A losing skid that stretched to 1966 was ended. A brand new stadium was built. And the birth of a national star most of us simply called The Samoan gave us hope every week no matter who the opponent.
There was also a series of bad bounces and inexplicable outcomes that gave the phrase “Cougin’ It” a most foul life of its own. There was a revolving door of coaches, and the tragic practice field death of defensive lineman Spud Harris.
In the first of a periodic series recapping every season of Cougar football, here’s how it all shaped up on the crimson field during the ten seasons from 1970-79.
CF.C Offensive Player of the Decade – Jack Thompson
CF.C Defensive Player of the Decade – Ken Greene
CF.C Lineman of the Decade – Steve Ostermann
CF.C Team of the Decade – 1972
CF.C Game of the Decade – WSU 19, Nebraska 10; 1977
Jim Sweeney's third season was a stinker even before the opening kick-off. In the spring of '70, an arson fire destroyed the south stands of Rogers Field, leaving the Cougars homeless for the next two years (all home games moved to Spokane). It got worse in the Fall when Sweeney abandoned the school colors and dressed his team in the most hideous uniforms in school history (jerseys and helmets in fire engine red, trimmed in white and black). The team played to the level of its uniforms, finishing 1-10, 0-7. Sweeney's option offense generated plenty of excitement, but, unfortunately, far more turnovers than touchdowns. DB Lionel Thomas turned in another All-Coast season and OG Steve Busch was named All-Pac-8.
One big win made the season -- WSU 24, Stanford 23, on the road at Palo Alto. The Stanford juggernaut had won the Pac-8 title the previous year and was on its way to winning it again in 1971. Stanford, coming off a big win at USC, was a prohibitive favorite -- so prohibitive that the Stanford coaches gave their team two days off before the WSU game. The Cougars played the game of their lives -- winning on a dramatic 27-yard Don Sweet field goal on the game's last play. They followed up that victory with a wild one over Bobby Moore's Oregon Ducks a week later. The 1971 season was a turning point for coach Jim Sweeney, whose team turned in big offensive numbers behind thousand-yard rusher Bernard Jackson. The team finished 4-7 -- a comeback good enough to earn Sweeney NCAA District 8 Coach of the Year honors. All-league players were Sweet and Jackson, along with DB Ron Mims and OG Steve Busch. Also honored was OT Buzz Brazeau, who was first-team All-Coast.
The Cougars, returning to campus in a rebuilt and renamed Martin Stadium, finished third in the Pac-8 with a strong 7-4, 4-3 season which included impressive season-ending wins over Stanford and Washington. The team finished 19th in the AP poll and 17th in the UPI poll, as coach Jim Sweeney finally found a defense to go with his high-powered option offense. Stars were plentiful in 1972. They included QB Ty Paine, RB Ken Grandberry, OT Bill Moos, OG Steve Ostermann, K Joe Danelo (who booted the first 50-yard field goal in school history that season against USC), LBs Gary Larsen, Tom Poe and Clyde Warehime, DE Jim Robinson and DBs Eric Johnson, Robin Sinclair and Michael Carter. Moos and Ostermann were named to the all-conference team. Sweeney, too, picked up honors as UPI National Coach of the Week and Inland Empire Coach of the Year.
The Cougs, a pre-season Top 20 pick by Sports Illustrated, played like a ranked team -- but only in the month of November when they closed out 4-0. The bad news was that their September-October record was 1-6. Still a 4-3 conference record (5-6 overall), was good enough to earn the Cougs fourth-place in the Pac-8. Chuck Peck, the pride of Ballard, was the man at QB, replacing three-year standout Ty Paine. Peck orchestrated the season's biggest highlight -- a record rout, 52-26, of the Huskies in Seattle. Stars included RBs Ken Grandberry and Andrew Jones and three all-conference performers: center Geoff Reece, OG Steve Ostermann and LB Tom Poe. OT Tom Wickert, meanwhile, played in the East-West Game under Jim Sweeney, who turned down the advances of Colorado after the season in order to stay at WSU.
With winning conference records the previous two years, the veteran Cougars anticipated big things in 1974. In the end, however, the only big things to strike the Crimson and Gray were truckloads of injuries, bad luck and untimely fumbles. Typical of the season was the Stanford game at home in which Joe Danelo kicked a second-half field goal that would have proved the margin of victory. But Stanford committed a penalty on the play, so Jim Sweeney elected to take Danelo’s three points off the board in favor of first-and-goal position at the 10 yard line. The gamble backfired. The Cougs then fumbled the ball and ended up losing the game by two. The season ended with a 2-9, 1-6 thud. The only conference win was on the road at Oregon, 21-16. Offsetting the team's poor performance were outstanding individual efforts by three of the league's best players: C Geoff Reece, who was named to two All-America teams; OG Steve Ostermann, named to the all-conference team for the third time; LB Gary Larsen, also named to the all-league team; and RB Andrew Jones, an East-West selection.
