There was war in Korea, a race to space, Dwight Eisenhower in the Oval Office, Elvis on the radio and a pair of brothers named McDonald mass producing hamburgers. David Halberstam sums it up as an era of unprecedented social, political, economic and cultural change.
In the fifth 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 1950-59. Special thanks to Dick Fry, the acclaimed WSU sports historian whose 1989 book, "The Crimson the Gray -- 100 Years with the WSU Cougars," provided so much background for this article. That book, by the way, is available at Amazon.com.
CF.C Offensive Player of the Decade – Keith Lincoln
CF.C Defensive Player of the Decade – La Verne Torgeson
CF.C Linemen of the Decade – Elmer Messenger, Marv Nelson
CF.C Team of the Decade -- 1958
CF.C Games of the Decade – Cougars 21 Stanford 18 - 1957
Cougars 18, Huskies 14 - 1958
Forrest Evashevski, a star QB at Michigan before World War II, was named head coach after Phil Sarboe was let go following the 1949 season. Evashevski came to Pullman from Michigan State, where he was a Spartan assistant for three seasons. Known as an offensive wunderkind, Evashevski showed right from the start that his marriage of a Wing-T ground game with a solid passing attack was a powerful one --- the Cougars opened the season by clubbing Utah State 46-6. WSC went on to finish the season 4-3-2. In short, to quote Cougar sports historian Dick Fry, "The Cougars didn’t pull off any miracles in Evy’s first season – although they came close to one in a 20-20 tie with USC. He won the games he was expected to win and, except for a 42-0 pasting from UCLA, looked pretty good in the ones he lost." One of the ties was against Idaho in a game that saw the Cougar defense set a record for fewest passing yards allowed in a single game: Two. The record still stands. The star of the team was senior La Verne Torgeson from nearby La Crosse. A two-way terror, he played center and linebacker, earning first-team all-conference and All-Coast honors. Torgeson would go on to an All-Pro career in the NFL and later was a long-time Redskins assistant coach. Other standouts on the club were multi-purpose junior back Bud Roffler and senior quarterback Bob Gambold, both of whom would later play for the Philadelphia Eagles. Two other players, freshmen Bill Holmes and Howard McCants, made a mark that season as well by breaking the color line in Cougar football. They came to Pullman from a Detroit suburb, courtesy of an Evashevski assistant coach who had attended their same high school several years earlier.
Forrest Evashevski’s second and final season as Cougar head coach before moving on to a Hall of Fame career at Iowa, was a dandy. The Cougars finished 7-3, with wins over all of the Northwest schools as well as Oklahoma A&I (now State), Santa Clara, Idaho and Montana. Sophomore running back Wayne Berry set a school single-game record with 182 yards against Oregon. The most memorable contest of the year was a nervous thriller in Pullman against the nation’s No.1-ranked team, the Cal Bears coached by legendary Pappy Waldorf. The contest wasn’t decided until the final play, when a pass to Berry from Bud Roffler was knocked down at the Cal 13-yard-line. The Bears prevailed, 42-35. The Cougars capped the season with a 27-25 win over the Huskies in Seattle, with Roffler racking up 209 yards of total offense and star end Ed Barker grabbing 130 yards worth of receptions. Barker’s big day lifted his season yardage total to 853, breaking the national single-season record. His 46 catches on the year set a conference record, while his 215 pass-catching yards against Oregon State and his 10 receptions against Stanford set WSC single-game marks. Barker and lineman Don Steinbrunner, both juniors, earned all-conference and All-Coast honors in 1951. And Roffler, a senior from Spokane whose eight career interceptions still ranks in the WSU top ten, was tabbed for the East-West Shrine Game. All would later play in the NFL, as would end Harlan Svare and halfback By Bailey. Bailey, one of the Cougar stars in the dramatic game against Cal, also played in the Canadian Football League, where he became a Hall of Famer with the British Columbia Lions. Steinbrunner left pro ball to pursue a flying career in the Air Force, and was killed on a mission over Vietnam in 1967.
