There it is, in the trophy case on the second floor of Washington State's Bohler Gymnasium, a fat, ancient football, varnished to preserve a 50-year-old legend painted on it in black letters: "WSC 14, Brown 0." Close by, in a glassed display of athletic clippings, is a picture of William H. (Lone Star) Dietz, the Cougars' coach of that undefeated year, gloriously got up in stovepipe hat, formal tie and swallowtail coat, an outfit he bought in honor of the first official invitation to a West Coast team by the Tournament of Roses.
This is not the only time the Cougars have been to the Rose Bowl. The second and last occasion came in 1931, after they won nine straight and blossomed out in bright, all-red uniforms, helmet to shoe-tops. The new outfits failed to impress Alabama, which routed the Cougars 24-0, or a Los Angeles sportswriter, who wrote: "The Cougars showed up looking like 11 bottles of strawberry pop—and displayed about as much fizz."
Now it is Rose Bowl time again—or so it seems to the small college town of Pullman (pop. 15,100), tucked away in the rolling wheat country of southwest Washington. Last Saturday old Cougar grads gathered for a homecoming game against Oregon, and the 21,000 who filled the wooden stands of Rogers Field could talk of nothing else.
The excitement did not overwhelm Quarterback Tommy Roth, who in this game showed himself to be steady, responsible and unhurried, although his gifts might be described as more mechanical than artistic. As one worried-looking scout noted, "He's not a classic passer, and he isn't even a good rollout passer, but give him protection and he'll get the ball there." Roth got it there eight times in 14 tries as Washington State beat Oregon handily 27-7. It was the first time since 1932 that the Cougars had won five straight. They now own a 7-1 record and at least a plausible claim to a Rose Bowl bid, assuming they get by Arizona State and Washington in their final two games.
That is about the only plausible thing you can say for the Cougars. Everything else about them is absurd. To begin with, they beat Iowa 7-0 with 36 seconds left to play. Then they upset Minnesota 14-13 with 2:40 left on the clock. After losing to Idaho 17-13, they scored twice in the final two minutes 15 seconds to tip Villanova 24-14 and came out with an 8-7 victory over Indiana. This last one is notable since, when WSU scored its only touchdown, the clock read exactly 00 to play.
The fellow to blame for all this disrespect for the law of probability is 35-year-old Bert Clark, now in his second season as the Cougars' head coach. A star linebacker under Bud Wilkinson at Oklahoma, Clark came to Washington State after seven years as assistant to Jim Owens at Washington. He is a soft-spoken native Oklahoman, with a dimpled grin, a flair for phrase and all the enthusiasm of the 36 sophomores who dominate his 56-man squad. Early this year Clark told a sportswriter, "Our li'l ol' football team is young and stupid, but we'll be in condition." To overcome stupidity and promote condition Clark put his young team on a three-a-day workout program.
"Mornings we just spent teaching," he says. "Afternoons we turned 'em loose on each other—got tough. Nights we went out under the lights and ran nothing but pass patterns. No coaching. We just turned 'em over to the quarterbacks and told 'em to pass, pass, pass."
The night drills confirmed Clark's suspicion that Roth, an erratic passer in 1964, was the key to his entire offense. Running pass patterns against no opposition, Roth would hit, say, 30 out of 32, or 29 out of 30. "That decided me," says Clark. "I figured if we could protect Tommy, he'd get the ball to our receivers. So we did a lot of changing in our blocking to get him time to throw."
In the belief that all good college teams today are sharply coached and well-conditioned, Clark has sought what he calls the "winning edge." In the Cougar dressing room are three large charts. One is called the "defensive board," which sets such single-game goals as "1.5 interceptions," "cause three fumbles, recover two" and "no third-down success—10 yards or more." The "offense board" calls for such items as "no fumbles lost," "no mental errors inside 10-yard line" and "make five big plays in game."
A third board honors the names of the "Best Blocking Lineman," "Best Defensive Lineman," "Best Blocking Back" and "Best Defense Back." Rich Sheron, a junior end, has won the "Blocking Lineman" award four times this season; a senior tackle, Wayne Foster, has won the "Defensive Lineman" citation three times, while Willie Gaskins, the Cougars' alert safety man, has taken the "Defensive Back" award five times. "Rip," "Spike" and "Punch" have been added to the Cougar backfield nomenclature. "Rip is Left Halfback Ammon McWashington. "Spike" is Fullback Larry Eilmes, a workhorse runner and a deadly blocker, while "Punch" is anybody who plays right half, usually Joe Lynn, a strong, stocky sophomore. It is doubtful if such designations make the Cougar backs run any faster—none of them has unusual speed—but it seems to please Clark to think so.