After opening the season with impressive road wins over Kansas and Utah, the bad luck of 1974 returned in spades. Injuries turned the QB position upside down, with starter Wally Bennett and No. 2 man John Hopkins both going down. At one point, the Cougs were forced to play a fourth-string quarterback. The season's crowning blow was a flukish loss to the Huskies in a game the Cougars dominated until the waning moments. Then, with under 3 minutes to play, the Huskies scored twice
on a 93-yard interception return of a Hopkins pass by Al Burleson and a 78-yard Warren Moon-to-Spider Gaines touchdown off a deflected pass. Final score: Huskies, 28-27. The interception occurred on a 4th and 1 play in which the Cougs opted to go for it to run up the score rather than kick a field goal to ice the game. Just like the Stanford game the previous year, questionable sideline judgment had cost the Cougs a victory. The deflated Jim Sweeney resigned a week later, closing the book on a 26-59-1 record. The Cougars' only first-team all-leaguer was sophomore punter Gavin Hedrick, who boomed a school-record 83-yarder against California. Sweeney left the cupboard well stocked for his successors, walking away just as the best recruits of his tenure were reaching maturity. From WSU, he went on to glory at Fresno State.
Pitt assistant Jackie Sherrill was named head coach, but stayed only one season before returning to the top job at Pitt. While few mourned the loss of the surly, sullen Sherrill, his abbreviated term was noteworthy for: 1) replacement of Jim Sweeney's fumble-prone veer offense with a wide-open passing attack; 2) creation of the cursive "Cougars" helmet logo which became a school trademark; and 3) Taking a chance on a third-string QB in the second quarter of a losing effort at Minnesota. That third-stringer would turn out to be a legend in the making: Jack "The Throwin' Samoan" Thompson. Just a sophomore, he set five conference passing records in 1976 while throwing for 2,762 yards and 20 TDs. His favorite receiver, Mike Levenseller, also set school and conference records for yardage with 1,124 yards on 67 catches. Both were named All-Pac-8. While the offense was exciting, the team struggled to a 3-8, 2-5 finish.
In his first game as WSU head coach, former Nebraska assistant Warren Powers faced the dubious task of returning to Lincoln to face his old team. In one of the most stunning upsets in WSU history, the Cougars won, 19-10, behind a stellar defense and Jack Thompson’s cool-as-ice effort. A week later, they followed up with another upset win at Michigan State. Stocked with talented veterans recruited by Jim Sweeney (eight of whom were drafted by the NFL in 1978), the Cougs cruised to a 7-4, 3-4 record (which included one win by forfeit). Thompson continued his assault on Pac-8 secondaries with another 2,372 yards. His two favorite receivers, Brian Kelly and Mike Levenseller, combined for 87 catches and RB Dan Doornink contributed 978 all-purpose yards. Levenseller and punter Gavin Hedrick were named All-Pac-8. DB Ken Greene was named to the East-West Shrine team and later a first-round draft pick of the St. Louis Cardinals. Alas, Powers' early success sowed the seeds for his departure -- at season's end, he accepted a lucrative offer from Missouri.
Cougar assistant coach Jim Walden, upon his ascension to the head coaching job, declared, "I will fulfill my contract." The coaching merry-go-round was over. In the first year of the new Pac-10, the Cougars welcomed Arizona State to the conference by handing the Sun Devils a 51-26 drubbing in the league opener in Spokane. Senior QB Jack Thompson continued re-writing the record books and finished in the top 10 in Heisman Trophy balloting. But his passing exploits were not enough to overcome a lack of depth which resulted in a 4-6-1, 2-6 season (which included another forfeit win). Thompson, who finished his career as the most prolific passer in NCAA history (7,818 yards), also left with a host of school and conference
records, in addition to All-America honors. The following spring, he was a first-round draft choice of the Cincinnati Bengals. Other standout performers included all-conference center Mark Chandless, DB Bob Gregor (an East-West pick), RB Tali Ena, RB Ray Williams and WR Mike Wilson, a future San Francisco 49ers standout.
Jack Thompson's successor at quarterback was senior Steve "General" Grant, a versatile athlete whose credits included five games of 200-plus-yards in total offense, including a 244-yard passing effort at Ohio State. RB Tali Ena also turned in a credible job with a pair of 100-yard rushing games, in addition to a 218-yard day against Oregon State (he finished with 1,888 career yards). With yet two more forfeit wins (the third and fourth in three years), the Cougs finished 5-6, 4-4, with the biggest conference win being a 17-14 Homecoming victory over UCLA. That game was the first played in the newly expanded Martin Stadium (the running track had been removed, allowing the stadium floor to be lowered for the addition of 12,000 new seats). A crowd of 32,651 (a then-Pullman record), witnessed the victory, the Cougars' first over UCLA since 1958. Offense tackle Allan Kennedy was named to both the All-Pac-10 and All-Coast first teams.
COMING UP NEXT IN THE SERIES: A season-by-season summary of the decade that gave us Hugh Campbell, George Reed and Keith Lincoln. The 1960s. Tune in around late June.