When Forest Evashevski left for Iowa after the ’51 campaign, his offensive coordinator, popular Al Kircher, was elevated to head coach. With two winning seasons under their belts and a bevy of top-flight talent -- including ends Ed Barker and Harlan Svare and linemen Don Steinbrunner and Elmer Messenger -- back in the fold, expectations for 1952 were sky high. The Cougars were a pre-season Top 20 pick. To top it off, Evashevski told reporters in Iowa that he’d left a Rose Bowl–quality team in Pullman. Alas, the excitement died early as USC beat the Cougars 35-7 in the season opener and a week later Stanford nipped the Palouse Pumas 14-13. In the season finale in Seattle, which the Huskies won 33-27, Barker tied his own school single-game record by grabbing 10 receptions. Sophomore running back Chuck Beckel racked up 176 yards on the ground in that game, falling just five yards short of the one-game school record set a year earlier by Wayne Berry. Another record breaker in 1952 was quarterback Bob Burkhart, whose 301 passing yards against Idaho established a school single-game record. The Cougars finished the year 4-6, with victories over the Oregon schools, Idaho and Oklahoma A&I. Barker and Svare were the team's biggest stars, as Barker set Cougar career marks for receptions and yardage while Svare caught two passes that still rank among the longest in Cougar history – a 76-yarder from Terry Campbell against Cal and an 84-yarder from Burkhart against Idaho. Svare went on to play linebacker for the New York Giants and later would become the youngest-ever head coach in the NFL when he took the helm of the Los Angeles Rams at age 31.
For the second time in what would turn out to be three successive years of identical performances, the Cougars wound up 4-6 overall and 3-4 in the conference. Of some consolation was the fact three of those victories came against rivals Washington, Idaho and Oregon. The other win was over Pacific. One of the losses was particularly painful, a 54-12 drubbing at Iowa against former Cougar head coach Forest Evashevski’s Hawkeyes. Wayne Berry was one of the few bright spots for the crimson that day as he passed for 224 yards, including a record 84-yarder to Jim Hagerty. A running back, the future New York Giant had uncanny throwing accuracy and was frequently called upon to pass. At UCLA that year he fired a six-yard scoring strike to Howard McCants on the game’s first series to give the Cougs a brief lead before succumbing to the heavily favored Bruins 44-7. Berry was a true triple-threat performer for the Cougars. In addition to his passing and rushing exploits, he had an 80-yard kickoff return against Idaho and set a then-record for the longest punt in school history with a 73-yard boot against Oregon State. He also starred on defense, and his eight career interceptions still rank him in the WSU top ten.
Once again the Cougars finished 4-6 overall and 3-4 in the conference, but the season is memorable because of the social statement that was made loud and clear on a bigoted field in central Texas. The captain of the 1954 Cougars was senior fullback Duke Washington of Pasco. He was just the third-ever African-American athlete to suit up for the Cougars, and the only one on the 1954 team. A week before the Cougars were to travel to Texas for a battle with the Longhorns, WSC athletic director Stan Bates received a call from his counterpart in Austin suggesting that it would be best if Duke stayed in Pullman in light of the fact a black man had never before played at Memorial Stadium. Bates’ retort, supported fully by school president C. Clement French, was succinct: If Duke Washington isn’t welcome, Washington State isn’t coming. Texas backed off. And Washington, who later teamed with some of those Texas players in the East-West Shrine Game, made the most of the situation. "I was intimidated somewhat by it all, but once the game started I blocked all that out," he told Cougfan.com. Indeed, he ran 73 yards for the Cougars’ first TD. Many Texas students gave him a standing ovation. So memorable was the feat that renowned author Willie Morris, a Texas student at the time, recounted it in his acclaimed autobiography North Toward Home. There was another notable game for the Cougars in 1954. And, like the one at Texas, the Cougars were on the losing end of the score board. Idaho defeated the crimson cats 10-0, marking the first time since 1925 that WSC lost a Battle of the Palouse. The tradition in those days was that the loser’s student body had to walk after the game to the other’s town, so hundreds of WSC students hit the trail toward the state line. Life magazine devoted a two-page picture to it, titled "The March on Moscow."
