Oct. 1, 2007
By Jason Krump
They were players who were part of a legacy at Washington State University.
They made their mark, typically as any good wide receivers do, by making the tough receptions across the middle, or the spectacular long touchdown catches.
They also made statements through a punt return, a devastating block, and served as a key element in ending a 67-year drought.
But what is remembered most is a self-proclaimed designation that placed them forever in the annals of Cougar lore.
The Fab Five.
Used five years earlier by the Michigan men's basketball team, the 1997 Washington State receiving corps of Chris Jackson, Kevin McKenzie, Shawn McWashington, Nian Taylor, and Shawn Tims decided prior to the season to give themselves the same moniker.
"They were tremendous. They were a tight unit; they gelled and learned from Coach Levenseller, and they helped me tremendously. If it weren't for them, we definitely weren't going to be in the position we were in."
- Quarterback Ryan Leaf on the Fab Five
Wide receivers coach Mike Levenseller recalls his reaction when he first heard his group's self-proclaimed name.
"They started calling themselves that and I said, `What the hell is this?'" he remembers. "I said, `Okay but you better earn it.' They earned it."
Did they ever.
It was the collective effort of the Fab Five that played a major role in the Cougars returning to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 67 years. The quintet gave themselves the name prior to the season and lived up to the billing during it.
"They were tremendous," quarterback Ryan Leaf said. "They were a tight unit; they gelled and learned from Coach Levenseller, and they helped me tremendously. If it weren't for them, we definitely weren't going to be in the position we were in."
Some members of the Fab Five made their way to WSU as standouts from high school, other came in as junior college transfers, one even arrived on campus without any football experience whatsoever.
The quintet was a veteran group, made up of four seniors and one junior. It was a group who, with the exception of one member, all hailed from California. And it was a group that consisted of players who had little experience playing the receiver position before arriving at WSU.
McWashington, the only one of the group not from California, came to WSU in 1993 out of Seattle's Garfield High School where he played quarterback and was a three-time letterwinner.
Of the California contingent, Tims earned three letters as a running back for Vallejo High School. He walked on to the team in the fall of 1993, redshirting that season.
"He showed up out of the blue," Levenseller said of Tims. "I said, `Who is this guy?' By the end of the first semester he's on scholarship. He's probably the quickest guy I ever coached."
McKenzie, also a running back, earned two letters at Long Beach's Wilson High School. He didn't play wide receiver until his sophomore season at Long Beach Community College.
Taylor, the only junior, played wide receiver his sophomore year at Ramona High School in Riverside, but moved to running back his junior and senior seasons.
Jackson completed the quintet. He had plenty of high school experience...in basketball. Hailing from Santa Ana and playing for Mater Dei High School, Jackson averaged six points for his team in his junior season. What made that season notable is that Jackson's team lost in the State finals against future NBA All-Star Jason Kidd's squad.
Jackson didn't suit up in a football uniform until 1994 when he played receiver for Orange Coast College.
"One of my buddies from high school said, `You're an athlete, you should come out for the football team,'" he said.
Three weeks later, Jackson was starting his first football game. It would not be his last.
"I was very raw, and I just did what I knew how to do," Jackson said. "It wasn't until I got to Washington State that I had to learn the nuances of the game."
Tims first saw action during the 1994 season, primarily in a special teams capacity. McWashington saw limited action in 1995, and Jackson, McKenzie, and Taylor completed the quintet in 1996.
It was during the 1996 season that the group experienced growing pains and, in the process, tested the patience of Levenseller.
"They were good enough, but they hadn't locked it all together yet," Levenseller said. "After one game, I remember Shawn McWashington walking up to my wife Allison in the (Hollingbery) Fieldhouse. Allison then asked me, `You alright?' When I asked why she said because Shawn thinks you are going to be done after this year.
"Shawn thought that they, single-handedly as a group, were going to run me out of the game," Levenseller added. "That's what they thought; we struggled a little bit. It was learning how to run routes, how to look at video, it's a learning process."
Each of the five played in all 11 games during the 1996 season. Combined, they caught 102 passes for 1,657 yards. McKenzie led the group in catches (31), yards (626) and reception average (20.2).
Neither of the receivers was the primary target of sophomore quarterback Leaf. That designation fell to senior Chad Carpenter, who caught 47 passes for 623 yards.
Not being the primary receiver on the team automatically gave each member of the Fab Five something in common.
"We all became close because we were all pouting about not getting the ball then," McWashington said. "We never went through a period of time where we were the guy."
If the '96 season was a year of learning for the quintet, then the offseason was a time to process the knowledge gained from that year.
