There are more direct roads from Pullman, Wash., to Pasadena, Calif., than via Albuquerque, but for Washington State, the path back to the Rose Bowl just might go through the Land of Enchantment.
When Washington State kicks off Saturday's New Mexico Bowl against Colorado State, it will mark the Cougars' first postseason appearance in 10 years. To put in perspective the value of 10 years, consider a few notable items:
- There have been three presidential elections since Washington State faced Texas in the 2003 Holiday Bowl.
- The national average of gasoline approached a near-record high of $1.72 per gallon on that date, Dec. 30, 2003.
- Washington State has had four coaches in that time.
- The fifth-year seniors making their final collegiate appearances Saturday were in middle school, while the team's true freshmen were third graders.
A decade is a long time to struggle through futility, and no one understands that more than the current Cougars.
"We've been through the wringer, been through two-win seasons," quarterback Connor Halliday said after Washington State clinched its bowl eligibility on Nov. 23 against Utah, per WSUCougars.com.
There's a reason "Cougin' It" is popular slang in Pac-12 Country, used to describe a heartbreaking or otherwise perplexing loss. But starting with the 1997 season, former head coach Mike Price defined "Cougin' It" as just the opposite.
The 2003 Holiday Bowl ended an impressive half-decade run for Washington State, which included two Rose Bowl appearances. The first of Washington State's two trips to the Granddaddy of 'Em All under Price, in January 1998, marked the beginning of the most prosperous era in program history.
Now, Mike Leach has the opportunity to turn the New Mexico Bowl into his own building block for something greater and again redefine what it means to Coug It. While no one is ever going to confuse the Rose and New Mexico Bowls, from the perspective of establishing the program, Saturday's contest takes on an importance at least approaching that of the Cougars' 1998 date with Michigan.
And if you think 6-6 Washington State is far removed from competing for the Rose Bowl, consider that the Cougars played the nation's eighth most difficult schedule, including a road tilt at Auburn. The Cougars lost to next month's BCS Championship participant by a touchdown.
Leach's players understand the milestone they've reached in relative short order. No current Cougar is more indicative of the program's turnaround than defensive back Deone Bucannon, another veteran who struggled through some lean years. Bucannon led the team in both interceptions and tackles this season, en route to 1st Team All Pac-12 and 2nd Team Walter Camp All-American honors.
Bucannon summarized Leach's process for The Denver Post last week:
Tough love is needed in any program, any organization, because this is serious business. If you don't have that tough love, there's no passion for what you're doing. Coach Leach is very passionate about the game of football. He is consistent about that. And he's always been a winner.
Washington State players see the significance of the New Mexico Bowl, and it's not lost on the fanbase, either. The Coloradoan reported on Saturday, one week out from game day, that Washington State's ticket sales nearly doubled those of Colorado State, despite the much closer proximity of Fort Collins, Colo., to Albuquerque.
There may be critics who dismiss bowl season, but after a 10-year wait, there's no downplaying the significance of the New Mexico Bowl to this Washington State program.