This weekend, the Stanford Cardinal make the long trek to Pullman, Washington to square off against the Washington State Cougars in a very important divisional matchup. To mark the occasion, I’ll be looking back at the gridiron history between these longtime conference foes.
Washington Agricultural College began fielding a football team in 1894. They played their first ever game against the University of Idaho, who they beat 10-0. They then lost to Spokane High School and finished the season with a 1-1 record. Washington Agricultural changed their name to Washington State College in 1905 (they would not become Washington State University until 1959). Washington State did not have a team mascot until 1919, when they began to call themselves the Cougars.
In these early years, Washington State had a sustained level of success, but it was against a meager roster of opponents. Washington State almost exclusively played regional colleges from the Pacific Northwest, including their eventual rival the University of Washington, starting in 1900. They also played local high schools and athletic clubs. Despite generally having winning records and even going undefeated a couple of times, Washington State was on the periphery of the football world.
In 1915, Washington State had a standout season. Under the leadership of William Henry Dietz, the Washington State team went undefeated. They were invited to the second ever Rose Bowl, where they beat Brown 14-0. Piggybacking on this success, Washington State was invited to compete in the Pacific Coast Conference in 1917. The league had been formed the year before by Washington, Oregon, Oregon Agricultural, and Cal. In their first year in the PCC, Washington State went undefeated in conference play and won the league title. However, Washington State was not a participant in the Rose Bowl, as the organization had invited members of the Army and Marine Corps units to play due to the First World War.
Stanford joined the PCC in 1919, but they did not play Washington State upon entry into the conference. As more schools from California joined the conference, a general bifurcation of the league began. There were no scheduling requirements and teams were able to play whomever they pleased. Generally, the teams in California played each other and maybe one or two schools from the group in the Northwest, usually including Washington. The Northwest schools (consisting of both Oregon and Washington schools as well as Idaho and Montana) mostly played each other and made occasional trips south to play the California schools.
Stanford’s scheduling practice at the time followed this general format. Outside of their in-state rivals, Stanford would play Washington and maybe one or two other schools from the Northwest, usually hosting one of the Oregon colleges. Stanford considered Washington State to be in the same low-end group as Idaho and Montana, who they also rarely played. They wouldn’t play the Cougars until 1938, despite being in the same conference for nearly 20 years.
It’s a shame that neither team played in the early days of the PCC, as both schools enjoyed some of their best years in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Stanford was riding high for most of the 1920’s. The university had lured Pop Warner away from Pittsburgh and he coached the team to three Rose Bowls in four years and an undefeated season in 1926. Stanford then went to three consecutive Rose Bowls in the 1930’s under Tiny Thornhill, who had been an assistant under Warner. These great Stanford squads never faced off against Washington State, who was enjoying their longest period of sustained success ever.
In 1926, the same year that Stanford won their only national championship, Babe Hollingbery came to Pullman to coach Washington State. The Cougars had been floundering since their first league title in 1917 and Hollingbery turned them right around. Washington State went 6-1 in 1926, 7-3 in 1928, and 10-2 in 1929. In 1930, the Cougars went undefeated in the PCC, shutting out Cal in Berkeley and beating a very good USC team at home. Washington State finished 9-0, a game ahead of USC and Stanford. They were invited to represent the conference in the Rose Bowl, but lost to Alabama 24-0. While they never again won the PCC, Washington State was a very solid team for years to come, and the Cougars finished with a losing record only twice during Hollingbery’s 17 year tenure.
In 1936, Stanford and Washington State finally played each other for the very first time. Washington State drew first blood, as the Cougars beat out the Indians 14-13 in Pullman. A mediocre Indian team shut out a mediocre Cougar team 23-0 at Stanford Stadium in 1937, and the next year, Stanford again shut out Washington State, this time 8-0. Both schools were near the bottom of the PCC standings. The Cougars got their first win in the series in 1939, shutting out Stanford 7-0 in Palo Alto. The teams played in Pullman for the first time in 1940, and Clark Shaughnessy’s Indians beat WSC 26-14 on their way to an undefeated season. Washington State managed to beat Stanford in 1941 and 1942, in both seasons the Cougars ended the year ranked in the AP Poll.
World War II interrupted the series, as both teams shuttered their football teams for the duration of the War. When the war was over Washington State asked Babe Hollingbery to coach the Cougars once more, but when he was told he would have to take a pay cut Hollingbery refused. In Hollingbery’s absence, Washington State struggled to maintain a competitive football program. The Cougars generally wavered between mediocre and bad in the PCC. The Cougars only managed 17 winning seasons in the 40 years between 1950 and 1990, and they never had more than three winning seasons in a row in that span. It wasn’t quite the disastrous level of failure that both Oregon and Oregon State achieved during this same period, but Washington State was clearly out of their league when facing the best that the conference had to offer.
