win until nearly three years later when Bernard Jackson and Ty Paine engineered a stunning upset of highly ranked Stanford in 1971.

* A week after losing that bizarre game to Cal in the 1966 opener, the Cougars traveled to Houston to play the other Cougars. The game itself was a non-descript 21-7 WSU loss, but it forever put both teams in the annals of history because it was the first football game played at the Astrodome -- and therefore it was the first game ever played on artificial turf.

* A guy who started on both the '66 and '68 teams -- as well as the '67 edition -- is one whose name frequently has appeared on the pages of CF.C in conjunction with Lamont Thompson: defensive back Rick Reed, who Thompson passed for the WSU career record for interceptions.

* 1968 marked the debut of the name Pac-8 to describe the conference. The league had been called Athletic Association of Western Universities from 1962-67. For decades before that, it was called the Pacific Coast Conference.

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