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Pac-12 Confidential

Bud Withers offers an inside look at the Pac-12 Conference and the national college scene.

October 20, 2011 at 10:02 PM

Musings on the Cougars playing a game in Seattle

In a column this week in the Spokane Spokesman-Review, and printed in the Times, columnist John Blanchette raises the question: Should the Cougars be sacrificing a Pac-12 home conference game by playing in Seattle, as they are Saturday night against Oregon State?

His premise is that the Cougars’ best chance to win is playing in Pullman, and that if the head coach, Paul Wulff, is going to be judged coldly by wins and losses, his team should be playing on campus.

Don’t know if I buy the logic. Nor do I think the WSU administration ought to be making that call on Wulff solely on wins and losses.

The assumption has always been that the Cougars have their best shot at winning by playing in Pullman.

Do we know that?

I suspect there’s an edge in playing in Pullman, but is it major or marginal over Seattle? There’s no way to know that definitively.
I’ve been in Pullman for capacity houses in which the electricity is palpable, when there’s clearly a pronounced home-field advantage. I’ve also been there a lot the past few years. In 2009, the average attendance was 22,509 for WSU’s games on campus. Last year, it was 24,532, and the Cougars put 17,648 into Martin Stadium for the Cal game.
Hard to call that a distinct home-field advantage.
True, there’s the belief that the trip to Pullman takes a little more out the visitor. Usually it’s a flight to Lewiston, and then a half-hour bus ride north to Pullman. For most teams on this road trip, they’re clearly in foreign territory.
It’s partly that remoteness that should drive the thinking on this game-in-Seattle thing. Without the benefits of a built-in population base, the Cougars need to be creative, and taking a game to where they have a huge alumni base is one way of doing it. In the decade since WSU began playing a game in Seattle, the event has been supported pretty solidly. If it weren’t, there’s no reason to be over here, aside from WSU events in the week leading to the game.
Maybe you don’t do this if you’re in the middle of a solid, lasting run of good football. Problem is, the Cougars have historically had very few of those.
We’ll learn a little more Saturday night about whether WSU is giving up something substantial by moving a league game to Seattle. As of late Thursday, the Cougars had sold some 46,000 tickets, and it looks like they’ll hit 50,000 or more for OSU. (They’ve done that before at the former Qwest Field, but some of the tickets were discounted, which sometimes cheapened the count.) I’d guess they wouldn’t have drawn more than the mid-to-upper-20s in Pullman.
With fewer students, it might be less of a throaty crowd than in Pullman, but 50,000 is still 50,000, with probably 80-90 percent of the fans WSU partisans.
This much is true: From Sept. 10 to Nov. 12, the Cougars will have played only once in Pullman. It’s hard to argue that hasn’t been a competitive hardship for Wulff and the Cougars, and the WSU administration ought to fold that into its evaluation of him. It should never be as cut-and-dried as wins and losses.



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