The Almost Bowl

<B><I>ALMOST</I></B>. There exists no word more heartbreakingly painful in Washington State's football history. For every hallowed Cougar squad that reached that college football Mecca known as a bowl game, there exist scores of Crimson Soldiers who walked off the turf with the haunting word <i>almost</i> ringing in their ears.

Bad calls, bad breaks, bad decisions, bad timing, bad luck, and bad Dawgs: you name it and WSU football has experienced it in their quest for gridiron glory.




Just four times in the history of Cougar football has Washington State participated in the Rose Bowl. Yet, with a caught ball here, a different call there, and just some plain ol' good luck, that number could easily have grown to over a dozen.


1917: At 5-0-1, legendary Cougar coach Lone Star Dietz appeared to need only a victory over the University of Washington to secure his second Rose Bowl appearance in three years. No worries for Dietz and company: the Crimson Soldiers manhandled the UW 14-0 on Thanksgiving Day in Seattle.


But unbeknownst to the Palouse warriors, five days prior to their victory in Seattle, the Portland-Oregonian reported that the Mare Island Marines and Tacoma's Camp Lewis football teams had been selected for the Tournament of Roses contest. With WWI in full swing, some of the nation's finest former collegiate gridders were enlisted men and - - Mare Island in particular - - had been drawing big crowds all season long. Unfortunately for WSU, a sort of purse string patriotism prompted the selection committee to deny ol' Wazzu's rightful place in Pasadena.


1926: The Cougs didn't have to wait long to learn they had a winner in first year coach Babe Hollingbery.  A second week loss to USC, 16-7, was the only WSU setback of the season and, as it turned out, the only thing keeping them from a New Years Day date in Pasadena.


1929: Many of the 1930 Cougar Rose Bowlers came oh-so-close to the promised land of Pasadena the previous season. Indeed, roses were looking to be very attainable for the Palouse ‘29ers, who steamrolled through the season's first nine games with an 8-1 record. But those familiar Cougar roadblocks known as USC - - also sitting pretty at 8-1 - - squelched the WSU Rose Bowl dream with a 27-7 win.


1934: This squad, led by three-time All-American QB Ed Goddard and tackle Johnny Bley, is a tough team to figure out. One week, they're upsetting top-ranked USC 19-0 in Los Angeles, the next: a loss to an upstart Gonzaga eleven in Spokane. The Cougs did go undefeated in conference play, but a 0-0 sister-kisser with Washington kept them from spending New Year's Day in Pasadena.


1936: WSU, feeling rosy at 6-0-1, traveled to Seattle to face the Dawgs with nothing less than a Pasadena berth for either team on the line. Hollingbery, desperately seeking another Rose Bowl bid, turned practices into a boot camp. But three Wazzu guards were lost to injuries in the prior week's 32-7 spanking of UCLA; much too costly for the depth-deprived Cougs. With many overconfident Cougar players betting on themselves, not only were their wallets lightened, but a great deal of their pride as well. The Huskies pounded the Cougs 40-0.


1942: Sporting a randy conference mark of 5-1, the Cougs needed only a victory over the UW for a Rose Bowl bid. Alas, a fourth-quarter end zone pass to Nick Susoeff squeaked through his arms and fell incomplete. Again, a 0-0 deadlock with the Huskies kept WSU out of Pasadena. Although many that witnessed the near miss swear the ball hit Susoeff right on the numbers, wire-photos show the star end twisting and stretching for the pigskin. High degree of difficulty or not, it was the kind of catch the star end usually made. He went on to enjoy a successful pro career with the San Francisco 49ers, but remained haunted by the infamous "$100,000 miss" for the rest of his life.


1945:Phil Sarboe had only one winning season as coach of the Cougs - - his first at the helm - - as WSU finished 6-2-1. And all of their games were played against Pacific Coast Conference opponents.  Only a win over USC stood between WSU and the Rose Bowl. Unfortunately, Southern Cal wasn't on their schedule in ‘45 and the Trojans were selected for the bowl - - despite playing only six conference games to Wazzu's 9 - - with a 5-1 conference mark.


