Cougs’ bowl return marks turnaround

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PULLMAN — The last time the Washington State football team played in a bowl game the year was 2003, and the opponent was the University of Texas, 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 No. 15 WSU in the game.

The Cougars won that Holiday Bowl 28-20, and would send seven players over the next two years to the NFL draft. But after that game WSU would undergo a 10-year bowl drought that ended with this season’s invitation to the New Mexico Bowl.

That game 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. Prior to that, the Cougars had played in just one bowl game in the previous 57 years. But 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, who coached 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 don’t just say WSU’s improvement this year has been rapid. More importantly, they say it is sustainable. Unlike professional sports, which are stacked toward parity so as to engage as many fans as possible, in college sports wins beget more wins.

That’s why Alabama has won three of the last four BCS championships, why Oregon is just now starting to shows cracks in the façade and why most of the Cougars’ best seasons all came in one period.

“They’re showing improvement and things are looking up,” said Bill Doba, who coached 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 true for Shawn McWashington, who played for the Cougars from 1994-97 and now provides radio color commentary for WSU football.

McWashington committed to WSU after the Cougars had some initial success, and helped take the school to its third Rose Bowl after the 1997 season.

“I decided to come, it was right on the heels of (Drew) Bledsoe being successful, they had that great Copper Bowl,” McWashington said. “They were throwing the ball all over the place, it kind of had an appeal, an allure per say to a 17-, 18-year-old kid like myself. “

The Cougars will, of course, hope that 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 lead a similar run of success as the one that culminated with Kegel’s upset in the Holliday Bowl.

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 certainly can’t hurt.

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