Head coach Al Kircher’s tenure came to a close following a forgettable 1-7-2 campaign. The lone victory was a 9-0 decision over Idaho. The ties were on the road at Cal, and at home against San Jose State in a November game remembered because it was so bitterly cold that day. In what was dubbed the Refrigerator Bowl, ticket manager Bob Smawley announced that just one reserved-seat ticket was sold the day of the game – a factoid that quickly became a regular in sports trivia books. Between students, general admission ticket buyers and season-ticket-holders, the actual crowd was about 1,600. Standouts in ’55 included QB Bobby Iverson and guard Vaughan Hitchcock, who was picked for the East-West Shrine Game. Kircher concluded his Cougar coaching career 13-25-2. He used the money from the buyout of his contract to purchase what would become an icon on the Palouse culinary scene: The Hilltop Steakhouse.
WSC athletic director Stan Bates didn’t look far to find a new head coach for the Cougars. He plucked Jim "Suds" Sutherland off the staff at Washington. Sutherland, a blocking back at USC in the 1930s and a one-time assistant for Cal’s Pappy Waldorf, was considered an imaginative offensive mind. But no one knew just how far ahead of his time he was until the 1956 Cougars took the field. While his first season was inauspicious in terms of record (the Cougs were 3-6-1), he turned heads with a highly innovative passing attack that saw Cougar quarterbacks Bobby Newman and Bunny Aldrich rack up a Pacific Coast Conference record 2,068 aerial yards. On the receiving end of those tosses was a Who’s Who of great hands: Bill Steiger, Don Ellingsen, Jack Fanning, Don Gest, Dick Windham and others. Steiger, a junior from Olympia, was tremendous on both sides of the ball. "He was a terror on defense, playing outside linebacker and defensive end. And on offense he did it all -- catching 39 passes for 607 yards (second-most in the nation), scoring five TDs (one on a 59-yard scamper out of punt formation), rushing for 90 yards and punting 15 times for a 38.9-yard average," remembers historian Dick Fry. Steiger was named first-team All-America by Look magazine and second-team All-America by AP.
With most of the marquee players from 1956 coming back, excitement was high entering the ‘57 campaign, although All-American Bill Steiger broke his neck in a swimming accident during the summer and would not be back in uniform until 1958. The Cougars did not disappoint, however, and opened the season in spectacular fashion by beating Nebraska in Lincoln, 34-12, with QB Bob Newman connecting with Jack Fanning for three TDs. A week later the Cougars edged Cal 13-7. They then lost to Iowa but followed up with a win at Stanford before heading home for a showdown with Oregon in Week 5. With the way the conference shook out the rest of the season, the Cougar-Duck contest turned out to be the game that decided who would represent the PCC in the Rose Bowl. Trailing 14-0 in the fourth quarter, the Cougars hit paydirt on a one-yard run by Eddie Stevens and then struck again with one minute left on a QB sneak by Newman. There was no two-point conversion in those days, so the only question was whether to run, pass or kick for the extra point. Given that the Cougars had tried half-a-dozen guys at kicker that season, pundits felt the kick was the last option. Regardless, a tie ultimately would have sent the Cougars to the Pasadena. Alas, Newman’s kick bounced off the left upright and Oregon prevailed 14-13. The Cougs licked their wounds a week later and knocked off USC in Los Angeles, 13-12, courtesy of an 89-yard kickoff return by receiver Don Ellingsen, the son of WSC’s standout 1931 Rose Bowl tailback Tuffy Ellingsen. The Cougars capped their 6-4 season with a passing clinic in Seattle, drubbing of the Huskies 27-7. Ellingsen and Newman, both juniors, earned first-team All-Coast and all-conference honors. Ellingsen, who was all of 5-foot-9 and 165 pounds, also was tabbed third-team All-America by AP.
