EL PASO, Texas — Moments after Washington State’s charter plane touched down in west Texas Sunday afternoon, the Cougars were greeted by vibrant mariachi musicians, folklorico dancers wearing colorful dresses, Sun Bowl officials and local television cameras.
Sometime between the mariachi serenade, Mexican dance routine and WSU coach Jake Dickert accepting a sombrero hat, Sun Bowl Executive Director Bernie Olivas received a text message from ACC Commissioner Jim Phillips.
“Can you do a Zoom meeting in 20 minutes?” the message read.
“I said, ‘Sorry, receiving Washington State right now. Make it a half-hour, make it 45 minutes,’ ” Olivas recalled. “He said OK and right after we did the celebration there at the airport, they gave us the bad news.”
Three days later, it was somewhat fitting that Olivas was watching WSU’s football team practice from a high school track when one considers all the hurdles he’s cleared over the last 72 hours, and the hurdles he’ll still have to clear before the Cougars and Central Michigan can kick off at 9 a.m. Friday at Sun Bowl Stadium.
“When that ball’s in the air it’s like, ‘Phew, the weight of the world is off,’ ” Olivas said. “When that ball’s in the air, I can take a breath.”
On Wednesday, though, Olivas was still 48 hours out and it probably felt much longer than that. During a 12-minute interview with a reporter at Eastlake High School — WSU’s practice site in El Paso this week — Olivas has to pause at least four times to take phone calls, each one seemingly more urgent than the last.
“This phone has taken a beating,” Olivas laughed, later pulling up a phone log that shows more than 100 calls from the past three days.
He’s solved the week’s biggest crisis by finding a team to replace COVID-19-stricken Miami in Friday’s game but the bowl’s director, in his 20th year as executive director and 38th year overall, still isn’t done putting out fires.
“Everybody said, ‘Hey man, you did a good job of getting the team here,’ ” Olivas said. “I said, ‘Wait a minute, it’s only Tuesday.’ Unfortunately, it’s only Tuesday.”
At least two of the phone calls taken by Olivas on Wednesday pertained to uniforms. Both teams are playing in Friday’s game because their opponent dropped out due to COVID-19 protocols. Miami notified the Sun Bowl it couldn’t play on Sunday and Boise State delivered the same news to the Arizona Bowl on Monday. Both designated as the visiting team in their respective bowl games, Washington State and Central Michigan only packed white jerseys.
“Washington State is wearing gray helmets, white shirts and crimson pants. (CMU) were going to wear red helmets, white shirts and white pants. Was that enough contrast?” Olivas said. “Then they said, ‘We’ll ship the red.’ ”
From WSU’s practice field on Wednesday, Olivas coordinates the transport of CMU’s maroon jerseys to a local embroidery shop, where Sun Bowl patches are stitched on just a few hours later.
“Where are you right now?” Olivas can be heard asking a Sun Bowl official on the phone. “There’s 16 boxes, it’s not like we can put them in the back of a car. We need a truck. This is very, very important.”
The headaches don’t stop there.
Since WSU’s marching band opted not to travel, Olivas’ team reached out to the band program at El Dorado High in El Paso. The El Dorado band is working on a short timeline to learn WSU’s fight song and plans to play it from the bleachers of Sun Bowl Stadium.
“The band is on, right?” Olivas confirmed on a separate phone call.
Until Tuesday, the north end zone at Sun Bowl stadium was painted green with white and orange Miami script, so groundskeepers improvised, covering the logo with more green paint. After rummaging through stencils from past Sun Bowls, they found the letters needed to spell out “CMU” with white paint.
Game programs were already printed with the assumption Miami would be playing, so the Sun Bowl plans to donate copies to the El Paso high school that normally sells them at the gate and “they’ll keep the money,” according to Olivas.
Unable to solve every problem this week, Olivas will save others, such as Central Michigan’s payout, for a later date. The Chippewas were slated to split a $350,000 Arizona Bowl payout with Boise State, but should be in line for a substantially better reward in El Paso. The scheduled payout for the Sun Bowl is $4.55 million, split between both teams and their conferences.
“We made a gentlemen’s agreement that we’ll play and then we’ll figure it out,” Olivas said.
