Seen & Heard on Planet Coug

THERE WERE MANY entertaining and informative moments last week at the star-studded Cougar football coaches' dinner in Seattle. But most memorable on the list was Ryan Leaf's emotional reaction when he was introduced to the gathering of 400 partisans. The hero of WSU's 1998 Rose Bowl team received a standing ovation.

Leaf was visibly moved. Later, when on stage for the auctioning of an autographed Cougar jersey emblazoned with his name and number, he stepped to the mic and said, "Thank you for allowing me, with my failures, to come back." Again, the crowd showered him with cheers.

The autographed jersey, by the way, went for $2,600. That was $700 more than the jersey of the guy Leaf said is the best Cougar quarterback of all time: Jason Gesser. The leader of WSU's 2003 Rose Bowl team also drew a thunderous reception from the audience when he was introduced.

Leaf and Gesser were just two of the nearly two-dozen CouGreats of yesteryear who were on hand for the event. Brandon Gibson of the St. Louis Rams and Ropati Pituatoa of the New York Jets were among the vaunted. So was Mike Bush, the only Cougar of the modern era believed to have starred in both football (2001-02) and basketball (1998-2002) at WSU.


The table was honored to host Mkristo Bruce and his wife Nicki; Hall of Fame running back and race-relations pioneer Duke Washington; and 1981 Holiday Bowl team All-American Paul Sorensen.

Sorensen, one of the hardest-hitting safeties in the Pac-10 in the 1980s, took a moment before the dinner to talk with current WSU defensive back Nolan Washington, a second-year freshman from Burien. Sorensen related a story about when he first arrived at WSU in 1979. "Three former Cougar defensive backs who were all in the NFL at the time – Bob Gregor, Don Schwartz and Ken Greene – were back on campus finishing up their degrees. They took me aside and talked about the importance of the secondary uniting as one and setting a tone for the entire defense," Sorensen said.

"They told me how important it was that we push each other, support each other and that it was our responsibility to deliver a message early in games to the other team that we're here to hit, and hit hard. They also taught me some techniques that helped our 1981 team post one of the best pass-defense records in the nation."

He delivered the same message to young Washington. And the pep talk clearly resonated with Pride of Kennedy High. When he was on stage addressing the audience he mentioned his new-found connection with Sorensen and then told the faithful that "when we turn this around it's going to be great seeing you all at the Rose Bowl."

Washington wasn't the only current player on hand. So was quarterback Jeff Tuel, who said the entire team has "bought in" to the staff's plan for a return excellence and that "something special is about to happen." Receiver Gino Simone related how he received text messages on Signing Day from new recruits Damonte Horton and C.J. Mizell saying they just signed their tickets to the Rose Bowl.

"They're writin' checks and they better cash ‘em," head coach Paul Wulff quipped a few moments later." He said the confidence and leadership he's seeing in the youngsters is a great sign for the future of the program.

RECEIVERS COACH MIKE LEVENSELLER also took to the stage in Seattle. He's been a WSU assistant since 1992 and was a standout player in the 1970s. In other words, he has a ton of perspective when it comes to Cougar football. "In 1998," he said, "Mike Price was given a seven-year contract and told build back the right way – with high school kids, a few junior college kids, and high character. That was the push for what became the greatest run in Washington State history. This (the new recruiting class) is the closest I've ever felt to that happening again. These are great kids you'll be proud of."

Levenseller also said it was fitting that so many Cougar legends were in attendance, because it served as a symbolic bookend to the new talent coming in – "what I think is the best recruiting class in 20 years at Washington State."

Levenseller also said that last season when the injuries started to mount in unprecedented numbers, the coaching staff didn't panic the way some might. Paul Wulff was insistent on "staying the course," meaning there would no mass burning of redshirts to fill the breach, Levenseller said.

"We're going the right direction and this staff is doing a great job," he said.

He also noted that he was thrilled Steve Morton had joined the staff as offensive line coach. "I'm no longer the oldest coach at WSU," Levenseller joked. Morton is 56. Levy turns 53 next week.

  • At roughly 7:30 the night of the Seattle dinner, cellphone text message alerts started going off around the room with news that Jim Sterk was leaving for San Diego State. That explained why Sterk, who was supposed to speak at the Seattle event, wasn't on hand. Speculation about Bill Moos began about 30 seconds after the Sterk news hit.

  • Leaf took a moment to salute Levenseller. He said Levy was a difference-maker for him when he redshirted his freshman year, offering critical insights about offense generally and quarterbacking specifically.

  • Mark your calendar. WSU baseball coach Donnie Marbut and a cast of former Cougar greats, including Ron Cey, will be in the Seattle are on March 31 for a "Night with Cougar Baseball." Stay tuned for details. The Cougars take on the Huskies the following day in the first of a three-game series.

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