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Wyoming's Crusade Against Ex-Coach Is Turned Back by WSU

September 13, 1987|JERRY CROWE | Times Staff Writer

PULLMAN, Wash. — Emotions ran high Saturday at Washington State's Martin Stadium, where a game that had been dubbed the Bitter Bowl drew a crowd of 24,151, the second largest ever for a non-conference game here.

Washington State and its coach, Dennis Erickson, beat Wyoming, 43-28, denying the Cowboys' quest for redemption against their former coach.

Erickson left Wyoming in the lurch last January, running out on a five-year contract after only one season without so much as a word to his former players. His action touched off a wave of resentment across the state.

The Cowboys and their fans had been pointing toward this game ever since.

When it was over, Erickson said, he wept. He didn't make himself available to the press until about 30 minutes after the game had ended.

"It's been a very tough week and not one I'd like to go through very many times because I have strong feelings for those players regardless of how they feel and how I left," Erickson said. "It was a very difficult game."

No more difficult than it was for Wyoming quarterback Craig Burnett, one of Erickson's most outspoken critics.

Burnett was intercepted four times, was benched in the third quarter and, after returning briefly when backup quarterback Scott Runyan was unable to move the Cowboys, was finally knocked out of the game for good in the fourth quarter by a blow to the ribs.

Two of the interceptions were run back for touchdowns in the second quarter, when Washington State overcame a 21-10 deficit by taking advantage of three Wyoming turnovers and a bungled snap out of punt formation by the Cowboys to score 26 points in 6 minutes 23 seconds.

Wyoming, held scoreless in the second half, never recovered.

Burnett, his eyes red and swollen as he emerged from a shower after the game, said he felt as if he had had more than the wind knocked out of him.

"You want to win so badly," he said, "that when something goes wrong and you make those mistakes, it takes everything out of you."

Wyoming wide receiver Anthony Sargent said he felt "a lot of pain. This is one we wanted very badly."

Wyoming Coach and Athletic Director Paul Roach, Erickson's former boss, had tried all week to downplay the Cowboys' resentment toward Erickson, but reminders were everywhere.

When a booster announced on the Wyoming team plane Friday that he was selling Cowboy rooter buttons for $1, another booster cried out: "I bet we could get three for a dollar from Dennis Erickson."

And when everybody was forced to get off the plane and the flight was delayed for almost two hours while a part was replaced, somebody else said to the pilot: "Are you sure you're not kin to Dennis Erickson?"

At both schools, sports information officials said they had been taking calls all week from the Denver area and the Northwest, and the players and coaches obviously had grown weary of answering the same questions.

"I just want to get this game over and done with," Erickson told a Lewiston, Ida., reporter Friday.

His wife, Marilyn, said her husband had been "under a lot of pressure."

And Erickson said the situation had been "overrated" by the media.

"But that's how you guys make money, I guess," he said.

Still, he was escorted off the field by two uniformed policemen.

"I hope that never happens again," he said, appearing ill at ease during his postgame meeting with the media. "When two cops have to walk you off the field, it's kind of shaky, kind of ridiculous."

Erickson said he spoke briefly after the game with two of his former players, Runyan and defensive lineman Jeff Knapton. He put his arm around Runyan and tousled Runyan's hair as the two made their way off the field.

"He said he understood what I did and that he thought that maybe some other people were a little immature in not understanding," Erickson said of Runyan, who also had a pass intercepted on a day when the Cowboys made seven turnovers.

Erickson called this "the wildest game and wildest week of my life."

And it was a great relief, he said, to finally have it behind him.

Next week, he and the Cougars play Michigan at Ann Arbor, Mich.

"It's terrible when you're relieved to go play Michigan," he said.

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