1965: The perceived habit we Cougfans have of citing poor officiating for our woes might have originated with a 7-6 loss to Arizona State in '65. WSU fullback Larry Eilmes was ruled short of the goal line in the third quarter, much to the delight of the Tempe crowd, many who reluctantly confessed seeing both Eilmes and the ball cross the line. Next, the Cougar's successful 2-point conversion following a 4th-quarter TD was nullified by a delay of game penalty. When the Spokesman-Review's Harry Missildine learned the game's official timer had been using a sweep second hand watch, he proclaimed, "WSU was beaten by the ‘Night Watchman of Tempe.'" At 7-2-1, UCLA was awarded the Rose Bowl, finishing just a half game better than the 7-3 Cougs.


1981: For the first time since 1936, the Apple Cup would determine which side of the Evergreen State would represent the conference in the Rose Bowl. Coach Jim Walden's Cougs stormed through the season, packing a hefty 8-1-1 record to Seattle for the Cup. They would have to settle for a Holiday Bowl bid, however. The James Gang ran off with the roses, defeating WSU 23-10.




Coached by passing guru Jim "Suds" Sutherland, the '58 Cougs went 7-3 and were invited to play in the Sugar Bowl. Under Pacific Coast Conference rules, acceptance hinged on unanimous consent from fellow PCC schools. Spiteful UCLA and USC voted no. Not wanting to rock the conference boat, WSC President E. Clement French sheepishly told Sugar Bowl officials thanks, but no thanks. Ironically, PCC overlords voted eight months later to boot WSU, Oregon, Oregon State and Idaho out of the conference and reorganize as the Athletic Association of Western Universities. Thus, French's Sugar Bowl decision ranks as the most notorious "fumble" in Cougar football history.  In fact, posthumous impeachment proceedings may still be forthcoming for the Administration building's namesake.




How does a 7-4 Cougar squad finish the season ranked 17th UPI and 19th AP and not play in a bowl game? Easy, for coach Jim Sweeney's scrappy 1972 squad, considering the Pac-8 had an asinine rule limiting bowl participation to the conference champion alone. What a nice - - and deserved - - reward a bowl berth would've been for the Smilin' Irishman and his squad of over-achievers.




Coach Warren Powers may have spent just one year on the Palouse, but it was a dandy. Shocking 15th ranked Nebraska on Husker turf with a 19-10 win to open the season, the '77 Cougs went on to win five more. But with an Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl bid on the line, WSU fell hard to the UW in the Apple Cup, 35-15. Worse still, a mid-season loss to UCLA was reversed in Wazzu's favor due to Bruin recruiting violations. The verdict, however, came long after the season was over, and the Cougs, although officially ending the season 7-4, stayed home for the holidays.




In 1989, after starting his maiden season as Cougar chief at 6-1, Mike Price hoped to rectify a 3-game freefall with an Apple Cup victory. Even more enticing to the rookie coach was the announcement from the Freedom Bowl selection committee that to the victor goes an all-expense paid trip to Anaheim.  Despite a valiant effort by Cougar back Steve Broussard (on behalf of some phantom shooting victim), WSU's shot at "freedom" was robbed on the very first offensive play, when a Husky defender stepped in front of a Brad Gossen pass and sashayed into the end zone. Final score: UW 20, WSU 9.




Thought by some to be one of the top ten Cougar teams of all-time, the 1983 squad could play with anyone - - except for bowl selection committees. A missed John Traut field goal was the only thing keeping Wazzu from an early season victory (or, at the very least, a tie) with Michigan in Ann Arbor. But the Cougs rarely missed again in '83, punctuating the season's second half with an exclamation point. Their five straight wins, including a 17-6 Apple Cup victory in Seattle, prompted Husky coach Don James to proclaim WSU as "definitely the best team in the Pac-10." And it left Walden and his 7-4 Cougs wondering just what the hell they had to do to nab a bowl bid.




Sure, naysayers will say this exploration into a crimson and gray history of "what might've beens" is typical of the Cougar mentality. They're only half-wrong.


Admittedly, our propensity to dwell - - or at least ponder - - on the "one that got away" is part and parcel of Cougar fandom. Perhaps that is the eternal role of the underdog. Maybe the "almosts" serve as safe harbors for hope and possibilities. Our history of near misses keeps us grounded when we do catch these increasingly frequent glimpses of gridiron glory, and makes the taste of success all that sweeter when the Victory Cup is passed our way. Big wins or big losses, there's no denying the entertainment value provided by the Homeric odyssey that is Cougar football.


Too complicated? Well, then let's just say, "It's a Cougar thing" and leave it at that.



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