<
>

Not everyone is laughing about the Apple Cup

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

The college football nation is laughing at Washington and Washington State.

Their rivalry game on Saturday is a joke. Redubbed by some, the "Crapple Cup," it will be played over purely negative stakes: The loser will earn the unofficial title of "Worst BCS Conference Team."

Washington, at 0-10, is the nation's only winless team. Washington State, its closest game vs. a FBS foe being a 25-point margin of defeat, is saved from that ignoble status by a win over Portland State, an FCS team.

Both teams stink. They are impossible not to mock. Their woebegone status is funny.

Said Angela Carter, "Comedy is tragedy that happens to others."

Or as Mel Brooks less subtly noted, "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die."

In football terms, both the Huskies and Cougars have walked into an open sewer together. One will crawl out covered in muck, but still alive.

The other will remain alone and miserable in the sewer.

Funny.

That's probably why so many comedians tell you humor comes from pain. A track from "George Carlin on Comedy," in fact, is called "Comedy and Pain."

We laugh and crack wise because it's easier than reflecting on what lies beneath.

Otherwise, we engage the burdensome thought that under those jerseys and helmets and coaching headsets is a lot of pain.

Think about it: Both programs have committed an extraordinary amount of time and effort over the past year to one thing: Building a successful team.

And they have failed on a very public stage.

All those early-morning wake-up calls for offseason workouts, all that running and lifting weights, those two-a-days in July and endless position meetings. There's studying the playbook after finishing a political science paper. There's aching joints, pinched nerves and concussed heads. There's regular students heading for happy hour when players head to practice.

All that commitment and effort. For this.

"I know there's more to life than football," Washington fullback Paul Homer said. "But, trust me, I've had my downtimes. I've had some bad times. Mentally, that's where you have to stay strong."

The players, ages 18 to 23, aren't paid for their efforts. The coaches are, of course, because this is their life's work.

If newspapers were pointing out on a daily basis that you were the equivalent of 0-10 at your life's work, and your wife and kids and relatives were trying to pretend they weren't reading it, how would you feel?

There's a human toll for losing in big-time college football.

Tyrone Willingham arrived at Washington after the 2004 season aiming to redeem himself after a controversial firing at Notre Dame.

But he's gone 11-35 and was forced to resign in late October. A former National and Pac-10 Coach of the Year, his future prospects for a major head-coaching job are dim.

Meanwhile, his assistant coaches now face the prospect of finding another job and uprooting their families -- how many times has that happened? -- if they happened to get lucky and find one.

Most of the players and coaches insist they've shielded themselves from the swirling negativity in the media and on Internet message boards. Some are philosophical about it, claiming they understand it comes with the territory.

"That's just something that comes with an unproductive season," Washington State center Kenny Alfred said.

Yet sometimes the tweaks and smirks and thinly veiled insults touch a nerve.

"That's kind of you guys' job," Homer said. "But sometimes there's been some personal questions ... people can gain and lose respect with me. I still go and talk to them. And I still respect some people in the media. But there are some I've lost respect for."

Perhaps that's why Alfred treated a standard question about a rivalry game victory potentially redeeming the season with what felt like jaded skepticism.

"Sure. Yeah. Always," he said. "Chance for bragging rights. A chance to feel good at the end of the day. Yeah."

Erma Bombeck said, "There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt."

These are two proud programs less than a decade removed from consistent national relevance. Washington won the Rose Bowl and finished ranked No. 3 in 2000. Washington State finished ranked in the top 10 after the 2001, 2002 and 2003 seasons. Both were nationally ranked in 2001.

In 49 states, their turn of misfortune is amusing, or at least a train wreck to be gawked at.

It plays differently in two locker rooms.

"I think it has burned a hole in some people's hearts," Homer said. "That feeling is going to stick for a while."