There are two kinds of college football rivalries.
Some — like Michigan-Ohio State, Alabama-Auburn, and Clemson-South Carolina — pair fan bases that already have a lot more in common than they tend to admit.
And some — like Mississippi State-Ole Miss, Georgia-Georgia Tech, and Notre Dame-USC — bring together people who often really do have very little in common on the surface.
One extreme example of the latter: Washington-Washington State.
When one is making a first trip into the Palouse country, it might be easy to ask out loud, ‘Where is everybody?’ Especially if you come from an urban region, and out here in the rolling wheatland, it’s different. The air’s sweet, you can hear the bird’s song, and the natural process includes all four season with gusto.
You find Washington State University on a collection of hills, adjacent to the town of Pullman, and in the eyes of an old alumnus, it is still a happy find, for one who came from afar and who stayed long enough to have a life picked.
And once in a while, the WSU Cougars sit on top of the Pac-10 Conference football standings in November.
On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, Seattle hosts the Apple Cup, the annual matchup between the Washington Huskies and the Cougars that began in 1900 and has been played continuously for the last 62 years. It’s a series that captivates a state, divides households, and causes spontaneous chants with team names and four-letter words.
For the state of Washington, Apple Cup weekend is a special time, but to an outsider, it’s a lot like Pullman: distant, isolated, and just a tad bit confusing.
To understand the Apple Cup, start in Seattle.
Just north of the city proper, nestled between Lake Washington and Lake Union, you’ll find UW. It sits in the middle of the state’s largest city, boasting a premier medical school, a massive research apparatus and budget, and a strong business school.
You’ll find Husky Stadium along the shores of Lake Washington, just down the hill from the main campus. You can tailgate on a boat before docking and heading into the game. The views are some of the best in college football.
As you leave Seattle and head east on Interstate 90, cutting through the Cascade Mountains, you’ll notice the scenery changing. The range, which extends from Canada to California, serves as a natural dividing line in the state: East and west; rainy and arid; urban and rural; Huskies and Cougars. There’s a tension between the two sides of the state in politics, environment, and lifestyle.
And when you compare Pullman and Seattle, it’s clear what makes the rivalry tick.
WSU feels like an accident, set in the middle of farms and wheat fields and protected by the speed trap that is Colfax. Washington State students and alumni take pride in the isolation of Pullman and wear it like a badge of honor.
That isolation creates a bond between the city and its temporary residents, hardening the alumni connection. Ask a Washington State graduate how it feels to return to Pullman, and they’ll describe cresting the hill leading into town after a long time away.
It’s something you don’t quite get at the University of Washington, where the school is just a blip on the map, buried in a sea of skyscrapers. It’s easy to sneak off into the city on weekends or head back to a childhood home. In Pullman, you’re trapped, an hour and a half from civilization and with nothing to do but bond and drink. That bond sticks, and if you need proof, walk through an airport — any airport — with Washington State gear on.
You see the differences show up in the Apple Cup rivalry and the taunts that go back and forth.
Cougs call Huskies sidewalk fans, testing their allegiances by asking, “Where did you actually go to school?” Huskies fire back by calling Cougs little brother, looking down their noses and wondering who would ever go to Pullman.
These aren’t hypothetical experiences, either. Washington State leans on the Seattle area for enrollment, and another common Washington taunt is, “You couldn’t get into our school, so you went to Wazzu.” Graduates then empty back out to the west side of the state to go to work, folding right back into the sea of purple, gold, crimson, and gray.
The rivalry bleeds into home lives and family, work and friendships. If Washington State gets knocked off by an FCS school to open the season, Washington fans will remind them. Lose the Apple Cup, and that sting won’t go away for a year.
And for a week in November every year, the Apple Cup consumes the state.
What’s crazy about it is that it’s not as though it’s a great or competitive series: Washington owns a 71-32-6 all-time record, and last year’s matchup was only the second time both teams came into the game with each playing for the same title. The last time before that was in 1936.*
*1981 was close, but Washington needed help from USC in a game that kicked off around the same time as the Apple Cup. They got that help, and ended up in the Rose Bowl with a win.
Washington fans have an expectation that their team is always inches from a Return To Glory. They brand this, and the marketing works. A summer tradition for the last 15 years has been watching as Washington fans hype the team up, only to watch it fall apart in September. Washington State fans skip the hype and go straight to the face-planting.
Because the Apple Cup has been lopsided, it thrives on moments, upsets, chaos and, for Washington State, the hope that those bring. Stretched out over the course of the series, these don’t look like much on paper. But for the Cougs, they’re everything.
There’s one more thing to understand about Coug fans, and what happens when the team turns a corner and starts to look good, like it has in 2016.
The video at the top is a highlight clip of the 2002 Washington State season. It was the midpoint in the best run in Cougar history, a string of three consecutive 10-win seasons that included trips to the Rose Bowl and Holiday Bowl.
What the video doesn’t tell you is how 2002 ended.
Washington State came into the Apple Cup ranked third in the country, needing a win to clinch the Pac-10 championship and a trip to the Rose Bowl. In the fourth quarter, quarterback Jason Gesser went down with an ankle injury, and the game stretched into three overtimes. Down three and with a chance to tie or win, backup quarterback Matt Kegel threw a bubble screen on first down that was tipped and nearly intercepted before squirting out onto the turf. Officials ruled it a backwards pass that had been recovered by Washington, and the underdog Huskies knocked off the Cougars.
Martin Stadium devolved into chaos as fans threw anything nearby onto the field. This included empty glass alcohol bottles, aimed at players, coaches, and even the Washington athletic director. (Sodas have been served without caps in the stadium since, making them harder to use as projectiles.)
The Cougars recovered from the loss, and Gesser from his ankle injury, to beat UCLA two weeks later in a rare post-Apple Cup game and earn a trip to the Rose Bowl. And 10 days after that, head coach Mike Price left Pullman for a brief stint at Alabama.
Washington State came into all three Apple Cups during their run of 10-win seasons ranked in the top-10. They went 0-3 against Washington during that period, and the best coach they’ve ever had left in the middle of it.
After finishing Thanksgiving with family, thousands of fans will filter across Washington for an annual tradition.
The state will stop for three and a half hours as the Huskies and Cougars play an Apple Cup with bragging rights and a division title on the line. At the end of it all, everyone will make the drive home, emptying out into cities across the state. That drive is lonely for the loser, knowing what’s looming on the other side.
Because in the end, the schools sit at opposite ends of Washington with polar opposite surroundings, but the people intermingle everywhere in between. The state bonds over the Apple Cup, and has for over 100 years. It’s a rivalry between friends and neighbors, coworkers and family, people you see and talk to everyday. And those people will remind you of one big difference every year: the score of the Apple Cup.