If you're just hearing about quarterback Gardner Minshew, welcome back from Antarctica. The Cougs quarterback has spent the past three months turning Washington State into his personal Graceland.
PULLMAN — It’s four and a half hours before kickoff Saturday against Arizona, and Craig Laprath is out of mustaches. Fans hoping to snatch up some faux facial hair will have to look elsewhere now.
Laprath is the store manager of Crimson & Gray, a Coug apparel shop about a mile off the Washington State campus. And like the rest of the nation, it seems he slept on quarterback Gardner Minshew, too.
“We mis-anticipated demand a little bit,” said Laprath, who said fake mustache orders include about 500 items. “We (the staff) were going to go and watch the game, and I planned on taking about 15 mustaches for a group photo, but … no.”
#16 HUSKIES vs. #7 COUGARS
Friday, Nov. 23 | 5:30 p.m. | Martin Stadium
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If you’re just hearing about Minshew, welcome back from Antarctica. The Cougs quarterback has spent the past three months turning Washington State into his personal Graceland.
According to wsucougars.com, the fifth-year senior played at Northwest Mississippi Community College and East Carolina before transferring to the Palouse. But those tailgating outside Martin Stadium will tell you he descended from the sky.
Through 11 games, Minshew tops the country with 4,325 passing yards. He has led a Cougars team picked to finish fifth in the Pac-12 North to a 10-1 record and No. 7 ranking in the AP Top 25 poll.
Forget the Wazzu story of the year — this has been the Wazzu story of the century. As longtime Coug fan Lisa Harkness said: “When you see (coach) Mike Leach smile, you know something good is happening.”
Smiles were supposed to be scarce for Washington State fans in 2018. The year started as agonizingly as possible, when would-be starting QB Tyler Hilinski took his own life in January.
On a much lesser scale, there were also five departed assistant coaches and an array of stars lost to graduation and the NFL. Friday’s Apple Cup game wasn’t supposed to be a battle for the Pac-12 North title — it was supposed to be a four-quarter formality for Washington.
But then came the mustached Mississippian that nobody had heard of. Then came the graduate transfer who’s thrown 36 touchdown passes to 10 different receivers. Then came Minshew’s out-of-nowhere Heisman Trophy campaign and the Cougs’ out-of-nowhere success.
“It’s the miracle season,” said Wazzu alum Lisa Griswold, who’d just posed for a picture at the Minshew Moustache Photo Booth on the campus RV lot. “With everything that happened earlier in the year, you didn’t know what was going to happen during the year. It’s just so much fun. It’s unreal.”
No doubt the Cougs have had A-list quarterbacks before. Drew Bledsoe was the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. Ryan Leaf was the No. 2 pick after finishing third in the Heisman race. And Jason Gesser was Pac-10 Co-Player of the Year.
But never has a WSU phenomenon emerged so rapidly or unexpectedly as it has with Minshew. Never has a face in the 509 become so recognizable so soon.
If Beyonce or Brad Pitt or The Rock ever needs privacy in Pullman — no problem. They’d just walk 20 feet behind Minshew.
“It’s crazy. It’s awesome. You gotta love your teammates getting love like that,” senior linebacker Peyton Pelluer said. “He really is a celebrity — to the point where it’s almost inconvenient. We’ll be walking around, and everybody wants to take pictures with him.”
The hype truly hit the accelerator when ESPN’s College GameDay finally came to Washington State last month before the Cougs’ 34-20 win over Oregon. It shifted into fifth gear when Minshew placed a fake ‘stache above Leach’s lips on live TV in Colorado two Saturdays ago. And it all but broke the sound barrier when Minshew threw for 473 yards and a school-record seven touchdown passes in last week’s 69-28 win over Arizona.
“Early in this season, I had no clue who he was. Now he’s all I think about when I watch football games,” Washington State student Andrew Hansen said. “He’s given this school hope.”
Minshew’s quotes don’t play too well in a story about his own stardom. After Saturday’s record-setting night, he was humble, deferential, and most of all appreciative.
Maybe because that’s his natural personality. Or maybe it’s because he knows this almost never happened.
Minshew, as you’re probably aware, committed to Alabama in February. He knew he’d be a third-string quarterback who probably would never see the field, but as an aspiring coach he figured a year in Tuscaloosa would be an ideal apprenticeship. But in the coup of his career, Leach convinced Gardner to de-commit from the Tide, transfer to Wazzu and set off Minshew Mania as we know it.
Among the Maniacs is 12-year-old Max Schuster, who like so many kids in eastern Washington dressed as Minshew for Halloween. And a couple weeks ago, Max whipped out a picture of himself in costume and got his new hero to sign it.
As Minshew put his John Hancock on the photo, Max’s father Mark had a question.
“When you won that big game on GameDay, and all the students were on the field, and you had everyone from 80-year-old women to 2-year-old kids wearing mustaches, what’s going through your mind?”
According to Mark, Minshew didn’t waste a second.
“That I made the best decision of my life.”