'This is something only Cougs can do'
A tradition can only be as inimitable as the fan base that creates it. In this case, it's the fan base of a team that has seen many losing seasons and lives in a small town amongst wheat fields. Regardless, the Washington State Cougars' flag that has appeared on 170 ESPN College Gameday shows and has grown into a notable college football tradition.
The tradition entered the national spotlight two weeks ago when the flag was lost in transit. After 24 hours of panic from college football fans around the country, a backup flag arrived in time to save the streak.
The hashtag #FindOlCrimson was trending for several hours. Support came from surprising places including rival Pac-12 schools, ESPN and fans across the nation who identified with the strength of college football tradition.
The tradition began in 2003 at a GameDay show in Texas. Tom Pounds, a WSU alumnus, drove to Texas with the flag to convince the show to come to Pullman. At the time, WSU was in the midst of a nine win season. The flag, christened Ol' Crimson, grew in popularity.
In 2008, ESPN began giving advanced notice for times when the GameDay show was moved or held in a special location. When GameDay was moved onto a Navy ship, ESPN notified alumni coordinator Cameron McCoy ahead of time to ensure he could plan for the location.
"Once I heard that from [the ESPN producer] I knew that this was a part of college tradition, College GameDay tradition," McCoy said.
Michael Young/AP Images
Twelve years later GameDay still has not stopped in Pullman. The flag has become a nationally recognized symbol representing the fan base that will never stop its love affair with its football team and school.
"As much as it is trying to get College GameDay to come to Pullman … it's not really about that anymore," McCoy said. "Now it's about tradition, it's about being a Coug, it's about waving your flag, and in some ways it's about sportsmanship."
Volunteers, predominantly alumni, contact McCoy and Pounds once GameDay locations are announced. In the tradition's infancy, a manual was shipped with the 'flag kit' detailing where to stand to be within the camera shot and proper procedure for waving the flag.
The manual is no longer necessary with the help of ESPN staff directing flag wavers. Shipping has also become a non-issue courtesy of an agreement with UPS.
There are actually three flags: Ol' Crimson, dedicated to the late WSU President Elson S. Floyd; a gray flag, dedicated to McCoy's mother; and a signature flag that each flag waver signs.
From one man's quest to bring GameDay to Pullman to 170 Saturdays on air, Ol' Crimson and those that ensure its continuation are the perfect representation of the fan base that bore them.
"[Being a Coug] is just one of those things you can't explain to people other than when you see someone wearing a Cougar hat and you say 'Go Cougs!' and they say 'Go Cougs!' back when you're in Zimbabwe, that's being a Coug," McCoy said. "This tradition can't work at any other school, they've tried to replicate it but they can't get their alumni to mobilize … this is something only Cougs can do."
Kelsey Jones is SI's campus correspondent at Washington State University. Follow her on Twitter.