An anthropological exploration of college football's most exotic customs, in their natural habitat.
• Common Name: Ol' Crimson
• Species: Bannerus Persistus
• Range: Like the remora to the shark, strategically positioned wherever ESPN's camera crews alight on any given Saturday.
• Rarity: Easily spotted for short periods on autumn and winter mornings.
Washington State is, charitably speaking, not a good football team. Cougar fans rank dead last among BCS conference universities in game attendance. When a program falls on hard times, it's not unusual to see the school's sporting traditions fall by the wayside as well. Not so in Pullman.
Meet Ol' Crimson, banner of Washington State University and the brainchild of Tom Pounds, a Wazzu grad who kicked off a campaign to get ESPN's GameDay crew to visit his beloved campus – back in 2003, when the Chris, Lee, Kirk and Co. might have actually had reason to off the Cougars' second Rose Bowl bid in six years. Pounds and his mother sewed the banner and he drove to Austin and set up camp in the crowd for a heavy-hitting Texas-Kansas State tilt. Washington State Magazine details the origins of how one lark became a national movement:
"I don't know why I did it," says the first Cougar to wave a WSU flag on camera for an ESPN Gameday broadcast miles from where a WSU game was being played. "School spirit?"
Brent Schwartz, a student at Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minnesota, was taken with the idea. Two weeks after Pounds's display, the younger Cougar fan drove 250 miles to wave the flag during the broadcast for a game in Madison, Wisconsin.
And the rest was history. That banner since has appeared in the crowd shots of close to 100 consecutive GameDay broadcasts. Says proud alum Craig Powers:
Everyone I know wakes up early on Saturday (7 a.m. in Pullman) just to see the flag fly, because heaven knows they aren't up to see Lee Corso.
I actually was a freshman at Wazzu when the tradition started. Among the students, it started as sort of a rumor from the rare kids that actually got up early enough to watch College GameDay. Eventually, motivated by curiosity, I woke up early on a Saturday and saw it in the background. Had to be one of the proudest moments of my life.
Then, Wazzu was a contender. Now, with the Cougar program in perpetually dire straits, it's somehow even more special. The organization has its own booster club. There's a meticulously maintained email network that coordinates which volunteer (some of whom aren't even alums) will tote the legacy on a given weekend. These days, there are actually two banners, one crimson and one white, and they're FedExed from corner to corner of the country.
Even ESPN has gotten in on the act (though they still haven't been to Pullman):
The best traditions always start out this way, don't they? A little nothing that becomes a very great something. So this Saturday morning, let your eyes drift past the announcers set up outside the Georgia Dome to discuss an LSU-North Carolina game that affects neither the Cougars nor any school in the Pac-10 in any way whatsoever, and watch for that flash of crimson that signifies the lighthouse keepers of Wazzu fandom. They may not get the crew up to Pullman any time soon. But I have a sneaking suspicion that even if they did, that flag would be right back out on the road again the week after, and the week after that.