Even 2 decades later, the 1997 Apple Cup still resonates
SEATTLE (AP) — The booming baritone voice came across the public address system at Husky Stadium, reverberating off the cantilevered roofs covering the north and south stands.
Lou Gellerman, the voice of Washington football, had a message to share. Words those clad in purple and gold never thought would be uttered inside their home stadium.
"From the athletic department at the University of Washington: Washington State, good luck at the Rose Bowl."
"It still burns, trust me," Cam Cleeland, 20 years removed from being a Washington tight end, told The Associated Press recently. "Then to see roses being passed out on your home field to your rival and knowing that you're never going to get a chance to step foot in Pasadena, that's like a shot to the gut."
Twenty years ago, a senior-laden team from Washington State erased 67 years of heartache with one magical season that ended in the school's first Rose Bowl berth since before World War II. The clincher came on a dreary November day in Seattle that concluded with Cougars fans storming the Husky Stadium turf, carrying quarterback Ryan Leaf off the field and celebrating a 41-35 Apple Cup victory.
While the landscape of college football has evolved, the stakes two decades later are similar. It's not the Rose Bowl on the line, but a win by No. 14 Washington State on Saturday would put the Cougars in the Pac-12 championship game as North Division champions. The 15th-ranked Huskies are playing the role of spoiler, just as they tried to do two decades ago.
Ask a Husky, and the memories of seeing crimson-clad Cougars fans and players storming the field holding roses and climbing the goal posts rank among the most painful moments in school history.
"If I had to sit down and really write a book or a significant chapter of any game that I've played, I think I remember more details about that singular game than any game I ever played in high school, college or pro," said Brock Huard, Washington's quarterback that day.
Ask a Cougar, and there has been no greater victory in Washington State history.
"I had sat there and listened to 'Poor Cougars, can't beat the Huskies' for many years as a student-athlete, as an assistant coach and a head coach," former Washington State coach Mike Price said. "I didn't win too many there in ol' Husky Stadium, so when we were able to win that game it was tremendous, especially with the Rose Bowl riding on it. It was just fabulous."
The divide between Washington and Washington State is stark. Urban, white-collar Washington. Rural, blue-collar Washington State.
The 1997 season amplified all those differences. Washington began the season ranked No. 4 in the country; Washington State was unranked. Huard was being touted as a possible Heisman Trophy candidate; Leaf was an afterthought.
But on that November day, Leaf was the one carried off the field on his way to being a Heisman finalist. Huard was the one answering questions about throwing five interceptions.
"He was the opposite of me in every way," Huard said. "He was braggadocios. He was bombastic. He was having raging success. Everything that could go right in his season went right. He was bigger than life. And I just wanted to pop that balloon and beat that guy in every single way."
Of all the colorful figures on the field that day, none topped Leaf. He threw for 358 yards and two touchdowns in the game. He was carried off the field by the sea of crimson; their carefree, cavalier hero who led them to Pasadena. To that point it was just the third time in the history of the rivalry that Washington State had a Rose Bowl bid on the line entering the game, and the first time the Cougars came out ahead.
"We felt like, as a team, the weight of the tradition or the weight of what was at stake," Washington State offensive lineman Jason McEndoo said. "We sensed that and felt that and obviously wanted to bring that home."
Leaf wasn't the only big personality on that Washington State team. The defense featured Leon Bender, Dorian Boose and a young Steve Gleason. Offensively, its wide receivers group was their incarnation of the Fab Five. And it was one of those five, Chris Jackson, who drew the ire of Price during the week leading up to the game for public comments about the Huskies.
"I was so mad at him I think my hand still hurts from slamming my fist on my desk," Price said.
For his part, Jackson backed up what he said. He had eight catches for 185 yards and touchdowns of 57 and 51 yards. Most memorable was Jackson bulling through Washington safety Tony Parrish on his way to a 57-yard TD in the second quarter that gave the Cougars the lead for good.
"I just said we're going head-to-head and I put my head down and I won the end of that battle," Jackson recalled. "That 15, 20 yards, however long it was, might have been one of the best feelings because I heard the crowd. I heard them being silenced and I heard the Washington State fans and it was the purest celebration."
For the Huskies, the Apple Cup loss was the crushing conclusion to an underachieving season. Washington's senior class arrived at the school amid sanctions and bowl bans and the three-game losing streak to finish that season assured that group of never playing in the Rose Bowl.
"When we lost that game, guys were devastated. There were a lot of tears in the locker room and I remember thinking, I'm not going through this again," Washington defensive back Nigel Burton said.
For the Cougars, there has been no sweeter celebration.
"I'll never forget seeing fans on the (goal posts) and then seeing one of my teammates — Kenny Moore — sitting on the goal posts," Jackson said. "It was the purest celebration."