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Originally published November 26, 2009 at 6:37 PM | Page modified November 27, 2009 at 4:50 PM

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WSU's flag phenomenon still going strong

By now, you know the drill, if you tune in to catch ESPN's popular "College GameDay" football show on Saturday mornings. For the past seven seasons — 88 straight shows — somebody has been back there behind the set, unfurling two crimson and white flags with the WSU logo on them.

Seattle Times staff reporter

If only those flags could talk. If only those Cougar-logoed banners could recount all their escapades, from getting busted up at Bowling Green to jeered at Clemson to adored at Auburn.

If only they had the answer: How in the world does this keep going?

By now, you know the drill, if you tune in to catch ESPN's popular "College GameDay" football show on Saturday mornings. For the past seven seasons — 88 straight shows — somebody has been back there behind the set, unfurling two crimson and white flags with the WSU logo on them.

The tradition is almost as entrenched as criticism of the BCS.

The Times first wrote about the phenomenon six years ago, when it was high times for WSU football. In 2003, the Cougars were completing a three-year run of 30 victories.

Now football has gone fallow at WSU, but, somehow, not the tradition of resilient souls traveling hundreds of miles to a "GameDay" site to push this notion: Bring "GameDay" to WSU.

The idea was viable in '03 when the Cougars went 10-3. Now, not so much.

No matter.

"Hopefully, at some point, we can finally get them down to Pullman," says Andrew Pannek of Spokane, a veteran of — get this — 11 "GameDay" stops. "We've done our part, so to speak. We'll just wait for the football team to do theirs."

So familiar, so enduring is this tradition that it's easy to forget what got it all started — a campaign for the show, which chooses sites on the fly — to make a maiden appearance in Pullman.

It began as the brainchild of an aerospace engineer from Albuquerque, N.M., 1981 WSU grad Tom Pounds. He drove the 600-mile trip to Austin, Texas, in '03 and got the flag on TV.

From there, it blossomed, albeit with a couple of gaps that first year.

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In those days, Pounds sometimes had to scramble for volunteers. It wasn't unusual when he had to Fed Ex the flags out on Thursday. Now he has accumulated an e-mail roster of about 130 enlistees often ready and willing to sustain the effort.

Some of them probably don't even need the manual Pounds assembled back then, explaining how best to position the flags and work the peculiar camera angles of TV.

"It kind of kept growing," says Pounds, adding that helpers accrued by "anything from word-of-mouth to people posting insta-messages on Cougfan.com."

One thing is clear: None of this would have happened without the perseverance of Pounds.

"Tom's incredible," says Pannek. "We've gotten to the point now, it's kind of a breeze for him week to week. In those early days, he was pulling hair out."

The campaign spawned the Old Crimson Booster Club, set up to defray expenses incurred by volunteers, who get paid for gas expenses over 100 miles. Most, though, donate their time and money.

The week begins with Pounds checking a Web site on Sunday to see where "GameDay" is headed. Or, he might get a call from somebody like Bus Driver Bobby — the setup crew knows the Cougars intimately — telling him where to be.

Then Pounds hits the e-mail list, ships out the flags and it goes off like clockwork. Well, sometimes.

A few weeks ago, WSU alum Eric Falter of Park City, Utah, showed up at Brigham Young, only to find that those other Cougars in Provo had a policy of no flagpoles. But Brad Rawlins, son of former WSU president Lane Rawlins, phoned an athletic official and smoothed the issue over.

Soon, says Falter, a police chief arrived, saying, "We really respect the tradition. Give me a couple of minutes, and I think we can set you up with a really good spot for your flag."

Then, says Falter, "He moves some BYU students out of the way and positions us right behind Chris Fowler."

Fowler, a "GameDay" co-host, has made occasional mention of the flags. The show did a piece on it last year, interviewing Pounds. Now there's even a short flag-themed commercial for the show.

Turns out some of the most ardent supporters of the tradition aren't even alums. Doug Duin is one of those, an accountant for AT&T in Atlanta whose son Josh was a WSU offensive lineman from 2003 to 2006.

Duin is Pounds' man in the Southeast. He's done five "GameDays."

"Most of the [receptions] have been really warm," Duin says. "There's always somebody saying, 'Hey, do you want a beer, do you need something to drink?' I've never had a bad thing happen to me."

Strangers want to hear the story of the flag. Some want to pose with it and its handlers.

But it's not always seamless, either. Volunteers have heard things like "Ryan Leaf sucks!" to general annoyance that there's an interloper on site.

Pannek, who attended WSU for a couple of years, was hooked up with the flag by a former college roommate now living in North Carolina. An employee of Delta Air Lines, Pannek has been only too willing to drop everything and head out for a couple of days — everywhere from Raleigh, N.C., to Blacksburg, Va., to Clemson, S.C., to Fayetteville, Ark., to Los Angeles.

"I want to keep that flag on there every week until we can get them to come to Pullman," Pannek explained. "Secondly, I think it's just kind of the adventure of it."

For some, the sight of the flags wafting in the breeze in some distant place like Lubbock or Tuscaloosa is almost a religious experience.

"I don't think I'm being melodramatic by saying how important Ol' Crimson is to a starving Cougar nation," John Witter, an operator of Cougfan.com and one of the officers of the flag booster club, wrote in an e-mail. " ... Especially now during the darkest days of Wazzu football, that is something ... I find incredibly moving."

Imagine the outpouring if "GameDay" ever makes its way to Pullman.

"At some point, 'GameDay' will come to Pullman," Duin says firmly. "And when I find out about it, I'll be on a flight. I want to be there to see it happen."

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

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