A Significance That Resonates Today
Dec. 17, 2006
By Jason Krump
Walking through a drizzling rain on a New Year's Day in Pasadena, the Washington State College football team departed the Rose Bowl Stadium field on the short end of a 24-0 loss to Alabama in the 1931 Rose Bowl.
Champions of the 1916 Rose Bowl, the 1930 edition of the Cougars had earned the second bowl berth in the history of the Washington State football program.
As the players departed the Rose Bowl that day, it marked the last time a Washington State football team set foot on a bowl game field in more than a half century.
A quarter century ago, on Dec. 18, 1981, the Cougars made a triumphant return to the bowl landscape after a 51-year hiatus. Not only did the Cougars turn in one of the most historic seasons in Washington State history in 1981, history would prove it would also be one of the most significant.
In the 50 years following the 1930 Rose Bowl season, when the team finished 9-1, the Cougars did not win more than seven games in any year. Six times the team attained the seven-win plateau (1932, 1951, 1958, 1965, 1972, and 1977), but none of those seasons equated to a bowl bid. It should be noted that with the exception of the 1977 season, the Cougars' absence from a bowl game was largely due to the fact that it was during an era when only the conference champion received a bowl berth, which was the Rose Bowl. Beginning in 1975, the Pac-8 Conference (as it was known then) allowed its members to compete in postseason bowl games other than the Rose Bowl.
Few people would have thought 1981 would be the season that ended the Cougars' bowl drought. In fact, not much was expected of the 1981 Cougar football team heading into the season.
The Cougars were coming off a 4-7 campaign and an eighth place finish in the Pacific-10 Conference the previous year. In its 1981 preseason forecast, a poll of Pac-10 sportswriters and broadcasters predicted the Cougars to finish in the same position, eighth.
But though it had not equated to wins, under fourth year head coach Jim Walden, the Washington State football program had finally enjoyed a state of steadiness after a period of volatility.
When Walden arrived at Washington State in 1978, he was the fourth head coach of the Cougars in four years.
After Jim Sweeny's departure following a 3-8 season in 1975, Jackie Sherrill left for Pittsburgh after another 3-8 season in 1976. Warren Powers came to the scene to guide the Cougars in 1977, but he promptly left for Missouri after a 4-7 season.
Inheriting a program that had the perception of becoming a launching pad for frustrated and/or upward seeking coaches, Walden was determined to provide stability to the program.
"Not only were we losing games, we were losing coaches, and I think losing hope," Walden recalls.
The beginning of the restoration of the program, and hope, began during the months prior to the 1981 season.
"I think Jim and the staff really had in mind to get us in better shape," said Paul Sorensen, an All-American free safety on the '81 team. "We were a very healthy team throughout most of the '81 season. I think Jim had seen injuries take a toll on the team in the past and the way to get around that is to get yourself into great shape."
"I put my kids through one of the most aggressive winter programs that they have ever been through," Walden said. "We would teach our guys to run. That sounds silly but we felt like getting in shape and just running would help our conditioning and help prevent injuries."
Much of the running encompassed sets of 200 yard dashes, four days a week, with just a two minute rest in between.
"If you wanted to see some guys die, watch those big lineman do that," Walden recalled. "But after about a month and a half, we had everyone making it. That attitude carried into the summer. I think our players knew we had something special."
During the summer, co-captains Sorensen, Matt Elisara, Mike Walker and Pat Beach worked to bring the team together in Pullman to prepare for the season.
"We made sure everybody came back and worked out that whole summer," said Walker, who is the defensive line coach on the current Cougar coaching staff. "We were on a mission. We knew it had been over 50 years since we had been to a bowl, and we wanted to get to a bowl."
"We built a lot of camaraderie among the players, and we were able to come together as a team," Elisara said of the players staying in Pullman over the summer.
"We knew going into the fall that we were in good shape and well conditioned, and that carried over into the season," added Elisara.
The season began with a 33-21 win over Montana State in Spokane. The following week, the Cougars traveled to Boulder for a game against Colorado, Sept. 19.
What happened in the fourth quarter set the stage for the Cougars' accomplishments during the rest of the season.
