Talkin' Football with Jim Walden

During my recent interview with former Washington State coach Jim Walden, it became immediately clear that I was biting off more than I could chew. You see, my plan had been to ask the talkative Cougar commentator his thoughts about every Pac-10 team.

However, by the time we were done with my first question, seventeen minutes had already elapsed. Not wanting to turn this article into a saga rivaling the length of the mini-series Roots, I have written it with a focus on just the highlights.

It must also be said that even though Walden is my bitter enemy, he is one of my favorite interviews. Given his expertise in college football, I started by asking him for his in-depth analysis of Washington's 35-32 triumph over the hapless Cougars in last year's Apple Cup.

"Well, heck Derek," said Walden. "Give (Husky QB) Carl Bonnell credit, as he played a good ball game. But basically, the bad team beat the pretty good team, and that seems to be the way it is with the Apple Cup these days, don't it? For the last six years, the Cougars have only twice beaten all these bad Washington teams. In the years I was at WSU (1978-86), Don James was the coach at Washington. I never saw any Husky teams in those days that were anywhere near as poor as these current Husky teams. I am amazed that in the past six years, despite the Cougars having some of the best teams they have ever had, their record against Washington is only 2-4.

"So last year's Apple Cup was about par for the course," he said. "Let's face it; the Huskies lost at home the week before to a terrible Stanford team and only scored three points! Then they come to Pullman and score 35. You've got to give Washington credit, but you can't improve that much in three days—which was the amount of time the Huskies had to practice before the Apple Cup. It wasn't so much what the Huskies did, but rather it was what the Cougars didn't do. They played terrible against Washington. And that guy (UW wide receiver Cody Ellis) has the quick pitch bounce off the back of his heel and he catches it and runs 80 yards or whatever for a touchdown-- I mean c'mon! Stuff like that happens against you when you're not in tune. Washington State played one of the worst games I have ever seen them play—and in a game that is supposedly of huge magnitude, given the rivalry. I mean, if the Cougars had played against the Huskies with the same intensity as they did against Oregon and UCLA, they would have beat the Huskies by 45 points.

"In the time I have been here (at WSU), of the five worst Cougar performances I have seen, three have been against the Huskies. I'm talking about really uninspired performances. That's awful! When I was coaching, that would have been a sacrilege. The Husky game meant everything! It's more than I can deal with. It's not coaching, but the Cougars need an attitude adjustment (regarding the Huskies).

"And let me publicly make a vow," continued Walden. "If Washington has another lousy football team this year and the Cougars lose to them again, I won't be going to anymore Apple Cups. I have told my people that. I will do the other eleven games, but they will have to go get a substitute for me (up in the radio booth) for the Apple Cup. I can't take it anymore!"

I moved the topic of conversation to powerhouse USC, wondering if Walden felt anyone could unseat the 5-time defending Pac-10 champions.

"I think USC is far superior to the rest of the Pac-10," he said. "When you take the top thirty players from the conference and eleven of them are from USC, you get the idea they might be pretty good. They don't need too much more from John David Booty, other than to not lose any games for them. They are so talented, I don't see them losing to anybody. Their biggest threat is probably Idaho. Ha ha! I'm kidding, of course. I'm ashamed that USC is playing Idaho. It's shameful. Have you seen Idaho's record the past six years? They've been awful. USC should just hand them $50,000 and tell them to go find somebody to play where they can enjoy a real game. That's a game that should never have been scheduled. Go play Boise or Fresno, but not Idaho. Not until they have won 7 or 8 games a year for a few years."

When asked about Oregon's ongoing quarterback rotation between Dennis Dixon and Brady Leaf, Walden delved into his own interesting experiences while coaching at Washington State.

"I like the idea of rotating quarterbacks, but I don't like how Oregon does it," he said. "They do it on a `take you out when you're bad' kind of deal. When I was here I did it because I always had two totally different kinds of quarterbacks. I had an option QB and a pure pocket QB. Nobody could ever get a pure scouting report on us. I was prone to do it in order to change things up. Both guys always knew they were going to play, no matter what. I always felt like I got more intensity in practice from everybody on the field when they knew that the QB taking the snaps was going to play. With other teams, when players are practicing with the #2 QB, they treat him like he's got typhoid. They don't give as much effort because he's not going to play, unless there's an injury or mop-up duty. We seem to indulge guards and wide receivers by shuffling them in and out, but not so with quarterbacks. Well, why not? I am for the two-quarterback system. But I don't like the way Oregon does it."

As we shifted our attention toward Walden's beloved Cougars, it became immediately clear that the former coach is a big fan of the current WSU quarterback.

"Alex Brink might end up being the most statistically prolific quarterback to ever play here," he said. "His numbers will shock you. Quietly, he has been very effective, but hasn't taken them to a bowl game yet. He hasn't had a great supporting cast around him, either. But of their six wins last year, I am convinced he was responsible for three of them. But when the team shuts down, what can you do? They emotionally shut down! I mean, if your arteries shut down, it doesn't matter how strong your heart is. Do you understand what I'm saying? But Alex should be considered amongst the top quarterbacks in the conference. If he was at USC, they would be hyping him for the Heisman Trophy. But you know, I used to say that you can have a few lines in a great play, and everybody says you're a great actor. But you can have a lot of lines in a bad play, and they boo you off stage. Well, that doesn't mean you're necessarily a bad actor. That kind of thinking could impact how people perceive Alex Brink. But he is a great talent."

As the interview drew to a conclusion, Walden extolled the virtues of the only four teams he feels have a shot to win the Pac-10 Conference: USC, Arizona State, UCLA and Cal. Each of those teams, said Walden, has an experienced QB surrounded by tremendous talent. No other team in the conference will be within shouting distance of those four, he said.

That's when I stopped Walden cold. I gravely warned him that he was overlooking one team in particular. I cited Marcel Reece, Washington's talented senior wide receiver, who has been quoted during fall camp as stating that the Huskies are gunning for 13-0 and the BCS championship game.

"Well, they need to give Marcel a saliva test and have him pee into a cup as soon as possible," said Walden. "Then one of the coaches needs to hit him upside the head, as soon as they can. Evidently, no one has shown Marcel their schedule yet, right? I'm sure in my heart that he doesn't realize that after they play at Syracuse in the Carrier Dome, Boise State and Ohio State are coming to town. The last time I looked, I don't believe that either of those teams was in the dog category. Am I right? And then they've got UCLA and USC back-to-back. So I'll tell you what—if Washington gets through that stretch with a 5-0 record, I will send Marcel $100 and then take him out to dinner at Ruth's Chris Steak House. What's more, I will convert over to Washington and become a Husky. I'll make some calls and see if I can get (color commentator) Chuck Nelson thrown out of the booth and I'll take over his job next to Bob Rondeau."

When I speculated on the idea of Walden sitting next to Rondeau and Nelson pairing with Cougar announcer Bob Robertson for each Apple Cup, Walden cited one flaw in the plan. "Rondeau would probably go crazy with me up there with him—with the yelling and everything."
Derek Johnson can be reached at derekjohnsonbooks@comcast.net

His website is www.derekjohnsonbooks.com

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