SEATTLE -- It was just past 6 a.m. and still dark on a rainy, windy morning two weeks ago at the University of Washington, and Craig McDonald was completely in his element. He had positioned himself in the crowd at ESPN's College GameDay, waving the Washington State flag, also known as Ol' Crimson. It was the 189th consecutive show in which the flag has flown and the 22nd time McDonald has carried out the tradition, making him something of an expert.
“The key is to use the figure-eight technique as you wave it,” McDonald says.
He would know. Since Washington State fans started waving Ol' Crimson at the show in 2003, no one has made more appearances than McDonald.
For a bulk of the streak, from 2005-2014, Washington State was 36-85 and owned the worst winning percentage among all Power 5 programs. As the losses mounted, Ol' Crimson’s GameDay presence every Saturday morning became something WSU fans could count on, and it evolved into one of the truly unique traditions in college football.
“That was what we had going for us in this last decade of desolation,” said Andrew Pannek, who has waved the flag 12 times and was instrumental in keeping the streak alive in its early years. “We had the flag, and that was something we knew we could look forward to every Saturday no matter what happens on the football field with the team. We knew that we could turn on that TV Saturday morning, and we could see that flag waving, and it would be a W for us.”
The flag still flies each Saturday morning, but the days of desolation are over.
On Friday in Pullman, in the Apple Cup against No. 5 Washington, the 23rd-ranked Cougars have an opportunity to score their biggest win since the tradition began. A win would secure the Pac-12 North, send the Cougars to their first Pac-12 championship game and end the rival Huskies’ dream of an appearance in the College Football Playoff.
Regardless of the result, however, there is one thing Cougars fans know to be true: The following day, in Columbus, Ohio, Ol' Crimson will be flying high during GameDay's visit for No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 3 Michigan (noon ET, ABC/ESPN App).
When Tom Pounds set out on the 700-mile drive from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Austin, Texas, in September 2003, he had no idea what he was starting.
How could he?
He showed up at the University of Texas with a flag, handmade out of cloth, and his only intention was to showcase school spirit on TV. “It’s a Coug thing,” he said. But the response it got from WSU fans who watched the show, particularly those on the message boards at a Washington State fan site, CougFan.com, was tremendous.
A couple of weeks later, he was contacted by a seminary student in Minneapolis, Brent Schwartz, who asked Pounds to ship him the flag. He did, and Schwartz drove nearly 300 miles to Madison, Wisconsin, to wave the flag on Oct. 18, 2003. The streak was born.
The next week, lifelong WSU fan John Bley volunteered his daughter, Amanda, then a student and softball player at the University of Detroit Mercy, to drive 90 miles to ensure the flag would appear at Bowling Green. Along with a teammate and two others, she got the flag prominently displayed behind host Chris Fowler early in the show, but it didn’t take long before someone broke the flagpole. She called her dad to see what she should do, and he told her it was probably best if she left. The flag appeared on TV: Mission accomplished.
Within weeks, Pounds and Bley founded a non-profit organization, the Ol’ Crimson Booster Club, to centralize finances and help ease the process of soliciting donations used to ship the flag. Pounds did the lion’s share of the work. Serving as the club’s coordinator, he led the effort to find someone to fly the flag each week, created a how-to-wave manual and made all the flag’s shipping arrangements.
It was difficult. Relatively few people were aware of what they were doing, and in the first two seasons, Pounds organized it all without the help of the university’s alumni association.
Andrew Pannek was Pounds’ ace in the hole.
As an employee of Delta Airlines, he could fly for free and was willing to fly standby anywhere in the country on short notice. His roommate at the time, Myk Crawford, who now manages the club’s website, was able to step in and cover Pannek’s shifts at work as needed.
“Early on, I don’t think we could have made a solid streak without Andrew working for Delta Airlines and being able to hop on a red-eye,” Pounds said.
If possible, Pannek arrived in the GameDay city the night before to scout a good location. On his second trip, to Salt Lake City, where Utah hosted BYU on Nov. 20, 2004, he and a friend learned that many Utah fans were camping out in order to get a good spot for what was expected to be a huge crowd.
“We made the quick determination to forgo a hotel and just camp in the car,” he said. “The forecast called for temperatures well into the negatives for that evening and the next morning, so we made sure to go and buy blankets and a couple more under-layers for the night and the morning.”
They found a parking spot near the set but were so paranoid about missing out on a choice location that they set an alarm for every two hours and woke up to check to make sure a crowd wasn’t forming. While one of them checked the set, the other ran the heater in the car and at about 3:30 a.m., Utah fans started showing up. At that point, they set up shop and would rotate between the warmth of the car and where they had the flag.
“That was enough to stave off the frostbite until the show started almost four hours later,” Pannek said.
From 2004 to 2007, Pannek flew the flag 11 times, most of which were at locations in the Southeast, and did it once more in 2010 for Ol’ Crimson’s 100th GameDay appearance. His experiences are unique, but so are so many others.
In 2013, Krista Sampson, a 2000 graduate of WSU living in Tallahassee, Florida, flew the flag at Florida State as a way to honor her father, also a WSU grad who eight weeks earlier was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. From their home in Ohio, both of her parents watched the entire show and texted her throughout with tips on where the flag needed to be.
Her family relocated to Austin after the season, but when the show returned to FSU the next year she volunteered to make the 14-hour drive with her 10-year-old daughter to do it again. Once again, her father watched proudly from home. He died four months later, and their extended family now keeps track of where GameDay is each week.
“I think it’s cathartic for us all,” Sampson said.
As the tradition became more well-known, more WSU fans began to seek out the opportunity to wave the flag. When C.J. McCoy took over as the Ol’ Crimson Booster Club’s coordinator in 2010, Pounds passed on a large network of people from all over the country.
The way it works now is fairly simple. When the show’s location is announced, McCoy usually reaches out to someone in the area who has participated in the flag-waving before. Once he has a commitment from someone he is comfortable with, he provides a shipping label, free of cost from UPS, to whoever waved the flag the previous week. They slap it on the shipping tube that holds the flags and poles and drop it off to be sent on its way. Oftentimes, he has a good idea where the show will be ahead of time and has someone lined up well in advance.
The whole operation is a finely tuned machine that has evolved greatly over the years.
“For me, the flag represents what it means to be a Coug at its heart,” McCoy said. “It’s about representing an institution that creates great people, great leaders. It’s about people caring about something bigger than themselves, and it’s authentic as can be. It came from fans -- graduates of school. Sure, it started about football and GameDay, but it’s so much more than that now.
“The pride that people have every Saturday morning still to this day is particularly amazing to me and very uplifting. In the really bad times, there were people who said, ‘Just quit. Just stop putting the flag up. I’m embarrassed because our football team is so bad.’ My response was that it wasn’t about football, because it’s not. It’s fantastic that football team is better this year and was last year, but this is about representing the university.”
In the early days, there was an understanding that the flag would continue to fly until GameDay went to Pullman, but that idea originated when the team was good. The Cougars had three-straight 10-win seasons from 2001 to 2003, and it stood to reason a GameDay-worthy occasion would come about sooner rather than later.
The wait continues, but the concept of a GameDay without Ol’ Crimson, even after a possible appearance in Pullman, isn’t something many people want to consider.