"It all started with the Colorado game," Walker said. "From then on, our confidence was sky high. We couldn't be beat."
Down 10-0 with less than six minutes to play, things looked bleak for WSU.
Except to the players.
"Even though we were down, we never once thought that we would lose the game," Elisara said.
The Cougars' defense forced the Buffaloes into a punting situation but the punt never happened thanks to a rush from Mark Pleis, which forced punter Art Woods to run, backward, for a 15-yard loss.
The Cougars' offense, which had been unable to generate anything all day, drove to the Colorado two-yard line and had a first and goal situation with 2:40 to play when fate bounced in the Cougars' favor, literally.
Running back Tim Harris fumbled near the goal line, but the ball bounced into quarterback Ricky Turner's hands, who ran into the end zone for the touchdown.
The Cougars were still down 10-7 with 2:36 to play, and Colorado recovered the onside kick. Three plays netted Colorado a loss of one yard and the Buffaloes were in a punting situation once again.
This time Colorado got the punt off, right into the outstretched arms of the Cougars' Jeff Keller.
After Keller's block, the ball fell into the waiting arms of Sorensen, who went 43 yards untouched for what turned out to be the winning score with 1:41 to play.
"That was a game that nobody in their right mind had picked us to win, and we did," Sorensen said. "We absolutely had no chance, and we came back and made some big plays."
"We never gave up," Walker said. "We played all the way to the end. Everybody was cheering and pulling for each other."
Incredibly, what looked to be a loss turned into a perfect record after two games. The significance of the victory was not lost on Walden.
"We went from totally getting our butts beat to snatching victory from the jaws of defeat," said Walden. "From that point on, it seemed like our players thought something good can happen to us."
And it did.
"We knew after the Colorado game that the sky was the limit," Walker said.
After the comeback in Colorado, the Cougars went on a run, going undefeated over their next five games. The stretch was marred only by a 17-17 tie against UCLA.
"We were thinking one game at a time instead of worrying too much about what our record was going to be," Elisara said.
The Cougars brought a 7-0-1 mark to USC and suffered their first loss of the season to the Trojans, 44-17; however, WSU rebounded to defeat Oregon and California by a combined score of 58-7.
WSU's 19-0 win over California was its eighth of the season, guaranteeing the most wins by the program since the 1930 Rose Bowl season. While already making history, the Cougars suddenly found themselves having the opportunity to do something even more momentous entering the Nov. 21 Apple Cup in Seattle.
Go to the Rose Bowl.
By virtue of Washington's win over USC, the Apple Cup carried an extra emphasis: a trip to the Rose Bowl for the winner. In another rare instance, both teams entered the game ranked: Washington State at No. 14 and Washington at No. 17.
"We had a great week of practice and fully believed we were going to go in there and beat Washington," Sorensen said. "We played that way. We got beat up a little bit and had some injuries that hurt us on offense."
WSU was up 7-3 nearing the end of the first half, but a diving touchdown catch by Paul Skansi with eight seconds left in the half propelled Washington to a 10-7 halftime advantage.
WSU tied the game at 10 on its first second half possession, but Washington responded by scoring 10 quick points with an 80-yard touchdown drive and a field goal set up by a WSU fumble deep in its own territory. It proved to be a deficit WSU was unable to overcome as the Cougars fell 23-10.
Done in by six turnovers (three fumbles, three interceptions) the Cougars saw their Rose Bowl dreams denied while Washington punched its ticket to Pasadena.
In addition to the turnovers, the Cougars lost a main component in their offense when quarterback Clete Casper went out in the second quarter with an injured hamstring and did not return.
"One thing I noticed was Washington had played in championship games before and Washington State hadn't," Sorensen said. "You don't realize how huge a deal that is until you actually play in a game like that and understand how much effort you have to make above and beyond what you normally make.
"They were used to it and we were not," Sorensen continued. "That was the surprise; the intensity tempo and the level and the ferocity of that game went up about four notches. It was something I noticed and wish we could have a do over."
"I will always believe we were as good or better than they were, but not without Clete," Walden said of the Apple Cup. "We lost our 1-2 quarterback punch that had been so significant to us. After the game I had the disappointment of not going to the Rose Bowl. I never had that feeling. It was almost hard to get a hold of my emotions."
