Mike Leach, Chris Petersen provide Apple Cup contrast befitting their schools


Hall of Fame coach Don James, known as the Dawgfather of Washington football, volunteered that he was a "2,000-word underdog" to then-Washington State coach Jim Walden before the 1985 Apple Cup. That rated as a colorful moment from the typical dry and laconic James, and it seems an apt entry point for the 2015 Apple Cup, a rivalry that is beginning to hint that its long period of national irrelevancy might be close to ending.

So let's start with that: Is second-year Huskies coach Chris Petersen, a coach who shies away from quotable quotes, the new "2,000-word underdog" in the rivalry when compared to fourth-year Washington State coach Mike Leach, a man known to loquaciously spin a news conference into myriad quirky directions that seemingly have nothing to do with football?

"Could be. I enjoy hearing Coach Leach talk, I really do," Petersen said. "It's always entertaining."

Petersen then segued away from the personalized topic back toward the 108th Apple Cup that will be contested Friday, casting plaudits toward Leach's resurgent team.

Leach is a selective conversationalist, of course. Ask him about historical events or random news fodder or his latest hunting trip or vacation and he'll engage with glee. Ask him about specific questions about his football team and he's likely to be vague, sometimes comically so. Ask him about his injured players, and he might just snap at you with a mocking reply -- see his response Saturday to ESPN sideline reporter Mark Morgan when asked about the health of quarterback Luke Falk, who was carted off the field during the win over Colorado with an apparent head injury.

"Healthy as can be, we rested him in the second half," Leach snarked.

Leach is the author of two books, an autobiography/book on leadership, "Swing Your Sword: Leading the Charge in Football and in Life," and another on Geronimo, which is part biography, part exploration of leadership. When asked Monday about his favorite rivalries in history, he came up with the Green Bay Packers versus the Chicago Bears, "Patton and Rommel in North Africa," and Grant and Lee.

When asked which rivalry provided the best analogy for the Apple Cup, however, Leach probably shocked everyone participating in the news conference by being stumped.

It was a momentary silence. Via text message a few minutes later, he went with "George Washington vs. the British." The Cougars are Washington, the Huskies the British.

"Obviously," he texted. "We are not purple, the color of royalty."

That squarely encapsulates the Huskies-Cougars feud because few college football rivalries offer so perfect a contrast between the institutions. While many rivalries offer an obvious distinction between the richer state university and its land-grant counterpart, few Power 5 programs are as big-city as Washington in Seattle, and few Power 5 programs are as rural as Washington State in Pullman.

The Huskies lead the series 69–32–6 and have won five of the past six meetings. This year, though, the Cougars are surging, ranked 20th in the latest AP poll. The Huskies need to beat their rival to become the Pac-12's 10th bowl-eligible team.

The Cougars' history as the higher-ranked team in the Apple Cup isn't good. In 2001, 2003 and 2004, the Cougars entered as a top-10 team, and lost all three. The Huskies also won in 2000, the last time they were a player in the national title race.

Of course, everything pretty much fell apart for both teams after the 2003 season. The Cougars won four of five from 2004 to 2008, but both teams were bowl eligible in advance of the game only once since then (2013).

As for the Huskies being 2,000-word underdogs, that held true during press events Monday. The Cougars made three players available, the Huskies none.

"We’ve got a lot of things going on here, with all the distractions," Petersen explained. "So we just thought, the last thing they need to do is talk about -- they’re thinking about it enough, and it’s time for us to just kind of pay attention to what we need to pay attention to.”

The Cougars didn't seem very distracted.

"It's real personal," linebacker Jeremiah Allison said. "They have something we want."

Allison recalled an unhappy visit to Seattle as a freshman.

"They called us the little brother school," he said. "It kind of offended me."

Offensive guard Gunnar Eklund offered this analysis: "We know they are not going to be tougher than us. They might have better recruits, but they are not going to hit us harder than we hit them."

While the Cougars have been one of the season's great surprises, the Huskies' mediocrity has come with a silver lining of hope for the future. True freshman quarterback Jake Browning has improved significantly and the Huskies' young defense has been the best unit in the Pac-12. Washington looks like a team that could make a significant step forward in 2016.

If both programs again become regulars in the national rankings, the Apple Cup could again become a national conversation piece, and the coaches -- both national figures and proven winners -- would be at the center of that.

Or not.

"It's not about the coaches," Petersen said. "It's about the kids being ready to play, playing their best, representing their university."

Oh, fiddlesticks.