Like the football team they support, certain tailgaters at Washington State know how to use space to their advantage. Six or seven of them will arrange their recreational vehicles in a way that forms a type of plaza and provides a type of privacy.
Before a game three weeks ago against UCLA, this strategy came in handy. The tailgaters’ guest of honor was beloved former Wazzu quarterback Gardner Minshew, who two days earlier had expanded the scope of his celebrity by leading the Jacksonville Jaguars past Tennessee for his first win as an NFL starter.
Still grateful to the Cougars for giving him a one-season chance to jump-start a languishing college career, Minshew had flown across the country to attend the WSU-UCLA game and chill with a few other ex-Cougars.
The chilling didn’t last long. For Minshew, a cadre of other ex-Cougs and also for the average Washington State fan, Sept. 21, 2019, will go down as one of the strangest days in the school’s football history.
Naturally, word leaked of Minshew’s RV-lot sanctuary. One or two fans entered the enclosed area, found their way to the famously affable quarterback and asked for an autograph or a selfie. Then one or two more. Then nine or 10 more.
Before long, the scene reminded former WSU offensive lineman Gunnar Eklund of fans streaming from the Martin Stadium stands and surrounding players at midfield after a big win. His old football instincts kicked in.
“You look around and, ‘Holy smokes, this is getting out of hand,’ ” he said by phone from his home in western Washington. “I kind of went back to my roots — made sure the quarterback was all right.”
He and five or six other Coug alumni — defensive guys, but it turned out they could block anyway — formed a human circle around Minshew, allowing access to just a fan or two at a time. The scrum morphed into a queue as adorers now waited their turn.
So there the quarterback sat, interacting with fans of various ages for — “I don’t know, quite a while,” Eklund said. At some point, Minshew asked that children be given priority and move to the front of the line.
Not much later, Minshew and his posse made their way to the fan area known as Cougville, where a more organized meet-and-greet was coming together. At this one, fans hoping to interact with him formed a line that stretched twice across the width of the Cougs’ double practice field.
“You’d have thought it was Elvis,” Eklund said. “I’ve never seen anything like that in Pullman. I’ve seen Klay Thompson come to town and spent time with him. But that was nothing compared to basically building a wall around Minshew so he could have some air to breathe.”
Regrettably for the Cougars, the unusual sights didn’t end there. Many fans that day saw things they’d never seen before.
As followers of the program all know, the Cougs played superbly for much of that evening, and Minshew’s successor at quarterback, Anthony Gordon, set a Pac-12 record with nine touchdown passes. But an undefeated team somehow blew a 49-17 lead to a winless one, allowing 50 points in 17 minutes, 41 seconds. The Cougars lost by the bewildering score of 67-63.
People still are trying to come to terms with that day. After another loss Sept. 28 at Utah and a bye week, defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys abruptly resigned Oct. 4 with seven games remaining in the season, a move that surely had more to do with the UCLA fiasco than anything else.
Linebackers coach Roc Bellantoni was named interim defensive coordinator and the Cougars (3-2, 0-2) had resumed preparation for a conference game at 12:30 p.m. Saturday at No. 18 Arizona State (Pac-12 Network).
If they start winning again, the UCLA phenomenon will seem like a painful wake-up call. If they don’t, it will seem like an avoidable blunder that undid the magic Minshew and his teammates had worked during an 11-2 season capped by a win in the Alamo Bowl.
“You get a guy who throws nine touchdown passes and loses the freakin’ football game?” said former WSU defensive back Paul Sorensen, now a color commentator on Eastern Washington radio broadcasts. “It’s insane. I’ve never seen it. I don’t think anybody ever has.”
Various former Cougars have criticized WSU defenders for missed tackles and blown assignments in that game. Sorensen, who watched it on TV, confined his observations to intangibles.
“Leadership — I didn’t see a lot of that on either side of the ball,” he said. “I think it has a lot to do with the guys that had graduated the year before. I think there’s a little entitlement going on with the Cougars, because they had won 11 games, they had been playing so well and felt UCLA should just roll over, which is ridiculous.”
When the wheels started coming off, “I think there was a little bit of panic,” Sorensen said. “I saw guys with their heads down, shoulders slumped — body language was bad. You saw guys quit on plays. That’s not appropriate. If I’m a defensive guy and I see that, I’m getting in that guy’s ear.”
The game reminded Eklund of the Cougars’ 60-59 home loss to California in 2014, when he was a junior. As a player and now an observer, he was struck by the almost palpable transfer of momentum from one sideline to the other.
But this was different in a few ways, including the jarring transition from Wazzu glory — the whole Minshew thing in 2018 and now his bizarrely triumphant return — and the swift and brutal comedown.
Because of the hectic nature of NFL life, Minshew didn’t have much time to plan his visit to Pullman. But as it began to look more and more possible, several former teammates tried harder to set up a reunion.
A number of 2018 seniors attended the game, including Peyton Pelluer, Hunter Dale and Nick Begg. They were joined by players from previous teams: Eklund, Xavier Cooper, Robert Taylor, Nate DeRider, Beau Glover, Dylan Hanser, Colton Teglovic.
Pelluer and Begg mingled with players and coaches in the locker room before kickoff, then joined Dale in the ceremonial raising of the Cougar flag. The three of them spent the third quarter in athletic director Pat Chun’s press-box suite. The rest of the time, they watched from the sideline.
“I caught myself yelling at guys like I was still playing,” Begg said. “It was weird.”
Speaking from his home in California, Begg placed the disappointment of the ending in the context of the Cougars’ rugged years earlier in the decade.
“We’ve been through a lot,” he said. “We’ve seen worse. These guys this year, they have a lot of potential. They can’t let those two games define their season.”
He plans to drive to Tempe, Ariz., to watch the Cougars start anew. His friends from Washington, like Eklund, hope to catch another home game soon.
“We’re all good friends,” Eklund said. “There’s a group of us — we talk every week. It’s awesome, and there’s not a better place to meet up than Pullman.”
He couldn’t help but add, laughing: “But we could have picked a better game than that one.”
Dale Grummert may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (208) 848-2290.