Out-of-state players learn to appreciate Apple Cup rivalry

A hotshot baseball-star-turned-quarterback from Southern California showed up at Brigham Young University in the early 1990s and didn’t quite know what to expect from what had come to be known as the Holy War.

It didn’t take long for Steve Sarkisian to figure out what the intrastate rivalry between BYU and Utah was all about.

“It became clear to me at halftime (of) my first game (against the Utes), when I’d thrown three picks and I was getting booed by our own fans,” Sarkisian said this week. “I knew right then that this game meant a lot.”

Not all rivalries are born into. Sometimes being far from home means learning to appreciate a rivalry for what it has come to mean to those who have grown up around it, and the Apple Cup is no different.

When Sarkisian’s University of Washington football team takes on rival Washington State on Friday afternoon, an ever-growing number of participants will have come from the outside to the center of the action.

Twenty-six of the 44 projected starters in this week’s game hail from outside the state. There are significantly more players from California expected to start (23) than there are Washingtonians (15), and yet the rivalry seems as heated as ever.

Sarkisian said that’s because players from the state of Washington and the upperclassmen set the tone early on in the season that the Apple Cup is about something bigger than another Pacific-12 Conference game for both the Huskies and the Cougars.

“The in-state players on our rosters quickly convey that message to the players from out of state of what this game means,” Sarkisian said Monday as he prepared for his fourth meeting with the cross-state rivals. “And the out-of-state players accept it. And that’s why we’re the Washington Huskies now, and not a couple kids from Skyline (High School) and a kid from Gig Harbor and a kid from Oakland and five kids from Los Angeles.

“We’re the Washington Huskies now. This is our family, that’s what we are, and this W represents us. And we represent it. So it doesn’t take long to get that message conveyed to one another.”

While the Apple Cup has always been mostly about geographical identification, it’s had plenty of outsiders doing battle over the years. The 2002 game, for example, included a WSU quarterback from Hawaii (Jason Gesser) and a game-winning, overtime field goal from a UW kicker who hailed from Florida (John Anderson). But a decade ago, those rosters, particularly on the WSU side, were more loaded with players from this state. Half the starters were from Washington, including 13 Cougars.

Part of the recent transition is because of what’s happened at the top of both programs. Gone are locals like Everett natives Jim Lambright, Dennis Erickson and Mike Price, as well as WSU alum Paul Wulff. For the first time since 1977 — when WSU hired Nebraska assistant coach Warren Powers to compete against UW’s Don James, formerly at Kent State — this rivalry has two head coaches with no previous school or in-state ties.

Joining the Southern Cal native who roams the UW sideline this year is WSU’s Mike Leach, who hails from Cody, Wyo., and made stops at Big 12 outposts in Norman, Okla., and Lubbock, Texas, along the way. Leach said during Tuesday’s Pac-12 conference call that he can already feel the buzz of Apple Cup week in Pullman.

“It’s definitely an exciting game, and the fans are excited about it,” he said.

WSU junior Deone Bucannon, who hails from northern California, said this week that the Apple Cup is a rivalry that doesn’t always come naturally to outsiders — not at first, anyway. For him, the ferocity of the rivalry became clear the first day of Apple Cup-week practice his freshman year when a group of seniors led an anti-UW cheer in a huddle.

“That’s when I figured it out,” Bucannon said, “how much we dislike the Huskies.”

For local players such as UW sophomore receiver Kasen Williams, a Sammamish native whose father played for the Huskies, the rivalry has been a part of their lives since birth. But there are others, like Sarkisian playing Utah and Bucannon against UW, who had to be quick studies.

“During the game it’s war,” Bucannon said. “But after the game, we’re going to shake hands.”

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