Historic significance

BACK IN AUGUST, shortly after CBS analyst Tim Brando brazenly put the cherry on top of the pre-season hype surrounding the 2002 Cougars by predicting WSU was destined to meet Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, I penned on these pages what effectively amounted to a calling out of the Cougars.

Here's part of what I wrote:

"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."

I knew I'd struck a cord when junior defensive end Isaac Brown referred to the column in a Spokesman-Review story a few days before the season opener about the growing pressure the guys were feeling to meet the lofty expectations being heaped upon them.

So here we are four months later. The Cougars are the champions of the Pac-10 and are indeed going to play Oklahoma on New Year's Day -- in a BCS bowl game just 393 miles to the West of where Tim Brando predicted.

The Cougars rose to the occasion, folks. In a big way.

They didn't wilt under the glare of the national spotlight or the weight of heightened expectations. And the fact they did it with injuries galore, in a conference that's as tough, top to bottom, as any in the land, is downright remarkable.

They overcame a second-half meltdown at Ohio State. They overcame Jason Gesser's busted ribs, and an offensive line on which two freshmen were forced into way too much action.

They overcame Ira Davis' blow to Jason David's cheek. And the emotional devastation of giving away the Apple Cup.

Mawuli Davis came out of nowhere to batten down the linebacking corps. Scrappy junior safety Erik Coleman played with a separated shoulder in the last six games. Senior receiver Mike Bush took on Oregon with an infected molar killing him. Gesser, of course, was Gesser. And the list of heroics goes on.

It's no coincidence that in seven of this team's victories they trailed at some point. That's more comebacks than Sugar Ray Leonard.

These Crimson Soldiers are as mentally tough as you'll find.

Mike Price said after beating UCLA on Saturday that this road to the Pac-10 title, unlike the 1997 ride when there were absolutely zero expectations on the Cougars, was a much tougher route.

The fact they made it, effectively going wire-to-wire, is huge. And not because it sends the Cougars to the Rose Bowl for just the fourth time in history.

By standing so tall, amid so much, the 2002 Cougars have sent a veritable shock wave through the Palouse. It's true. The success of this team will have far-reaching implications for the future of Cougar football. The fan base will be rock-solid behind them for years to come, fueling a likely Martin Stadium expansion. And recruiting, already outstanding the last four years, will rise to yet another level.

The doubts that have surrounded the program for years --- despite 10-win seasons in 1997 and 2001 --- have been vanquished once and for all.

"Back-to-back bowl games with one of them being the Rose."

If Mike Price said it once, he said it a dozen times. That's been his goal at WSU since taking over the helm in 1989. That was his goal because he knew that's what it would take to turn the proverbial corner.

He did it. And in the most difficult way possible. Not by sneaking up on anybody, but by putting on the hat of "favorite" and then going out and proving it was justifed.

As a result, Jason Gesser, Rien Long, Derrick Roche and Marcus Trufant are the new Mel Heins and Turk Edwards' of Cougar lore. Their names will be uttered in reverent tones. Price must orchestrate one more victory --- on Jan. 1-- to enter the coaching pantheon of Lone Star Dietz, but his legend is already secure as the modern-day Babe Hollingbery.

The Cougars effectively have done in 2002 what they came oh-so-close to doing three times before, in 1945, 1975 and 1985: Break the code to lasting success.

Each of those seasons, for reasons I explained in that column back in August, were pivotal in shaping the long-term fate of football on the Palouse.

What transpired in those years doomed WSU football to a lifetime of peaks and valleys, hits and misses. If any one of them had turned out differently, the silly term "Couged It" would never have been born.

As I wrote in August, the 2002 season --- good, bad or indifferent --- carries the same unique urgency.

"The lads need to deliver," I said. "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."

Folks, I'm proud to say the turn -- albeit in a wacky, tumultuous way --- has been negotiated.

On to Pasadena! And on to an era of Cougar football like we've never seen before.

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