SWEENEY & TROOPS CIRCA '71
NEVER AT A LOSS for a one-liner, Jim Sweeney at 79 sounds much the same as when he was struggling to get the Washington State football program righted four decades ago. “We could always count on Idaho,” he said the other day by phone from his Fresno home. Sweeney, who presided over one-win WSU seasons in 1969 and ’70 says that, just like him 40 years ago, it will take Paul Wulff time to rebuild.
The parallels to Sweeney’s early days and the Cougars’ current state of affairs are a bit eerie when you consider the Apple Cup.
As matters now stand, it looks like Washington State and Washington will stage a historical repeat of their 1969 show down.
The struggling Cougars are 1-6 with their only victory coming against Portland State; the struggling Huskies are 0-5 with no victories in sight.
The situation was similar 39 years ago when the Apple Cup game came down to a clash of 1-8 Cougars and 0-9 Huskies. When the Huskies won, 30-21, it left both teams with 1-9 records for the season.
The next year the football situation was, if anything, worse for WSU. Sweeney’s Cougars, playing 11 games for the first time, went 1-10, with their only victory coming against Idaho.
“Oh yeah, we could always count on Idaho,” quipped Sweeney, who beat the Vandals six times in as many tries during his eight seasons on the Palouse.
The 1970 season was so bleak that the Cougs surrendered 63, 45, 54 and 70 points on four successive Saturdays. They lost their seven conference games by an average score of 47-16.
AFTER SUCCESSFULL SEASONS as the head coach at Montana State, Sweeney replaced Bert Clark at WSU in time for the 1968 season.
The Smilin' Irishman's first team began the season by beating Idaho, 14-7, and finished with victories over San Jose State, 46-0, and Washington, 24-0. In between were six losses and a tie.
SWEENEY LED COUGS FROM 1968-75|
What followed were the debacles of ’69 and ’70. Those two one-win seasons stand as the worst in the history of football at Washington State.
“I often said my last teams at Montana State would have beaten my first teams at Washington State,” said Sweeney.
Although it hasn’t been heard, Paul Wulff, in his first year at Washington State, might say his last teams at Eastern Washington might have beaten his first team at talent-shy, injury riddled WSU.
Sweeney predicted that it’s going to take Wulff “three or four years” to build a solid program.
“I hear great things about him and I wish him all kinds of luck,” Sweeney said.
Sweeney said he saw a television account of Wulff’s effort to find a scout-team quarterback by holding an all-school tryout.
“It’s pretty bad when you’re having tryouts with the student body,” Sweeney said, then added: “That would have been a good idea. Maybe I should have done that.”
Sweeney began to turn the Cougars around in his fourth year, when WSU went 4-7 in 1971 and defeated Rose Bowl juggernaut Stanford in a a huge upset. He followed with a 7-4 mark and Top 20 ranking in 1972. He credited two players -- running back Bernard Jackson and quarterback Ty Paine -- for being particularly instrumental in the turnaround.
BERNARD JACKSON: '71 ALL-COAST|
“They were outstanding players,” Sweeney said.
Jackson, a junior-college transfer from Los Angeles, gained 2,118 all-purpose yards in 1971 – 1,189 rushing, 185 receiving and 744 on kickoff returns. He had a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in 1971 against UCLA and a 95-yard gallop for a
touchdown against Oregon State in 1972.
Paine, recruited out of Billings, Mont., started for three years (1970-71-72) during the era when freshman weren’t eligible for the varsity. Although overshadowed later, he still ranks eighth on WSU’s career passing yardage list with 4,136.
Sweeney mentioned other players who were big contributors, including running backs Ken Grandberry and Andrew Jones and linebackers Clyde Warehime and Gary Larsen.
Warehime, Sweeney pointed out, was “my future son-in-law” and Larsen “did the war dance of Sixkiller. That was not very popular.”
The “war dance” in 1972 in Spokane’s Albi Stadium followed a Larsen sack of the UW’s native American quarterback Sonny Sixkiller.
Sweeney resigned after the 1975 season following a 28-27 loss to Washington, a game in which the Cougars led, 27-14, with two minutes left in the game and the ball on the Husky seven-yard-line.
“I tell people I left there for health reasons,” Sweeney said. “The alumni were sick of me.” He finished his WSU career with a 26-59-1 record.
NOTABLE SWEENEY NOTES:
• WSU assistant coach Mike Levenseller was a Cougar receiver under Sweeney in 1974 and ’75.
• Former Oregon AD Bill Moos, the man who spearheaded WSU’s search for Bill Doba’s replacement, was an all-conference offensive lineman for the Cougars under Sweeney.
• Highly touted Cal freshman quarterback Beau Sweeney is Jim’s grandson.
• The list of Sweeney’s former assistant coaches at WSU reads like a Who’s Who: Sam Jankovich, Pinky Erickson, Hugh Campbell, Sonny Holland, Joe Tiller, Keith Lincoln, Leon Burtnett, Jack Elway, Ron Mims and Mike Price.
• Ironically, Sweeney’s greatest recruit at WSU, the “Throwin’ Samoan” Jack Thompson, probably wouldn’t have seen the light of fame if Sweeney had remained in Cougarville. Sweeney ran the triple-option veer offense at WSU. Under Sweeney’s pass-friendly successors Jackie Sherrill, Warren Powers and Jim Walden, Thompson shattered NCAA passing records.
• Dennis Erickson, who got his coaching start as a graduate assistant at WSU under Sweeney, was a starting quarterback at Montana State for Sweeney.
• After leaving WSU, Sweeney became head man at Fresno State, where he ditched the option veer and embraced the passing game. In 21 seasons at the helm, he compiled a 143-75-3 (.654) record. He retired after the 1996 season with 200 college coaching victories.
FOR MORE INSIGHT ON THE SWEENEY ERA AT WSU, CLICK TO THESE STORIES FROM THE CF.C ARCHIVES ...
Sports writing with a Missil: pithy, concise
Searching for Bernard Jackson
The thrill of rediscovering Chuck Peck
Upset for the ages triggered WSU turnaround