For quite a while in Pullman it had been the elephant in the room.
Or rather, the cougar.
The Washington State mascot had -- at some point -- become a verb synonymous with blowing a late lead. “Cougin’ it” became a punch line associated with the team much like Clemsoning had at Clemson.
And Washington State coach Mike Leach decided that with his team sitting at 2-2 and heading into a tough road game at Oregon, it was time to bring it up in a meeting.
“We need to measure up to our expectations and our standards rather than worry about what other people’s are,” Leach said. “That whole thing is a ridiculous thing to attach to a team. None of it is beneficial and helpful.”
So unlike Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, who had some strong words for the media about the term “Clemsoning,” Leach decided to bring it up in private last week with his team during a meeting as they prepared for Oregon.
“It felt terrible,” wide receiver River Cracraft said. “Nobody liked hearing that.”
“It hurts hearing anyone say it,” offensive lineman Gunnar Eklund added. “We should not have a term for losing. That should never be acceptable. ... That term, it hurts. When he brought it up it made us think about it and dig deep.”
It was used earlier this season when Washington State lost its home opener to Portland State. Since, that loss doesn’t look quite as bad considering the 66-7 thumping the Vikings put on FBS North Texas.
And it was used again during a rough fourth-quarter that ultimately led to a 34-28 loss to Cal, which was ranked in the top-25 at the time of that game.
If it were any other team that lost its home opener in that fashion, it would just be a huge mistake. It wasn’t called Cardinalin’ when Stanford lost to Northwestern in Week 1.
If any team lost to Cal in that fashion (cough, Washington), it would be a “tough-loss-but-good-learning-moment” reaction.
At Washington State, it was “Cougin’ it.”
The Cougars have already given two solid, come-from-behind, clutch performances this season.
They were down four with a minute and a half to go at Rutgers. Luke Falk led a game-winning drive to give Washington State the win. Last weekend at Oregon, the Cougars were down 10 with less than six minutes to go and won it in double overtime.
Maybe one of the biggest signs of the strides Washington State has made as a team -- and not one that “Cougs” anything, was the confidence that Leach showed to fight for the win in overtime rather than playing for it at the end of regulation. Perhaps in years past with a second remaining and the choice to go for two, he would’ve. Maybe he would’ve questioned how well his squad would hang with Oregon in overtime.
In 2015, it was hardly a thought for him. He wanted to go punch-for-punch in overtime.
And with his confidence and his decision, that’s exactly what the Cougars did. They didn’t “Coug it.” They beat the Ducks confidently and convincingly.
In the past maybe, maybe the term had some justification.
And one week into the season, many (including us, let’s be honest) had written the Cougars off for a postseason appearance. After losing to Portland State, surely the past would repeat itself in Pullman. And at 0-1 many questions were being asked about Leach and the Cougars.
A month later, they’ve showed some gumption and late-game heroics. They’ve showed that they’re clutch. They still have a shot at the postseason.
Last season’s Oregon is not this season’s Oregon just like last season’s Washington State is not this season’s Washington State.
“None of the plays of the past count for the present,” Leach said.
And neither do the legacies of past teams either.