Washington State is headed to El Paso, Texas, on Dec. 26 to take on the Hurricanes. Yet many WSU fans were hoping the Cougars would get a Holiday Bowl bid.
When he first hired Mike Leach back in 2011, Washington State Athletic Director Bill Moos recalls telling some of his staff members, “Can you imagine if, in the first few years here, we got to go to the Sun Bowl? How crazy it’d be in the whole state of Texas and primarily in West Texas? And here, we are, on our way.”
The Mike Leach-returns-to-Texas storyline will unfold on Dec. 26, when the Cougars (8-4 overall, 6-3 Pac-12) take on Miami (8-4 overall, 5-3 ACC) in the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas.
Leach, who rose to fame as the head coach at Texas Tech from 2000-09, will coach his first game in the state of Texas since he left Lubbock in 2009.
Moos is hoping that Leach’s name will help the Cougars sell some of the 6,000 tickets they have as part of their Sun Bowl ticket allotment.
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“He’s like a folk hero down there,” Moos said. “We’re hoping we’ll get some new Cougar fans that are Mike Leach fans who might help us fill our allotment and fill the stadium.”
Lubbock, home of Texas Tech, is about a six-hour drive from El Paso.
During a conference call with bowl officials and Miami interim head coach Larry Scott, Leach said the Cougars are excited to be going to the Sun Bowl.
“There’s a lot of great people in Texas, really, the Texas Tech fans and faithful were fantastic, just like Coug fans,” Leach said when asked to describe his feelings returning to the football sidelines in the state of Texas. “Texas Tech hasn’t paid me for 2009, the last season I worked (in Lubbock), so administratively, they’ve made some suspect decisions in the past.
“But the opportunity to connect with the state of Texas and bring what we have at WSU, the exciting team we have – I’m excited to bring the two worlds back together.”
It’s unclear how well Cougars fans will travel to the Sun Bowl, which will kick off at 11 a.m. P.T. the day after Christmas.
On one hand, fans are excited about the bowl bid because it marks WSU’s second bowl appearance under Leach and is only the Cougars’ second bowl since the 2003 Holiday Bowl.
However, many WSU fans were hoping the Cougars would get a Holiday Bowl bid, and dozens openly lobbied the San Diego-based Holiday Bowl on Twitter in the week leading up to Sunday’s bowl announcement.
Moos said he was in “serious talks” with the Holiday Bowl this week and that “right up to the end, I thought we may have had a shot at the Holiday Bowl.”
But after the Alamo Bowl took Oregon, the Holiday Bowl took 25th ranked Pac-12 runner up USC instead, and the Foster Farms Bowl (Santa Clara, Calif.) selected UCLA. Thus, WSU landed in the Sun Bowl for the second time in program history.
The Cougars’ first appearance in the Sun Bowl came in 2001, when a No. 13 WSU team led by Mike Price beat Joe Tiller’s Purdue team 33-27.
Price lives in El Paso now, and Moos joked that Price and his wife, Joyce, would help function as tour guides when the Cougars are in town for their bowl trip.
“The Sun Bowl is the second-oldest bowl game only behind the Rose Bowl, so it’s a rich tradition,” Moos said. “It’s a tremendous reward for our players and fans, and it’s tremendous exposure for the university as a whole, not just Cougar athletics.”
Moos said WSU quarterback Luke Falk – who sat out the Apple Cup with a concussion – is a “green light” for the bowl game and will likely be back at practice with the team on Tuesday. Leach also confirmed this, saying, “Luke’s fine. He’d play if we played today.”
But Moos deferred to Leach when asked for information about WSU’s other injured players – WR River Cracraft, OL Joe Dahl and WR Gabe Marks.
“I respect coach Leach in that regard. Obviously a bowl game that’s further out will give us a chance to have more players back who are going through rehab and who suffered injuries in the season,” Moos said. “We’ve got a couple of weeks here. I’m not going to say we’ll have our full arsenal, but maybe we could.”
Cracraft and Dahl both sported walking boots on Senior Night, while DraftInsiders.com reported this week that Marks suffered an ankle injury in the UW game that might need a few months of recovery time.
The Sun Bowl will mark WSU’s first game against Miami in program history. The Hurricanes fired head coach Al Golden midway through their season, but have since hired former Georgia coach Mark Richt as his replacement. It’s unclear whether Richt will retain Scott on his new staff, however, Scott will lead the Hurricanes in their bowl game.
“I haven’t had a chance to study (WSU) but I do know of coach Leach’s reputation and what he does with quarterbacks, and offensively, getting people open and throwing the ball around a lot,” Scott said. “I admire what he did at Texas Tech, and had a chance the last few years to sporadically watch what he’s done with that WSU team.”
According to WSU, tickets for the 2015 Sun Bowl may be ordered through wsucougars.com. Fans may also call the Cougar Ticket Office at 1-800-GO-COUGS starting at 9 a.m., Monday morning. Tickets information is also available at www.sunbowl.org.