Washington State University’s football team had all the usual trappings of an upset-minded underdog as it bused to Spokane on Nov. 22, 1963, en route to face a Husky squad just one win away from a Rose Bowl berth.
Though their season had been lackluster — they stood at 3-5-1 — the Cougars were fresh off a 32-15 victory over Stanford. Optimism was high that the win over the Indians (as Stanford was still called in those politically incorrect days) boded well for the next day’s game with Washington.
“A lot of us were rejuvenated by it,” recalled Dean Kalahar, a senior lineman and WSU captain that year.
The Huskies, meanwhile, had been reeling all week in Seattle. Their five-game win streak was shattered the previous weekend in a 14-0 loss to UCLA. Coach Jim Owens reacted by demoting almost the entire first unit to second- or even third-string.
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“Our attitude was bitter,” said lineman John Stupey, one of the Huskies’ captains in ’63. “The ballplayers were bitter and the coaches very angry. I’m sure we’d have lost on Saturday. It was just a bad scene.”
There would, however, be no game on Saturday. Little did they know, on either side of the state, that a horrendous scene would soon unfold that Friday in Dallas. It disrupted the nation and made a football game — one that was in just its second year of being officially dubbed “The Apple Cup” rather than the “Governor’s Cup” — seem insignificant.
The Cougars got the news of President Kennedy’s assassination when the bus stopped for lunch at the Caravan Inn, a restaurant in Spokane, before they were to board their plane to Seattle.
“All my boys just stood there,” WSU coach Jim Sutherland told The Seattle Times later in the week. “They didn’t even sit down for 20 minutes.”
The moment remains vivid, a half-century later.
“They had a big feast laid out, steak and eggs,” said Chuck Grutzmacher, a Cougars guard. “I don’t think anyone touched it.”
Instead, they watched a television that had been brought into the restaurant as Walter Cronkite updated the nation on the horrifying events.
“You totally forgot about football,” Kalahar said. “We were just wondering, is he really going to die?”
The Cougars glumly reboarded their bus, proceeded to the airport and flew to Seattle. But 15 minutes into a practice session at Husky Stadium, Sutherland received word that the game had been rescheduled for the following Saturday.
The NFL controversially decided to go through with its full slate of games on Sunday. There were those who thought the Huskies and Cougars should plow ahead with the Apple Cup.
“Some of our alumni here for the game questioned whether the game should have been called off,” WSU athletic director Stan Bates told The Seattle Times that Friday. “But they agreed this is something no one can talk against. I couldn’t help thinking that even during the Second World War we played the 1941 Rose Bowl game, even though it was transplanted to the East Coast.”
The Cougars flew back that evening to Pullman, where they found a campus that was clearing out for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. On Monday, they resumed practice under conditions that Kalahar described as “surreal.”
“The campus was empty,” he said. “I remember sitting in my apartment, watching preparations for the funeral, watching the funeral. Your feelings were so convoluted because you felt so sad for the country and for the Kennedys, and yet you had to keep on keeping on.”
In Seattle, the Huskies were going through many of the same emotions. One moment, they were preparing for the Homecoming dance and a climactic game to get into the Rose Bowl. And then, suddenly, all that slipped to insignificance.
“Everyone on campus was stunned,” said Stupey. “He was a youth president. The college campuses were so supportive of Kennedy. He was a well-loved individual on campus.”
“It was earth-shattering for everyone,” added Rick Redman, the Huskies’ All-American linebacker.
For Redman, the postponement had particular significance; he was scheduled to get married on Saturday, Nov. 30, with about 500 people expected at the church. But with the Apple Cup now rescheduled for that day, the wedding was moved up to Thanksgiving.
“I had a one-night honeymoon, and stayed with the team at Sandpoint the night before the game,” Redman said.
By game time, the dynamics had changed. The Cougars had lost their fervor, while the Huskies’ internal ill will had dissipated. Washington benefited from four WSU turnovers, with Junior Coffey scoring twice in the Huskies’ 16-0 win.
Owens stuck to his guns, giving the promoted second-stringers the opportunity to start before bringing back his regulars in the second quarter.
“They had really done a job beating up on the Cougars,” said Redman. “By the time the starters got in the game, it was Katie bar the door.”
After the game, the Rose Bowl selected Washington over USC, but the Huskies would lose to Dick Butkus’ Illinois squad on New Year’s Day.
As players from that 1963 game hit their 70s, JFK’s assassination still stands out as a seminal moment. And the delayed Apple Cup that year remains a fascinating footnote to one of the darkest days in American history.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @StoneLarry