It’s not lost on Mike Price that the last time the Cougars played in the Sun Bowl, they beat Purdue 33-27 and set the stage for the memorable 2002 Rose Bowl season, when WSU won 10 games.

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As coach at Washington State from 1989 to 2002, Mike Price led the Cougars to five of the 11 bowl games in school history – including two Rose Bowls and the 2001 Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas.

Price now lives in El Paso and is on the Sun Bowl selection committee, so he’s very much looking forward to this year’s bowl matchup between his old team and Miami, and he’ll be at the airport to welcome the Cougars when they arrive Monday.

It’s not lost on Price that the last time the Cougars played in the Sun Bowl, they beat Purdue 33-27 and set the stage for the memorable 2002 Rose Bowl season, when WSU won 10 games.


Sun Bowl, WSU vs. Miami at El Paso, 11 a.m., Ch. 7

Could history repeat itself with the 2015 Sun Bowl-bound Cougs? Quite possibly, say some of the key components of that 2001 team.

“I feel there a lot of similarities between this year’s Cougar team and the Cougar team we had then,” Price said. “That was a team that was pretty good, we were 9-2 coming in (to El Paso) and led single-handedly by (quarterback) Jason Gesser and a real strong defense.”

Before the Sun Bowl season in 2001, WSU had endured three losing seasons in which the Cougars won a total of 10 games.

Looking back, Gesser, now the Cougar Athletic Fund’s assistant director for development, says the biggest factor that helped the Cougars turn things around in 2001 was the internal leadership that developed in the locker room during his upperclassman years at WSU. This year’s Cougars have also established that sort of leadership, he says.

Gesser joined the team as a freshman in 1999 and played with guys like Steve Gleason, Billy Newman and Lamont Thompson who mentored him and helped to build an atmosphere on the team that placed an emphasis on player leadership over direction from the coaches.

“Somebody would show up late for practice and coaches wouldn’t have to do anything about it because we’d do it ourselves,” Gesser said. “Something would happen and coach Price would call me and say, ‘hey what happened?’ and I’d say: ‘Don’t worry about it coach, we took care of it. He’s running tomorrow morning.’”

That level of leadership is instrumental to any successful team, and it only comes about when every member of a team has bought into the mission. That, in Gesser’s view, was what had been lacking at WSU over the last few years.

“They didn’t have the leaders. The previous team was kind of divided because you had the (Paul) Wulff carryovers and the Mike Leach guys. The problem was that even with the guys Leach had brought in, if you have no leadership, somebody isn’t going to be happy and he’s going to talk and if there’s no leader to say, ‘shut your mouth, get out of here,’” Gesser said.

Player leadership holds teams together during the rough times, and often, the quarterback plays a big part in cultivating a cohesive locker room. So it helps if the quarterback can win the respect of his teammates early on.

Gesser said his moment came against Hawaii during his freshman year. He scrambled to get a first down and took a big hit on the sideline and helicoptered into the bench. The quarterback nimbly bounced back up and made the sign for a first down, and the stadium erupted in cheers.

Unbeknown to him, that play earned Gesser his team’s loyalty.

The following year, the team voted Gesser a captain as a sophomore. To this day, he’s the only three-time captain in WSU football history.

Price and Gesser both believe WSU once again has that same kind of leader in redshirt sophomore Luke Falk.

In Gesser’s eyes, Falk’s moment came in the first game of this season when things were unraveling for the Cougars against Portland State and, on fourth-and-three late in the game, Falk scrambled for a first down and got it but was upended in the process. He landed hard on his shoulder and had to leave the game, but that play showed the team what its quarterback was willing to do for them.

“That, in my mind, was the true moment that signified his leadership role,” Gesser said. “Even though he got hurt, that played a factor, and then when he followed up and played at Rutgers and had that game-winning drive — in that eight-day span that cemented his role and the team really responded to his leadership at that point.”

At 8-4, coach Mike Leach’s 2015 squad has already posted the best record WSU football has managed since the 2003 team beat a ranked Texas team in the Holiday Bowl to finish the season 10-3.

These Cougars are far from satisfied. They’re trying to become only the eighth team in WSU history to win nine games or more in a season.

“Not too many teams in the history of WSU have won nine games and we want to be one of those teams,” Leach said. “And the other thing is, there hasn’t been a ton of bowl victories, and we want to distinguish ourselves that way, so we want to win this bowl game.”