They are the Pac-10 co-champs, on their way to Pasadena, but
when they walk past a mirror, they see a motley band of
renegades and rejects, spurned by other schools and scoffed at
by the national media. Many of them say they chose to attend
Washington State for a simple reason: No one else wanted them.
Some had a better chance of spending four years in the state pen
than at Penn State, while others were simply not big or strong
or smart enough to play for a top program.
So they ended up in Pullman. Coach Mike Price held out his arms
and, like Lady Liberty, took in the poor, the wretched, the Prop
48s. He told them they could be themselves, wear their earrings
and tattoos proudly, and he assured them they would play a wild
brand of football. He told them they would take on the world,
and they swallowed it whole and asked for more.
Much of this, of course, was pure nonsense--and pure genius.
When you are operating out of a small (pop. 24,650), sleepy burg
in a state consumed by Husky-mania, you need an edge, and Price
went with the oldest one in sports: Check it out, boys. They
hate us. They're looking down on us. They don't respect us.
Let's show them.
With its 41-35 victory over Washington in Seattle last Saturday,
Washington State (10-1 overall, 7-1 in the Pac-10) earned a
share of the conference championship (with UCLA and, possibly,
Arizona State, which has a game left to play) and its first Rose
Bowl invitation in 67 years. But give Price a couple of days.
He'll have his players believing that they were snubbed again.
The invitation never arrived. They will be forced to crash the
Rose Bowl party and prove to the world once more that the
Cougars are for real.
Before the sweat from their historic victory was dry, the
Washington State players were rehearsing their New Year's Day
lament: No one thinks we can beat Michigan. "I expect to be
20-point underdogs," said senior defensive tackle Leon Bender.
"Let's face it: We still get no respect around the country,"
said junior quarterback Ryan Leaf. "[ESPN's] Beano Cook and
those guys said UCLA was going to the Rose Bowl. Well, UCLA can
come and watch the game if it wants--if it can get tickets."
If the Cougars are the Pac-10 version of the Mean Machine from
The Longest Yard, Leaf is perfect as the Burt Reynolds
character. A burly (6'5", 238 pounds), brash 21-year-old from
Great Falls, Mont., Leaf isn't just the heart and soul of the
Washington State team but also the mouth. You want attitude?
Leaf has so much attitude, he has to check it when he travels.
How good is he? Almost as good as he thinks he is, which is to
say spectacular. (Quick Evergreen State joke: What's the
difference between God and Ryan Leaf? God doesn't think he's
But Leaf can't be accused of bragging, because he keeps backing
it up. During the last foray of his long-shot Heisman Trophy
campaign, he completed 22 of 38 passes for 358 yards and two
touchdowns against Washington. Then he exploded in celebration,
jumping around the field like a man on fire before dropping to
the turf near midfield, overcome with emotion. "Something just
came over me and brought me to my knees," he said.
It certainly wasn't the Huskies' defense. After a scoreless
first quarter Leaf settled into a groove and made Washington's
defenders look as if they had spent their practice week
preparing for the single wing. Despite three sacks, the Huskies
didn't hit Leaf nearly enough, and when they did, he seemed to
enjoy it. (The NFL should take heart. The league is suffering
from a bad case of the Billy Joes, a terrible affliction in
which entire Sundays are marred by hideous quarterback play. But
Leaf is coming, and the citizens of Pro Football Nation will
The Cougars were successful on an amazing 13 third-down tries,
including a third-and-27 with less than a minute to go in the
first half. Leaf hit senior wideout Shawn Tims over the middle
for 29 yards, knocking the wind out of Husky Stadium. "We're
always one big play from breaking open the game," says Leaf. "It
doesn't matter if we turn the ball over or go three plays and
out. We've got the worst memory out there. We forget all that
stuff and expect to break the game open the next time we're on
Once the folks on the Rose Bowl committee get used to all the
pickup trucks and flannel shirts pouring in from Pullman, they
probably won't mind seeing Washington State for the first time
since the Hoover Administration. The wide-open Cougars offense,
often featuring five receivers and no running backs, rang up
502.2 yards a game this season--second in the nation to
Nebraska's 518.6. "We've got the best quarterback in the
country, the best offense in the country and the most prolific
offense in the history of the Pac-10," says Price. "How can you
not want to watch us?"
Along with the coveted Apple Cup, which goes to the winner of
Washington versus Washington State, Leaf last Saturday claimed
the conference records for passing yards (3,637) and touchdown
passes (33) in a season, and he accomplished that while talking
a blue streak. At times he gets so jacked that he makes Richard
Simmons look like Ted Kaczynski. Teammates, coaches, opposing
players, refs, fans--someone is always getting an earful from
Leaf. An hour after carving up the Huskies, Leaf was still
dancing on the grave of his most despised rival. "You see that
school we just beat?" he said. "The coaches there wanted me to
walk on. I'm glad I didn't. I would have just lost today's game.
I wouldn't be going to the Rose Bowl."
Leaf, in fact, is one of the few Washington State players who
was heavily recruited by other major programs. Miami wanted him,
but he made up his mind to sign with the Cougars on New Year's
Day, 1994, when Price called during the Rose Bowl game between
UCLA and Wisconsin. "He said, 'If you come here, we're going
there,' meaning the Rose Bowl," said Leaf. "Right then I knew I
was going to play for him."
The rest of the Cougars' stories aren't so simple. The squad
includes six Prop 48 players (who were ineligible as freshmen),
nine junior college transfers and two transfers from four-year
schools. Star senior running back Michael Black (37 carries, 170
yards on Saturday) was incarcerated twice--and played on an
inmates' football team--before finding refuge in Pullman. Five
starters walked on. "We get a lot of players who are other
people's rejects," said Price. "Most of our recruiting is taking
a kid who was passed up by Washington and developing him into a
kid who can compete with Washington."
Or perhaps kick Washington's rear end up and down its own field
in the biggest game of the year. The Huskies had no answers for
Leaf or the Fab Five, the Cougars' formidable receiving corps,
which has adopted a typically humble nickname. None of the Fab
Five (Tims, seniors Chris Jackson, Kevin McKenzie, Shawn
McWashington and junior Nian Taylor) played wide receiver in
high school. Now they are among the best pass-catching cliques
in the country. How fitting is this Rose Bowl matchup: The Fab
Five versus Michigan? Perfect.
Jackson, who had eight catches for 185 yards and two touchdowns
on Saturday, didn't even play football in high school.
Washington State is his third college, the Cougars his second
football team. On the Sunday before the game against Washington,
Jackson let slip some serious bulletin-board material when he
said, "I don't have much respect for the Huskies as players or
people." The next morning Jackson awoke to an irate phone call
On Saturday, Price interrupted his post-Apple Cup press
conference to call Jackson over. In front of a room full of
reporters he asked for a hug. Jackson obliged. Later the
51-year-old Price was asked if he liked the diamond stud in
Jackson's pierced nose. "I don't think I'll get one," he said,
"but if that's what the kids want to do, it doesn't bother me.
If they want to put tape on their shoes or pull up their socks,
I don't care. You've got to get to know the kids and let them be
The Cougars will be themselves in Pasadena, which means they
will be long shots once again: underdogs with an attitude, up
against the world. Give Ryan Leaf one thing. God couldn't have
laid it out any better.