SEATTLE — Short-term followers of Washington State football might be under the impression that the second-year coach, Mike Leach, has rewritten the record book there for color and personality.
Not quite. If anything, he’s only repeating a standard established more than four decades ago by Jim Sweeney, who died Friday at 83.
Look at it this way: Nobody who ever went 26-59-1, as Sweeney did in his eight seasons as WSU coach (1968-75), was as well remembered, and by some, beloved.
His persona was that powerful. He was gregarious before anybody used the word.
“There was never a dull moment,” said a former staffmate and ex-WSU athletic director, Sam Jankovich. “You never knew what to expect.”
Here’s a little of what WSU students came to expect: Back in a time before recruiting was restricted, Sweeney would line up visiting prospects at halftime of basketball games, have their names called over the P.A. system, fling off his sports coat and lead a spellout of “Cougars.”
Nobody ever wanted more for a school that had less than Sweeney. For a couple of years in mid-tenure, WSU played its home games in Spokane, the result of a 1970 fire at old Rogers Field. Salaries were low, facilities wanting.
“We’d go to work at 7 in the morning and work ‘til 2 or 3 in the morning,” said Jankovich. “I don’t think anybody could come close to doing what Jim did.”
As Jankovich recalls it, Sweeney inherited from Bert Clark a nucleus of about 18 decent players. Those were gone in a year, and, says Jankovich, “for the next two years, the cupboards were as bare as you could get.”
Sweeney rebuilt from 1970’s awful 1-10 team, seemingly by force of his personality. His 1971 team went 4-7 and upset 10th-ranked Stanford, a team in a two-year Rose Bowl run. A year after, his program hit its high-water mark of 7-4 and became nationally ranked. Later, he left to his successors a ridiculously good recruiting class that included quarterback Jack Thompson, running back Dan Doornink, safety Ken Greene and tight end Eason Ramson.
No wonder, Bill Moos would say. The WSU athletic director played for Sweeney in the early ‘70s after being wooed out of Olympia High.
Moos recalls a night’s recruiting at an Olympia restaurant with his mother and Sweeney, days after Washington had offered Moos a Tyee scholarship, symbolic of athletic and academic promise.
“He’s on his third or fourth scotch, and they’re both smoking,” Moos recalls.
“Bill, what are you thinking of studying in college?” Sweeney asked.
Before Moos could reply, his mother said, “I think he could be a tremendous teacher or coach.”
“Bull — !” Sweeney boomed. “He’s not gonna be a coach. He’s going to be governor of the state of Washington.”
Fast-forward to one of Moos’ first practices. A future All-Pac-8 guard, Moos was getting beat regularly. Sweeney strode over, jerked Moos’ facemask and barked, “If you let him through to that quarterback one more time, I’m going to break your (expletive) leg.”
Says Moos, “I’m thinking, ‘He’s talking to the future governor of the state of Washington.’ “
Moos also recalls the day decades later when Sweeney, now retired from a long and successful tenure at Fresno State and creaking a bit in his 70s, was a guest in Moos’ suite when he was athletic director at Oregon. Sweeney’s Fresno State team jumped out on the Ducks by three scores.
Sweeney listed a few of his recent infirmities for Moos — prostate, heart, knee replacement — and added, squinting, “Now I’m having trouble with my eyesight. Can you read the scoreboard for me?”
I always thought Sweeney was the perfect WSU football coach — colorful, quotable, an irrepressible figure who embraced the underdog status. When the old Pac-8 Skywriters — an annual league-organized tour of football camps in August — blew through, he would test their patience with bloated assessments of his roster and then regale them into the night with stories. And at 1 a.m. or so, he’d grab a phone and uproariously roust one or two of his coaching colleagues around the league out of bed.
His last game at WSU, of course, was one of the Cougars’ most infamous. With a 27-14 lead in the Apple Cup, Sweeney approved a fourth-down pass deep in UW territory that was intercepted for a touchdown, leading to a 28-27 loss and his resignation, by choice. This, two years after WSU had scored 52 points in beating the Huskies.
“When we scored 52 and beat Washington, they gave me a lifetime contract,” he told me in 2010. “After that (1975) game, they had me declared dead.”
Only five months ago, Sweeney, wheelchair-bound, attended a reunion in Pullman of the 1972 team. This was a different Sweeney, failing now, choosing not to be interviewed or to address his old team.
He motioned Moos over, tugged him close with his one good arm and gave his old lineman a kiss on the cheek.
He still had a flair for the moment.