PULLMAN — The last time the Washington State football team played in a bowl game was in 2003 against Texas, which was ranked No. 5 in the country.
“I would say we were as prepared for that game as any game that I’ve ever played in,” said Matt Kegel, who started at quarterback for 15th-ranked WSU against the Longhorns.
The Cougars won that Holiday Bowl, 28-20, and sent seven players over the next two years to the NFL draft. But after that game, WSU endured a 10-year bowl drought that will end with this season’s trip to the New Mexico Bowl.
The 2003 Holiday Bowl was also the end of a 16-year stretch in which WSU played in seven of its 10 all-time bowl games.
“Going into it, that was kind of our focus — just very lucky to be part a program that was really dominating in that time period,” Kegel said.
That period began with a 24-22 win over Houston in the 1988 Aloha Bowl under coach Dennis Erickson. Before that, the Cougars had played in one bowl game in the previous 57 years. Those who experienced the program’s heyday say that good times could be here again for WSU.
“I think it’s getting better,” said Robb Akey, an assistant coach at WSU from 1999-2006. “I watched their first game of the year against Auburn, obviously a pretty good team. They were playing physical and making things happen. I think what coach (Mike) Leach has put together with that offense — wideouts and quarterbacks are going to be dying to play in that offense.”
Former players and coaches see this season’s rapid improvement as something the Cougars can sustain.
Unlike professional sports, which are stacked toward parity to engage as many fans as possible, success in college sports often begets more success.
That’s why Alabama has won three of the past four BCS championships, why Oregon is just now starting to show cracks in the facade and why most of WSU’s best seasons came in span of years.
“They’re showing improvement, and things are looking up,” said Bill Doba, who worked at WSU from 1989-2007 as a position coach, defensive coordinator and head coach. “It’s always easier to recruit coming off of a bowl game when you can bring those recruits in during bowl practice, and I think that is a definite advantage.”
That proved to be true for Shawn McWashington, who played for the Cougars from 1994-97 and now provides radio commentary for WSU football.
McWashington committed to WSU after the Cougars had some initial success, and he helped take the school to its third Rose Bowl after the 1997 season.
“I decided to come, it was right on the heels of (quarterback Drew) Bledsoe being successful, they had that great Copper Bowl (a 31-28 win over Utah in 1992),” McWashington said. “They were throwing the ball all over the place. It kind of had an appeal, an allure per se to a 17-, 18-year-old kid like myself.”
The Cougars hope their Dec. 21 appearance in the New Mexico Bowl will have the same effect on recruits that the Copper Bowl did on McWashington and that they will have a similar run of success as the one that culminated with the 2003 Holiday Bowl victory.
Whether WSU’s invitation to the New Mexico Bowl heralds a new golden age of bowls for the Cougars remains to be seen.
But it is a start.