Washington State and Washington meet Friday night at Alaska Airlines Arena, and we naturally refer to it as the Apple Cup rivalry, which is technically stretching it since the Apple Cup has only to do with football.
But (hold the rotten tomatoes and bricks), I wonder whether this even deserves the tag “rivalry.” Not just now, but going back many years.
The subject came up as I read Christian Caple’s story in the Tacoma News Tribune Wednesday on how there doesn’t seem to be much sizzle in the UW-WSU series these days. He points out that the crowd in Pullman for the first game weeks ago was only 5,796, smallest since there were 3,006 in Pullman for the late-season game in 2003. Indeed, 3,000 is a pretty staggeringly bad number.
But as I got to thinking, I’ve been around the UW-WSU series since 1987-88, and for the life of me, I can’t remember any real incidents on the floor, trash-talking, outward animosity among coaches, etc. It’s been as genteel as a church dance. Only thing that comes to mind was in 2010 at Hec Ed, when WSU’s Reggie Moore flexed and popped his shirt as the Cougars took a first-half lead, but Washington came on to win big later. Oh, and Dick Bennett flipped off the UW students one time, but it was a light moment that didn’t seem to have any real staying power.
Players get asked about the “rivalry,” but I wonder whether they really get amped up about it more than they did a rivalry from their high school days.
The point is made that rivalries tend to be more heated when both teams are good, and maybe there’s something to it. Hard as it is to believe, Washington and WSU have never been to the NCAA tournament in the same year. That’s explainable before 1975, when only the conference champion got to the NCAA, but this March will mark 40 years of multiple teams from one conference (in the early years after ’75, it was only two allowed) and still, no Husky-Cougar parlay in the tournament.
Funny thing: The same holds true in the state of Oregon. The Ducks and Beavers have never been to the NCAA tournament in the same year.
But gather round, kids, and I’ll tell you about a rivalry that makes UW-WSU look like ring-around-the-rosy.
I worked in Eugene in the 1970s, and the Duck-Beaver basketball rivalry was a raging inferno unlike anything I’ve seen in any other sport. The fans on the two sides wanted to yank the large intestines out of each other.
In 1970, Oregon State plucked Ralph Miller from the University of Iowa. He would complete a Naismith Hall of Fame career at OSU over two decades.
A year later, Oregon lured Dick Harter from the University of Pennsylvania, where he launched a physical, no-holds-barred brand of basketball at the UO, where the players became known as the Kamikaze Kids.
Harter and Miller held a generally high level of respect for each other. For one, they didn’t tend to knock heads much in recruiting.
The same wasn’t true of the fans at the two ascendant programs.
— In 1972, Oregon wrapped up the first 0-14 season in history in Pac-8 play. It happened in Corvallis, where in the final seconds (as I recall it), an Oregon State male cheerleader somehow got hold of the P.A mike and intoned, “We’d like to congratulate the University of Oregon for becoming the first Pac-8 team in history to go 0-14.”
Things were just getting warmed up.
— In 1974, again in Corvallis in the season-ending game, another OSU male cheerleader had the Chancellor’s Trophy, which used to be awarded to the school that won the season series (they routinely played more than twice, sometimes as many as four times, but that’s another story). As the cheerleader paraded the cup around the perimeter of the floor during a timeout with seconds left, to the delight of the Gill Coliseum crowd, Harter saw him coming, stuck out his leg and tripped him. As God is my witness, he tripped him. The cup, and the cheerleader, went keister-over-teakettle, and the trophy bore a permanent dent.
— Oh, but wait, in the teams’ earlier game that year at McArthur Court, Oregon State had a second-half lead and Harter didn’t like the way things were going. So on a questionable call, he leaps off the bench, waves a towel at Booker Turner, then a young official, and gave Turner the “choke” sign. Of course, Harter got a T. And of course, 12 of the next 13 foul calls were against Oregon State, and the Ducks came back to win.
— To 1975, when an Oregon State freshman, Rickey Lee, banked in a 30-footer at the buzzer to beat Oregon in overtime in Corvallis, 72-71. There were a passel of rousing, one-possession games around this time; Oregon won that year in Eugene, 82-80. In both the 1976 and 1977 seasons, there was an overtime game and another one-pointer.
— As I mentioned, the teams annually played a non-counting game in the conference standings, which in this era, took place at Memorial Coliseum in Portland. One year, the aforementioned Rickey Lee squared off with an Oregon player and flat-out took a straight jab at the Duck’s chin. Free-lance photographer Herb Yamanaka, who was the ticket manager at Oregon, got a great shot of it that ran in the Eugene Register-Guard. The official (memory says it was the effervescent Irv Brown) was literally standing between the two players as the punch was launched, but somehow, when the refs sorted the whole thing out, Oregon State was left shooting technical-foul free throws, not Oregon.
— In the 1978 game in Eugene, won by OSU, 62-48, there was a brief, bench-clearing interruption, but it didn’t really amount to anything, at least by Duck-Beaver standards.
— Harter had moved on to Penn State by 1982, and passions cooled somewhat, partly because his successor, Jim Haney, wasn’t having much success. Before a 94-51 Duck loss at Gill Coliseum that year, some prankster pulled a string and just about the time Oregon players were about to be introduced, a dead duck fell from the rafters and splatted to the floor. Not pretty.
Maybe it was really all about familiarity breeding contempt. The Oregon-OSU rivalry is the most played in the country, now at 341 times.
I can’t say a lot of UW-WSU games are etched in my mind. But a good many in the Willamette Valley were unforgettable.