The Cougars were approximately 10 minutes into a team meeting on Sunday when athletic director Pat Chun interrupted to share the news of Miami dropping out. With bowl prospects in serious jeopardy, WSU’s demeanor didn’t change, according to Chun’s account of the team reaction, possibly because the news paled in comparison to other developments Cougar players have had to digest in the past three months, and for some the past two to four years.
“This team, I don’t know at this point what can rattle them,” Chun said. “This is a team that obviously has a culture of, all right, we’ll take in the news, but we’ll figure out a way to go forward.”
WSU players attended a mandatory team meeting in October when Chun announced former coach Nick Rolovich and four assistants were being terminated for failure to comply with a state vaccine mandate. Many of the upperclassmen on the current roster have lost two teammates, Tyler Hilinski and Bryce Beekman, and hours before a game at Utah this season, the Cougars were told another teammate, Brandon Gray, had been seriously injured in a Pullman shooting. Players on last year’s team had to deal with the on-again, off-again nature of a COVID-impacted 2020 season, which saw four games canceled, including one less than two hours before kickoff.
“It’s a testament to the team, because this very well could’ve dissolved and the year could’ve been — the year more than likely was going to fall apart,” Chun said. “That first team meeting when we had to notify them of what was happening, Jake (Dickert) took over and the leadership of this team took over and those guys were there for each other that night. They all did the hardest thing probably of the year, is show up the next day and put in a practice when half the coaching staff is gone.”
Although it was hard not to be consumed by speculation and rumors of who might fill in for Miami, WSU players still went through a padded practice and regularly scheduled bowl events on Monday.
“The biggest thing is control what you can control,” linebacker Justus Rogers said. “I was on Twitter a lot more than I usually am just trying to get the scoop, but we still had the bowl events. We still went on course and was on schedule to do what we were to do if we were to play a game.”
Behind the scenes, Olivas, Chun and Pac-12 officials examined every possibility to ensure the Sun Bowl wasn’t canceled for a second straight year — a scenario Olivas assured “would’ve been really hard on us and the city.”
A phone call was made to SMU, which had its bowl game canceled when Virginia players came down with the virus. But the Mustangs, like many other teams that lost bowl opponents, had already sent players home for the holidays. Olivas also made a shot-in-the-dark call to Stephen F. Austin coach Colby Carthel, who repeatedly pitched his FCS program as a Sun Bowl replacement on social media, tweeting, “I coach an 8-win Division 1 football team out here in #bEASTtexas that is willing and able to play this game! @SFA_Football can play @WSUCougarFB in the #SunBowl on 4 days notice, no problem! Let’s make it happen.”
“I just called them to say, ‘Hey, would you be interested?’ ” Olivas said. “Because if they would’ve been, then there would’ve been a lot of steps beginning with the football oversight committee and NCAA, and I don’t think they’ve ever allowed an FCS team to play in a bowl game.”
When Boise State fell out of the Arizona Bowl picture, Central Michigan, stationed in Tucson, seemed like a natural fit, given the relatively short distance between the locations. The MAC officially released the Chippewas from their Arizona Bowl obligations and commissioner Jon Steinbrecher hashed out contractual details with Olivas. CMU’s equipment truck arrived in El Paso on Tuesday and the team caravan is scheduled to be at its Marriott hotel on Thursday afternoon.
Some 24 hours after Chun delivered the Miami news to WSU’s football team, Olivas informed the Cougars they had a new opponent.
“We all felt horrible for our team, but you could see the pain on Bernie’s face,” Chun said. “ … The Sun Bowl is a nationally televised CBS game because of the history and the pride and the beauty of this region. You could see the weight of the world was on Bernie … I know he reached out to Central Michigan and formerly offered them and it also gave us an opportunity to tell you, we got you an opponent, Sun Bowl’s back on.”
Back on, but with the caveat it could be back off at a moment’s notice. Chun, echoing Olivas’ earlier sentiment, won’t be comfortable until about 9:01 a.m. on Friday, especially after seeing UCLA’s game against North Carolina State called off hours before kickoff.
“This is going to be one of those things,” Chun said, “until toe meets ball come Friday … that’s when it’ll be OK and we can play this game.”
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.