An October 2017 episode of College GameDay brought an amazing milestone. When ESPN’s flagship college football show broadcast from Forth Worth, Texas, a pair of crimson-and-gray Washington State flags waved in the background. It was the 200th consecutive GameDay at which the WSU flag had flown, according to separate counts maintained by the flag-wavers and ESPN’s GameDay staff.
You’ve seen the flags before, even if they’ve blended out of your view. The Wazzu logo has been ubiquitous on the show since 2003 — 2018’s show at Washington State marked the 15th anniversary — always somewhere in the wide shots of the show’s panelists sitting on their stage.
When the flag crossed its 200-week anniversary, I talked with CJ McCoy, one of the coordinators of Ol’ Crimson, a nonprofit WSU booster group that has exactly one mission: to get the flags to every GameDay show. Here’s what I learned about one of the coolest traditions in the sport.
1. The streak started on October 18, 2003.
Two weeks earlier, GameDay was in Austin for a Kansas State-Texas game. The WSU logo was first shown during GameDay that day. The first flag-waver was Tom Pounds, a WSU alum whose wife, Syndie, made the first flag. Pounds took it to the GameDay set. Someone saw the flag and asked Pounds for it, and he sent it in time for it to fly at the Purdue-Wisconsin game in Madison two weeks later.
2. The goal was to woo ESPN to bring GameDay to Pullman, but it’s become much more than that.
“We don’t really do this any more for it to go to Pullman, and if it does, that’ll be fantastic and we look forward to being there,” McCoy said, a year before it actually went to Pullman.
“We do this because it’s about joy, and there are a lot of Cougars that’ll wake up early on the West Coast and see the flag and go back to sleep. They just wanna make sure that it got there.
“And if it wasn’t for those Coug fans out there that really wanna wave the flag and show their pride, this wouldn’t happen. As much as Tom and me and the rest of us would like to keep this thing going, it only keeps going because of those fans. So props to them for their dedication and commitment to spreading Cougar pride everywhere.”
3. The same two fly every week now, but there have been a bunch of different flags.
One was dedicated to Syndie, who’s passed away since making the flag that started the streak.
There was a white flag named Whitey, but that’s gone out of commission and been auctioned to support former New Orleans Saints safety Steve Gleason’s charity, No White Flags, which raises awareness of and fights against ALS.
The gray flag replaced Whitey for 2012.
Another old crimson flag is now at ESPN’s Bristol headquarters.
4. The flags get shipped by UPS every week, as part of a “flag kit.”
The kit has both flags, poles for them, and instructions on how to run through the entire flag-waving operation. Ol’ Crimson gets free shipping from UPS, and McCoy “quarterbacks” the distribution of the flag each week.
The recipient is always a WSU alum, but the three-hour show length means 500 or 600 people have waved a WSU flag at GameDay at some time or another, McCoy estimated.
“Really, the big piece there is validating that whoever is taking the lead understands what they’re doing, which usually means they’ve done it before, and that they are a Cougar alum and this actually means something to them,” McCoy said.
Ol’ Crimson offers to pay expenses for anyone who has to travel to put the flags in the air. Nobody’s ever taken it.
“It’s not why they do it,” McCoy said.
Some flag-wavers stay for the game. Others just go home, their jobs done.
5. There have been some close calls that nearly ended the streak.
In the early years, Ol’ Crimson had to lean on one member who happened to be a Delta employee to, as McCoy puts it, “red-eye himself” when the flag was hours away from not getting on TV.
The most famous near-catastrophe was in 2015, when GameDay was in Tucson for UCLA-Arizona. Ol’ Crimson had just given ESPN the flag that’s now in Bristol, but disaster struck, and the Coug fans had to borrow the flag back from the people they just gave it to.
“The flag somehow got stuck in a transit facility in Mississippi,” McCoy said. UPS sent it to Tucson via same-day shipping, and it narrowly beat showtime.
“That one was definitely the most memorable,” he said. “I probably did five or six radio interviews that week with people concerned we weren’t gonna make it to Tucson.”
6. Fans at other campuses used to give the WSU folks a hard time. Not anymore.
“The really fascinating thing to me is there are some sites that were notoriously difficult to be at because the fans were just aggressive towards us, and especially in the early years, Columbus being one of them, where they just were abusive and you had to just stand there and take it and get the flag on TV and go on your merry way,” McCoy said.
“You go back to Columbus now, and they love it. They wanna help you wave it, and they come over, and this happens at every site. You hear somebody on their cell phone talking to their mom or their dad or their buddy and they say, ‘Yeah, I’m right next to the Wazzu flag.’ And then we probably spend a good half-hour, 45 minutes after the show getting photos taken with people who just wanna get their picture taken with the Cougar guy.”
7. ESPN’s embraced the flags and even made a commercial about the tradition.
8. The flag’s actually done more than 200 shows since the streak started.
If you hand-counted every GameDay episode since the streak started in 2003, you’d find that this week’s show was a few more than 200th. But the people involved don’t count special shows during the postseason, some of which the flag has missed.
They’re focused on Saturday, on-campus GameDay shows during the regular season, though they also made sure the Wazzu flag got to a Week 1 Thursday night mini-GameDay at Indiana this year. Ol’ Crimson’s count is on its website, and we are cool with them counting however they want.
9. The streak is not likely to end just because GameDay’s finally gone to WSU.
But the WSU flag organizers had some special plans for the Pullman visit.
“But when they go there, I think it will be a very, very exciting show filled with crimson flags everywhere and probably some surprise for all of those shows that have hosted us over the past 14, 15 years here,” McCoy told me before the show. “So we’re looking forward to that happening.”
Worth. The. Wait. pic.twitter.com/XJRUQ5hqyM— College GameDay (@CollegeGameDay) October 20, 2018