Overdue: Cougs' national hoops title banner

IN THIS SEASON OF basketball renaissance on the Palouse, it's only fitting that a long-distance memory of glory be rekindled. This Thursday's sold-out showdown between WSU and UCLA won't tip off until Washington State -- at long last -- hoists a banner that should have been hanging off the rafters for the last 90 years: NCAA national basketball champions. True fact. Ol' Wazzu won it all in 1917.

That team went 25-1, playing 18 games on the road. They were the first-ever basketball champion from the Pac-10, which at the time was called the Pacific Coast Conference.

Ironically, that same era produced what many observers believe should be considered Washington State's first and only national championship team in football. The 1915 WSC grid club went undefeated and won the first of the continuous Rose Bowl games over Brown in January 1916.

As for the basketballers, 1917 was an interesting time in the sport. There were no 6-foot-10 Aron Baynes' roaming the paint. WSU's star center, Roy Bohler, was all of 5-foot-11. There was no March Madness. In fact, WSU wasn't awarded the national title until four decades later, when the Helms Athletic Foundation started filling gaps in the college sports record books.

"Despite coming off an 18-3 season and a Northwest Conference championship in 1916, there were doubts about the Crimson and the Gray heading into the 1917 campaign," writes WSU sports historian Jason Krump.

He found that while legendary coach and athletic director, J. Fred "Doc" Bohler returned the core of his 1916 club -- little brother Roy Bohler, Ed Copeland, Bob Moss, Ivan Price and Al Sorenson -- the depth behind them was paper thin.

No matter. The Cougars jumped to a 15-0 start, which included four wins over Washington. They then split a two-game series with Cal, marking their first -- and only -- loss of the season. Two wins at Stanford followed and then it was on to Oregon State and Multnomah Athletic Club in Portland for two more victories before returning home for the stretch run.

From Jan. 19 to Feb. 10, WSC had played 12 of 13 games on the road, winning nine of those games by double-digit margins.

"The team wrapped up its season playing four of its final five games at Pullman, with a lone road contest at neighboring Idaho. WSC completed the season by winning all five games by a combined 213-107 score, wrapping up the season at home with a dominating 53-10 win over Idaho, March 1," said Krump. "The headline in the Spokane Chronicle summed up WSC's season succinctly: 'Play Twenty-Six; Win Twenty-Five.' "

It was a record even more remarkable considering the team played 18 of its 26 games on the road. In addition, the quintet of Bohler, Copeland, Moss, Price and Sorenson started all 26 games. Glenn Glover was the only other letterman on the team, seeing action in 12 games.

Prospects looked good for another dynamic season on the Palouse in 1918, but the U.S. decision to enter World War I depleted the roster. Sadly, Price, who became a Marine in the Fifth Regiment, was killed in France just eight days before the armistice was signed ending the war.

NOTABLE NOTES:

* The first NCAA championship tournament was played in 1939. In 1941, the Cougars were poised to grab a second national crown when coach Jack Friel's team advanced to the title game but fell to Wisconsin 39-34.

* Krump, the WSU historian, cites the 1941 national runner-up team, as well as Friel's 1937 and 1950 Northern Division Champions; George Raveling's 1980 and '83 NCAA Tournament teams, and Kelvin Sampson's 1994 NCAA Tournament team as the most noteworthy in Palouse history, but concludes, "as extraordinary as those seasons were, it's the 1917 team that holds a special place in Cougar annals."

* Thursday's game vs. UCLA and Saturday's vs. USC are both sold out. Each game will be televised live.

* The Cougars, 23-5 overall and 12-4 in Pac-10 play, are two games behind the frontrunning Bruins and one game in front of the third-place Trojans. For the Cougs to tie for the Pac-10 title would require two wins this week, plus a Husky defeat of UCLA on Saturday.


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