This didn’t mean that Washington State had little success against Stanford. The Indians were also rather inconsistent in the postwar days. Between 1957 and 1964, the Cougars somehow managed to beat Stanford eight years in a row, with more than a few of the games being complete blowouts. This was Stanford’s low point under Jack Curtice, before John Ralston was able to pull the team out of their severe funk. When Ralston finally did break through, the Cougars remained a lower-middle tier team in the conference. In the late 1960’s, Stanford handed Washington State some of their worst losses in the series, beating them 49-0 and 63-16 in 1969 and 1970 respectively.
For the rest of the 20th Century, the Stanford-Washington State game generally followed the trends of both schools. Stanford fielded inconsistent and generally mediocre football teams that could be good one year and bad the next. Washington State vacillated between subpar and very bad. In these days, the game meant very little in the grand scheme of things. The Cardinal averaged about three wins to Washington State’s one from 1970 to 2000.
Like the other schools in the Pacific Northwest that weren’t Washington, WSU was stuck in a perpetual state of disadvantage, not having the resources or recruiting status to truly compete with the best schools in the conference. Washington State usually finished at or near the bottom of the standings. The occasional times that they rose out of the cellar with a promising head coach (like Forest Evashevski, Jackie Sherril, and Dennis Erickson), he would promptly leave for a better paying job and they would promptly return to their losing ways.
It wasn’t until Mike Price was hired in 1989 that the Cougars finally returned to respectability. Dennis Erickson had led Washington State to a 9-3 season the year before, but he had bolted to Miami. After a couple years of rebuilding, Price engineered his own 9-3 season in 1992, the Cougars finished 3rd in the PAC-10 behind Washington and Stanford. Price slowly built Washington State back into a solid program, slowly undoing the damage that had come from the decades of losing in Pullman. In 1997, Washington State went 10-1, a loss as Arizona State the only thing keeping the Cougars from an undefeated regular season. WSU won the PAC-10 for the first time ever and attended their third Rose Bowl in history, losing 21-16 to #1 Michigan. Stanford wasn’t in the conference race that year, and by the time the Cardinal won the conference in 1999 the Cougars were last place. In 2001, Stanford and Washington State tied for second in the conference race behind Oregon, the Cougars won the head to head game 45-39 at Stanford Stadium. Stanford actually beat the Ducks that year so their loss to Washington State prevented them from making their second straight Rose Bowl.
Washington State had another banner year in 2002. The Cougars went 10-2 and tied with USC for the PAC-10 crown. WSU’s head to head win over the Trojans gave Washington State the right to play in the Rose Bowl once again, where they lost to #8 Oklahoma 34-14. Price left Pullman to become the head coach of Alabama. He was replaced by Bill Doba, who kept the train rolling for one season, coaching the Cougars to another 10-3 record before cratering in the following year. Stanford had followed a similar trajectory after Tyrone Willingham left after the 2001 season. The Cardinal and the Cougars were two of the worst major conference teams in the mid-2000’s, and routinely fought for last place in the PAC-10.
Stanford’s program was resurrected by Jim Harbaugh starting in 2007. By 2009 the Cardinal were again a force to be reckoned with. With the transformation, Stanford beat up hapless Washington State many times in recent years. Their 2008 meeting, where the Cardinal blasted the Cougars 58-0 at home, gave Washington State the most lopsided loss in this long series. Stanford’s eight straight wins from 2008 to 2015 is tied for the longest of the series. Washington State’s own reclamation project began in 2012 under Mike Leach. Leach transformed the Cougars from perennial bottom feeders into true PAC-12 North contenders.
In 2015 and 2016, Stanford and Washington State played in a pair of very important conference games. It was perhaps the first time in history that these teams had such a direct impact on the league race. In 2015, the Cardinal barely scraped by a trap game in Pullman that in retrospect would have knocked them out of the PAC-12 Championship and out of the Rose Bowl. Last season, Washington State obliterated Stanford 42-16, the second loss in a one-two punch in which both schools from the State of Washington finally broke the stranglehold that the Cardinal (and Oregon) enjoyed in the PAC-12 North.
Throughout its history, the game between Stanford and Washington State has meant very little in the PCC, PAC-8, and PAC-10 conference races. Now, with both teams operating at a high level at the same time, we’re finally seeing some real games of substance played between these two. As far as I can tell, this upcoming game will be the first time ever that these two teams have met when both teams were ranked in the AP Poll. Unlike in years past, because of the divisional arrangement, the Cardinal are guaranteed to play the Cougars every year moving forward. As long as David Shaw and Mike Leach are around we should get used to the idea of Stanford-Washington State being a meaningful game.
The Cardinal lead the all-time series 40-26-1.