As it happens, if Washington State can beat Rutgers Thursday night at CenturyLink Field, the Cougars will gather up their chips, as it were, from an all-night poker table. They’ll know they went from way ahead to way down to finally breaking even, and they’ll leave the place with a shrug, neither better nor worse for it.
Thanks for the memories, both exhilarating and exasperating.
WSU will be 6-6 at CenturyLink if it beats Rutgers, and there the record will collect dust, because this is probably where it ends for the Cougars in Seattle.
“Most likely, it is,” nodded Bill Moos, the Washington State athletic director, talking about the finale of a notion that began here in 2002.
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That day, Will Derting ran back an interception 98 yards for a touchdown and WSU beat Nevada, 31-7, in front of 63,588 fulfilled fans, launching a second Rose Bowl season in five years.
The first game was as good as it got for the Cougars in our backyard. They never drew that many people again, and, as for the program and its competitiveness, well, you know most of the back stories.
“We continue to evaluate it,” Moos says, “but right now, I would think we’re going to play everything in Pullman.”
This is about support, which is about money, which won’t surprise anybody.
Under Moos’ predecessor, Jim Sterk, WSU played in Seattle as a way to piggyback on a week’s worth of west-side activities and fundraising. But the program began going south, a dubious mix with the caliber of opponents Sterk enlisted — Idaho, San Diego State, Baylor before it got good.
Moos arrived in 2010, stepped back and surveyed. WSU took a year off from the concept.
“I had to figure out some way to get our fan base energized, to get rebranded, to try to get some resources to lay the foundation for what we wanted to build,” Moos says.
Moos settled on coupling the Cougars with a Pac-12 team, opting for Oregon State in 2011 and Oregon in 2012. Scraping for every stray nickel, he figured Beavers and Ducks fans would swell the gate against the uneven crowds WSU was attracting at home.
Done. Those two games averaged 55,074, and Moos says the Oregon crowd of almost 61,000 more than doubled WSU’s net take for a full house at Pullman’s Martin Stadium.
But it was bonanza with a beatdown. If there was a fork in the road to the Paul Wulff tenure, it came on Oct. 22, 2011 at CenturyLink, when the Cougars, a slight favorite to win their fourth game in a bowl-hopeful season, went splat in a 44-21 loss to OSU. Lots of fans leaped to strangle the idea of the Seattle game, when, in reality, the program offered them plenty of culpable alternatives.
Anyway, five months before that, everything had changed. The Pac-12 squeezed a $3 billion, 12-year TV deal from Fox and ESPN and Moos would invest $130 million in two new football structures. He lured Mike Leach for $2.25 million annually (and has just steered another half-million Leach’s way).
All of which is to say, WSU’s outreach campaign has veered inward. Moos thinks there’s an engagement again on the west side and the prospect of better crowds at home, fueled by the arc of the football program.
“At the end of the day, it’s your product,” he says. “(But) we worked that thing hard over there.”
Rutgers replaces Wisconsin, which deferred a home-and-home with WSU for several years, and Moos accepted ESPN’s offer of Thursday-night visibility.
But this is it. Moos stood before the Pullman Chamber of Commerce the other day and said he’s bringing the town the full slate — seven home games from 2016-18 — with a caveat.
“As a community, we need to embrace that concept, make sure we’re welcoming, that we’re taking care of those people from out of town, that we’re not gouging them,” he says, referring to that message in Pullman. “And I’m going to watch real close, because we can always take one back.”
Moos envisions, in the near-future, roiling home crowds that expect to win against the best of the Pac-12.
“This is gonna be a tough place to play,” he says.
Tough places, WSU knows. It has lost five in a row at CenturyLink and been outscored 227-97. So bottoms up to Rutgers, the last in a 12-pack for the Cougars.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org