Lost in the disappointment of missing out on the Rose Bowl was the fact that the Cougars were immediately extended an invitation to the Holiday Bowl at San Diego. It would be the first bowl game for the Cougars in 51 years.
"It took a couple of days to get over the bitterness of losing, but I promise the Holiday Bowl covered up a lot of that sadness," Walden said. "I was very pleased with the success we had. It was a wonderful experience to know that you've taken a football team to a bowl game that had not been to one in over 50 years."
Walden was determined to have his team enjoy the experience of being at the bowl game.
"I promised them that we were going to have a good time; we were going to practice hard because we wanted to represent ourselves, our school, and our families in a manner that you don't want to be embarrassed," Walden said.
"They didn't listen to me until the half," Walden added with a laugh.
The Cougars' opponent was Brigham Young University and its star quarterback Jim McMahon, who would be playing in his final collegiate game. McMahon, a Heisman Trophy finalist that season, would leave BYU as the holder of 71 NCAA records. With McMahon leading the way, BYU jumped out to a 24-7 halftime lead and extended its advantage to 31-7 with an interception return a minute into the third quarter.
"I was upset at the half because we weren't playing the kind of football the Holiday Bowl had brought us there to do," Walden said. "Other than the Colorado game, we hadn't played a worse half of football."
That changed in the second half. After spotting BYU the early touchdown, WSU scored 21 unanswered points in the third quarter to pull within 31-28 heading to the final quarter.
In the end, BYU would withstand the comeback attempt from WSU, and eventually prevailed 38-36; however, the issue was in doubt until the final minutes of the game.
"At the half, we weren't doing too much," Walden said. "Sure enough we came out the second half and played our butts off. It got down right down to almost the last play of the game when Jim (McMahon) fumbled the football and was able to pick it up and make a big first down. It turned out to be a whale of a football game."
"We stopped them in the second half and than our offense got going, and they couldn't stop us." Sorensen said. "If you put it in a nutshell, it was what Cougar football was all about. We had to overcome a lot of adversity and figure out a way to do it and nearly pulled it off. Even though we lost, we walked out of there knowing that BYU knew they had a ball game."
The Cougars finished the season with an 8-3-1 record but, beyond the importance of the won-loss record, as the 1981 season began to progress through the annals of history, the significance of what the Cougars' accomplished in 1981 would take shape.
"I think our year in 1981 was a pivotal part of the program that turned everything around," Elisara said.
"Every now and then good teams come together like that," Walker said. "We had passion playing with each other; we just jelled together.
"We were hungry, that's the word for it," Walker added. "We were hungry to play and hungry to be successful."
Earning a berth to a bowl game in 1981 is not like it is today. There were no terms as "bowl eligible" or bowl tie-ins to a fourth place team in a conference. In addition, the Dec. 18 Holiday Bowl was the opening act of a 14-game bowl schedule in 1981, less than half of the 32-bowl game slate in 2006.
"They only had a certain number of bowl games and a lot were independent pick bowls; they could pick who they wanted," Walden said. "Unless you were a Notre Dame, there was nobody going to bowl games with less than eight wins."
In fact, Walden and the Cougars would fall victim to just that circumstance as his 1983 team was shut out from the bowl schedule despite a 7-4 record.
But it would not be 51 years until the Cougars earned their next bowl berth - the 1988 Aloha Bowl. In all, the Washington State football program has reached 10 bowl games in its history. Two of those games occurred before 1981, seven have occurred after the 1981 Holiday Bowl season.
"Our year paved the way for numerous successes by the program and that is what I am pretty proud about," Elisara said. "We stuck together, worked hard together, and we believed in ourselves and believed in the program."
"The Holiday Bowl team of '81 was truly a team," Sorensen said. "It was a group of guys that bonded together and played their butts off. I can't be more proud of a group of guys in any experience I ever had."
"That season of 1981 restored hope to the Cougar loyalties, the fans, and the people that something good can happen to Washington State University," Walden said. "It was a forerunner to all of the outstanding things that have happened to Washington State football since then."
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