Current Cougars have given WSU's last bowl team something to brag about

THE SEATTLE TIMESDecember 17, 2013 

During a worthy career in the NFL, Erik Coleman would occasionally come into his locker room and teammates from Florida State or Michigan would be carrying on over what their alma maters were doing in football.

"I would just kind of fade away and try not to get involved in the conversation," Coleman said last week. "(Now) it feels good to be able to brag about my university."

Coleman was a standout safety on the 2003 Washington State team, the last from WSU to get to a bowl game before the 2013 edition won a berth in the New Mexico Bowl on Saturday against Colorado State.

The yawning gap between bowls -- it was the longest absence in the Pac-12 -- seems to accentuate the glow of that 2003 team, highlighting a 28-20 Holiday Bowl upset over No. 5 Texas as a 9½-point underdog in what some regard as among WSU's best wins ever.

"Naw, I never would have believed that," Coleman said, referring to the long drought. "We had so much pride, and there was so much energy around the program."

Now there's a renewed surge in interest, even as the Cougars finished a modest 6-6 this year. Getting to a bowl is a distinct step.

"I'm just glad (Mike) Leach is the coach now," said Kyle Basler, whose punting won him MVP honors in that Holiday Bowl 10 years ago. "I love his attitude. I think he's instilling some great qualities into these kids."

For its part, WSU's last bowl team began the year without fanfare, picked seventh by media covering the Pac-10. Mike Price was gone, Bill Doba was the coach, and all-star quarterback Jason Gesser had graduated from the 2002 Rose Bowl team.

Referring to that media pick, quarterback Matt Kegel laughs now and says, "I just remember thinking, 'They must not think very much of me.' "

The Cougars blew a lead and lost in overtime to a Tyrone Willingham-coached Notre Dame team on a hot, humid day in South Bend, or it could have been a truly big season. Still, they were 9-3 when they faced a talented Texas squad that included receiver Roy Williams, running back Cedric Benson and quarterback Vince Young (who was sharing time). The next three NFL drafts would include five Longhorns who went among the first 15 picks.

"We felt disrespected the whole time," said Coleman, who retired from the NFL two months ago and lives on Long Island. "We had a banquet with Texas, and they were kind of looking down on us. Nobody gave us a chance to win."

No doubt the prospect of playing Washington State didn't exactly inspire Texas. But the WSU roster wasn't small potatoes; it included Coleman, Will Derting, Jason David, Troy Bienemann and Devard Darling.

Kegel, now selling spinal implants for a medical-devices firm in Great Falls, Mont., had missed time late in the season with a bad throwing shoulder. An aunt who lives in San Diego scheduled him for appointments with an acupuncturist and massage therapist.

He played. WSU trailed at halftime, 10-7, but had three third-quarter touchdowns to take control, the first on Kegel's 54-yard bomb to fleet Sammie Moore, who tightroped the sideline to score.

Kegel says Moore used to boast that he was the fastest guy on the field, and Kegel, a close friend, would retort, "You're not as fast as you think you are."

Says Kegel, "I remember him coming to the sidelines (after the score), and me saying, 'You ARE pretty damn fast.' "

Texas started the gifted Young at quarterback, but Chance Mock, regarded as a better thrower, played most of the game -- something that didn't dismay the WSU coaches.

The Longhorns had consistently terrible field position, thanks to Basler, who pinned them inside the 5-yard line four times. For his MVP efforts, he got "about a 50-pound trophy," which he keeps in his home office north of Everett. Today, he's a buyer for Boeing's in-flight entertainment for the Dreamliner.

WSU blitzed Texas continually, recording seven sacks, including three by D.D. Acholonu.

"They kept dialing those blitzes up the middle," says Coleman. "Every time I was blitzing, I was coming free. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. That was fun, probably the most fun I had in football in college."

Now, some of the fun of being a proud alum is back.

"Being an offense guy myself, there's not a dull moment," said Kegel, referring to the current Cougars. "I think we're coming on strong. I'm looking forward to the future, for sure."

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

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