"We did stuff in our winter conditioning program that was really conducive to being a wide receiver," Levenseller said. "I was just on them every time they did something. Whatever drill it was we were working on, we made it work for us."
Gradually, it began to take hold.
"It became really good," Levenseller recalled. "They formed the habits. All of a sudden they were getting it."
"We were all on the same level," Jackson said. "We all went through the bumps and bruises adjusting to the Washington State system and doing things the proper way. All the receivers had to get broke down and built back up. By the time we were built back up, that's when we made our run."
In addition to developing the wide receiver skills, the group developed in the weight room; so much so that they became what Levenseller described as the "strongest, most physical group I ever had."
"We really prepared that offseason," McWashington said. "We all benched over 300 pounds. You're not going find offensive lines that do that, much less receivers. We all put in the time off the field from a physical standpoint.
"Even though we were probably the strongest, we weren't the biggest or fastest so we took it upon ourselves to also engage in the mental aspects of the game as well," McWashington added.
And that meant preparation, preparation, and more preparation.
For the five, learning about the upcoming opponent wasn't something they had to do, it was something they wanted to do, and it began soon after the conclusion of the previous game.
"We can play a game Saturday, and on Sunday, before we ever had a meeting, someone on the receiving corps would have already drawn up the entire secondary for our next opponent, including the coverages that they run most of time, and left it on Levy's chalkboard," McWashington said.
Levenseller saw this firsthand each time he arrived to the weekly receiver meetings.
"What they thought they could do in every formation was already on the board," Levenseller recalled. "They already had on the board what they wanted to do that week; they already watched all the video; they had already got together as a group before we ever met."
According to McWashington, the mindset to be prepared was learned from their coach.
"Knowing what the other guys were going to do was fun; we learned that as being fun," he said. "We picked that up from Levy, that knowing everything there is to know about your opponent and being prepared, both physically and mentally, we just learned that as being fun."
"I learned from Mike Price that if the players are confident they can do it, they can probably do it," Levenseller said. "They invested of themselves into it and had the confidence that they can succeed. All they were asking was the opportunity to allow them to do what they believed they could do.
"Now they had to do it," Levenseller continued. "If they promised they could do it, they had to come through and do it."
It didn't take long for the receivers to fulfill their promise.
In the season-opener against UCLA, Taylor caught five passes for 200 yards and two touchdowns while Jackson added a 78-yard touchdown reception. Two weeks later at USC, with the game tied at 21 and less than five minutes remaining, McKenzie snagged one-handed a Leaf pass and sprang free to the end zone due to a devastating block by McWashington.
McKenzie repeated his heroics a week later, going 80 yards for a touchdown to open the game at Illinois. Jackson, Taylor, and McWashington also got in the act with touchdown receptions in the win over Illinois. A week later, Tims contributed from the special teams side by returning a punt 73 yards for a touchdown in the 58-0 rout of Boise State.
Each receiver was highlighted in some fashion by Leaf's distribution of the ball. McKenzie caught the most, 50 catches for 833 yards; Jackson was just one reception behind McKenzie and led the team in reception yardage with 916. Tims caught 35 for 497 yards, and McWashington had 31 receptions for 556 yards. Taylor caught the fewest, 21 receptions, but had an astounding 25 yards average per reception.
"They knew, because there were five of them, there was not going to be one guy who had 90 catches," Leaf said. "It was going to be spread out; even distribution to all five guys."
The regular season culminated in spectacular fashion as the Fab Five combined to account for 360 total yards keying the Cougars' 41-35 win over Washington, securing the Pac-10 championship and the program's first trip to the Rose Bowl in 67 years.
Not a bad legacy to leave behind.
Some would even call it fabulous.
Relive the Roses
- Chapter 1: Motivation
- Chapter 2: Fourth and Roses to Go
- Chapter 3: The Catch. The Block. Vanquishing History.
- Chapter 4: The Nation Begins to Take Notice
- Chapter 5: Fabulous!
- Chapter 6: Getting Defensive
- Chapter 7: 63 and 6-0
- Chapter 8: In Elite Company
- Chapter 9: Fumble, Then a Recovery
- Chapter 10: Stepping Up to the Challenge
- Chapter 11: Memories of a Memorable Man
- Chapter 12: Confidence
- Chapter 13: A Storybook Championship
- Chapter 14: Leading up to New Year's Day
- Chapter 15: A Block that Lent a Great Assist
- Chapter 16: A Game 67 Years in the Making
- Chapter 17: Playing No. 1 to a Deadlock
- Chapter 18: To the Final Snap