WSU Cougars 1997 Rose Bowl team members return for 25-year reunion | WSU Sports
PULLMAN — Bill Doba’s Friday excursion started at 1 a.m. PT. It was a 45-minute drive from his lake house in southern Michigan to South Bend, Indiana Regional Airport, a short flight to Minneapolis, a four-hour layover, a three-hour flight to Spokane, and 90 minutes drive to Pullman.
Doba, now 82, traveled to Palouse in time for the afternoon visit to Washington State, attended pre-arranged festivities for the Cougars’ Rose Bowl team in 1997 and finally hit a pillow after midnight.
“You really are a great friend of mine and I can always count on you,” former WSU coach Mike Price told his longtime friend in front of a crowd of former Cougars letter winners. including nearly two dozen players from the 1997 football team – Saturday afternoon at the baseball pavilion adjacent to Bailey-Brayton Field. “He spent 9 p.m. yesterday coming in here and drinking beer last night watching the poor Huskies get beat up.”
Price, Doba, three-fifths of the Fab Five, four-fifths of the Fat Five and a handful of other key figures from the 1997 WSU team returned to Pullman 25 years after their historic Rose Bowl run, making up for during a pre-game party at the baseball complex before watching the Cougars’ 28-9 win over California at Gesa Field.
Surrounded by former Cougar players, the three coaches – Price, Doba and defensive tackles coach Jim Zeches – teamed up to hoist the Ol’ Crimson flag in the east end ahead of Saturday’s kickoff. The team were honored on the pitch during the first half and highlights from 1997 were displayed on the JumboTron during various breaks throughout the game.
Quarterback Ryan Leaf, unable to attend due to ESPN broadcast duties at Kansas State-Texas Tech, delivered a pregame video message on the JumboTron. Standout linebacker Steve Gleason passed on a few words to the group through former teammate Grady Emmerson.
“What makes this team special, I’m saying we have a lot of characters on this football team – a lot of characters with character,” Price said. “All grew up to be wonderful men, wonderful husbands, wonderful bosses, wonderful employees.”
Price took to the field for 5-10 minutes during pre-game festivities, sharing stories and acknowledging 1997 team members who have died since the Cougars played at Michigan on Jan. 1, 1998, ending the the program’s 67-year drought at the Rose Bowl. Price named two of them, Dorian Boose and Gary Holmes, before a handful of crowd members offered Leon Bender’s name.
“How can you forget Leon Bender? He had a button he could press that was right in my butt,” Price laughed. “Thank goodness for the defensive line coaches who kept him because I had to fire him three or four times.”
The longtime coach singled out Doba, the team’s defensive coordinator from 1994 to 2002, for restoring WSU’s previously maligned defense, which earned him the nickname “Palouse Posse” for his dominating efforts, in especially in 1994.
“The guy who put the ‘D’ back in the word defense. We used to call it ‘defense’ when we started there, but Mike Zimmer and Bill Doba came along,” Price said. “They’ve changed a lot. In fact, once Palouse Posse teams that year averaged 2 yards per carry. Two yards per run. My God.”
Unable to resist a timely hit against a few of his former running backs, Price added, “It’s like having (Adam) Hawkins and (Jeremy) Thielbahr in the backfield.”
With Shawn McWashington in attendance, Price also recalled a notable wide receiver quote after a 41-35 Apple Cup victory that secured WSU’s berth in the Rose Bowl.
“There was a bit of fog on the pitch, it started to rain a bit,” Price said. “(McWashington) was kind of quoted saying, ‘It’s not rain, it’s tears from all the Cougars in heaven crying because they’re so happy we’re finally here. arrived at the Rose Bowl. ”
McWashington and two other WSU “Fab Five” receiving corps members, Nian Taylor and Kevin McKenzie, returned for Saturday’s meeting. “Sixty percent,” McWashington said, “you’d take that in baseball any day.”
McWashington, Taylor, McKenzie, Chris Jackson, Shawn Tims and former WSU wide receivers coach Mike Levenseller still stay in touch via group text chat exclusive to “Fab Five” members.
“We drop comments there all the time on a variety of different topics and you can see the link is still there, man,” McKenzie said. “When you do things like that, it lasts so long.”
There’s also a “Fat Five” group text chat. WSU’s starting offensive line of Rob Rainville, Jason McEndoo, Lee Harrison, Cory Withrow and Ryan McShane has remained tight over the years.
“We would all be arrested if it was shared,” McShane said of the content exchanged in the group chat. “We probably text four to five times a week.”
McEndoo is a tight ends coach at Oklahoma State, so the Fat Five met in Boise last season before the Cowboys game at Boise State.
A few of McShane’s old friends played for Michigan in the late 1990s and never miss an opportunity to remind him of what happened in Pasadena on New Year’s Day in 1998, but the right tackle calls still the Rose Bowl one of his best life experiences.
“It was the best day,” he said. “I tell my wife it was the fourth happiest day after the wedding and the kids and blah, blah, blah. But it was really #1.”
From an early age, Steve Birnbaum aspired to play in the “grandfather of everything,” watching the game every year as a native of Southern California. Birnbaum, Leaf’s backup quarterback in 1997, even camped out on Colorado Avenue to carve out a spot at the Rose Parade the year before the Cougars played there.
“I may have spent the night in the gutter,” he said. “Like people do, just hanging around waiting for the Rose Parade. Then 365 days later, we play it.
Birnbaum shared Leaf’s room at Pullman, and the quarterbacks regularly played an older edition of the EA Sports NCAA Football video game. Leaf would use the Cougars and force Birnbaum to play as their next opponent.
“I always had to make sure I didn’t play it too hard on the video game,” Birnbaum said. “Make sure we would lose.”
With family and work obligations taking their toll these days, many of the 1997 Cougars hadn’t seen each other in person since leaving the Palouse 25 years ago, but everything felt comfortable and familiar when they reunited. Saturday.
“We were almost like a wandering bunch of guys, picked every year from the bottom of the conference,” McWashington said. “Even if you look at this recruiting class, it was eighth in the Pac-10 in 1993. It was just a group of guys who got together and had a common goal, they just had a great time achieving it. “