Sorensen: 2002 will have long-term implications

THERE'S A REASON hindsight is 20/20. Time is like a filter --- you can see the world a hell of a lot more clearly when you're not slogging through the clutter and distractions of the moment. But from my standpoint in the here and now, WSU is about to embark on a football season that, one way or another, will prove pivotal to the program's long-term future.

Make no mistake about it --- the success or failure of the much-hyped 2002 Cougars will have far-reaching implications.

If the team rises up to meet the lofty expectations, the fan base will be rock-solid behind them for years to come and recruiting will rise to another level because prospects will know they have a great chance of going bowling most years.

If the Cougars don't meet expectations, the doubts that have surrounded the program for years will linger. Wilting under the glare of the national spotlight, credibility will be gone. Jilted fans will remain lukewarm, just as they have been since the final snap against Michigan in the 1998 Rose Bowl.

The Cougars are coming off a 10-win season. They have a favorable schedule, a Heisman-contending quarterback, two stout lines and enough talent in the cupboard to make 2003 a banner year as well.

Momentum is our middle name. Heck, ESPN.com has gone so far as to refer to WSU simply as Wazzu --- on first reference, no less -- because they presume every serious college fan knows what about them. Bottom line, we're at a program-altering juncture in the 108-year history of Cougar football.

I think 2002 carries historic significance on par with three other years that proved crucial in shaping the long-term fate of football on the Palouse: 1945, 1975 and 1985.

What transpired in each of those years doomed WSU football to a lifetime of peaks and valleys, hits and misses. If any one of them had turned out differently, I probably wouldn't be writing this column.

How so?

Let me count the ways.

After being suspended for two year during World War II, Cougar football started over, basically from scratch, in '45. One problem, though: Legendary Babe Hollingbery, the hugely successful Cougar head man since 1926, wasn't on hand. He planned to return but athletic director Doc Bohler planned to cut his salary to $7,000. Babe insisted on $8,000.

It proved to be a grand miscalculation. Hollingbery was a gifted motivator; a strong recruiter, especially in his native California; and he knew how to establish a winning tradition (only two losing seasons in 17 as head coach). Without him to guide the program through this tenuous post-war period WSU struggled through three head coaches over the ensuing ten, mostly losing, years.

Thirty years later, in 1975, head coach Jim Sweeney resigned after a bizarre 28-27 loss to the Huskies. I won't go into the sordid details of it all, but if the Cougars win that game --- which they by all rights should have --- then the Apple Cup is theirs for the third time in four years and Sweeney stays in Pullman, giving the program stability just as Don James is establishing himself in Seattle.

Sweeney's infectious personality resulted in unprecedented in-state recruiting success from 1972-74. Imagine what he would have done head-to-head with the stoic James. Sweeney had been considering a departure since a close loss to Cal earlier in the year, but that twisted Apple Cup loss put him over the edge. Consequently, the Cougs ended up with three different head coaches over the next three seasons, while James --- on a foundation of in-state players --- sets the Huskies sailing to 25 straight winning seasons.

Fast-forward ten years, to 1985, and you have a scenario very similar to 2002. The Cougars were coming off a second-straight winning season and returned a bevy talent, including the fabled RPMs --- star quarterback Mark Rypien and stud backs Kerry Porter and Rueben Mayes.

So high were the expectations that the normally dubious Pac-10 beats writers viewed the Cougs as a true threat for the crown and picked them fourth in the pre-season forecast.

For TV money reasons, the Oregon game that season was moved from November to August 31. The Cougars lost a nail-biter, 42-39, and were out of the Pac-10 race before it began. Confidence crushed, the Cougs limped in with a 4-7 record.

And the cycle continued.

So here we are in August of 2002, poised in many ways to get this program over the proverbial hump once and for all.

The Cougars will open the season in Seattle in front of 67,000 fans. They need to put on a show, effectively telling those doubting partisans that they're for real and should start journeying to Martin Stadium once in a while.

They need to crush Nevada. And Idaho, too, the following week.

That sets up a big show down in Columbus in Week 3 against Ohio State. A victory would be huge. It would be a calling card of national note. At the very least, WSU needs to battle hard to keep the momentum going.

Then it's Montana State before the Pac-10 onslaught begins.

Wouldas, couldas and shouldas won't suffice this year. Not if WSU is going to enter the Promised Land of sustained success. This team can – and needs to -- win nine games at a minimum. There cannot be upset losses to the Arizonas or even a nail-biter with Cal. There cannot be missed assignments against USC or brain-freezes against the Huskies.

The lads need to deliver. If they do, you can take this to the bank: 2002 will go down in history as the year WSU finally turned the ever-elusive corner.

(Thanks to CF.C executive editor Greg Witter for the historic insights he lent me on this column.)

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