Woulda, coulda, shoulda. For the second straight season, the high-octane Cougars missed a Rose Bowl berth by a single point --- even though star quarterback Bob Newman was out most of the season with a knee injury. This time it was Cal’s controversial 16-15 win over Stanford in the final week of the regular season that deprived the Cougars (7-3 overall, 6-2 conference). A Stanford victory, coupled with the Cougars’ season-ending 18-14 win over the Huskies, was all that was needed to return WSC to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1931. To add insult to injury, the Cougars subsequently received an invitation to play LSU in the Sugar Bowl but didn’t accept because Pacific Coast Conference rules required unanimous approval from the league’s athletic directors --- and both USC and UCLA voted no, likely in retribution for the fact WSC faculty member Emmett Moore was the president of the PCC board –- the same board that had slapped USC and UCLA with violations a year earlier for paying players. It was a sad end to a truly fine season that saw the Cougars beat UCLA in Los Angeles for the first time since 1937, 38-20, with Chuck Morrell taking a kickoff 83-yards for a game-breaking TD. At season's end Morrell received first-team all-conference and All-Coast honors at fullback. He also had a whale of a year at linebacker. Receiver Don Ellingsen concluded three stellar Cougar seasons with 86 career pass receptions for 1,166 yards, 18 punt returns for 118 yards and 12 kickoff returns for 336 yards. Bill Steiger, an All-American in 1956, was back in uniform for a final season after breaking his neck in 1957 and brought tears to the faithful’s eyes when he scored the Cougars’ first TD of the year in a 40-6 season-opening win over Stanford in Pullman. Lineman Marv Nelson earned first-team All-Coast honors. Another standout was Bill Berry, a guard on offense, tackle on defense and champion wrestler. QB Dave Wilson, subbing for the injured Newman, also had a fine campaign. And junior Gail Cogdill, a future NFL Rookie of the Year, continued WSC’s proud receiving tradition of the 1950s as he caught a record 252 yards worth of passes against Northwestern --- a mark that stood for 33 years.
Coach Jim Sutherland registered a winning season for the fourth successive time, with the Cougs finishing 6-4. There was no Rose Bowl possibility for the final Cougar team of the decade because the Pacific Coast Conference --- with the California schools balking at the travel and modest attendance at the league’s smaller schools --- dissolved two months before the season began. The conference was 43 years old. Washington State, Oregon, Oregon State and Idaho all became independents, while the California schools and Washington recollected as the Athletic Association of Western Universities. To fill holes in the schedule left by the LA schools’ refusal to play the outcast four, the Cougars and Ducks squared off twice in 1959, with Oregon winning 14-6 and 7-6. The highlight of the season came at Stanford, when all-purpose junior back Keith Lincoln put on a show in the Cougars’ 36-19 win. He rushed for 84 yards, completed three successive passes for 61 yards and two TDs to halfback Don Ellersick, caught one pass for 27 yards, and punted twice for a 46.5-yard average. He also kicked off and tossed a two-point conversion. The San Francisco Chronicle dubbed him "The Moose of the Palouse," a moniker that would become the stuff of lore as Lincoln would leave Pullman after the 1960 season as one of the greatest players in school history. He earned first-team All-Coast recognition in 1959, while Ellersick and receiver Gail Cogdill were tabbed for the East-West Shrine Game. Another standout who, like Lincoln, would go on to professional glory, was running back George Reed.
NEXT IN THE SERIES: The decade that gave us the "$100,000 miss," a succession of All-Americans, and a world war that brought down the curtain on the legendary run of head coach Babe Hollingbery. It’s the 1940s.