’75 game still haunts Sweeney

  • JOHN SLEEPER / Herald Writer
  • Thursday, November 16, 2000 9:00pm
  • Sports

By JOHN SLEEPER

Herald Writer

Out of all the crazy moments, out of all the misfortune and improbability that happened on that day 25 years ago and haunts him to this day, Jim Sweeney remembers the extra point.

“It was wide,” he said. “I thought it was wide then and I still do.”

Sweeney’s Washington State Cougars had the game. Period. Even Washington coach Don James admits it. The Cougars had a 27-14 advantage and the ball on the Huskies’ 14-yard line, fourth-and-1. A tick more than three minutes left on the clock.

And they blew it.

Because of greed, mostly.

The white-hot intensity of the Washington-Washington State rivalry had as much to do with it than anything. Two touchdowns weren’t enough. Cougar quarterback John Hopkins wanted to beat the Huskies by three. Rub their noses in it. Blinkin’ Huskies, anyway.

Indeed, it was greed that set up the wildest finish to an Apple Cup game ever.

Hopkins wanted to pass, even though conventional wisdom said to kick a field goal. And if you don’t want to kick, if you’re afraid of it being blocked and returned for a touchdown, send fullback Vaughn Williams safely up the middle. Who knows? Might even get a first down out of it. At the worst, Washington has to travel more than 80 yards to score.

Do anything. Anything but what happened.

What happened was that Hopkins, a senior quarterback who should have known better, talked Sweeney into a pass to tight end Carl Barschig. The reasoning: The Huskies would play the run, and Barschig would be wide open.

Easy, right?

“John was sure it would happen,” said Sweeney, now 71 and spending winters in Maui. “He convinced me, so I nodded permission. It wasn’t the most brilliant thing I’ve ever done.”

Husky safety Al Burleson read the play, stepped in front of Barschig and returned the interception 93 yards untouched into the end zone. Suddenly, the Huskies trailed just 27-20.

“I was still reasonably confident that we could get out of there with a win,” Sweeney said. “We needed a couple of first downs and we could run the clock out.”

The Cougars couldn’t come up with even one. Starting on its own 20-yard line, a shaky, shell-shocked WSU offense managed just 8 yards on three running plays and had to punt.

Even then, the Huskies faced long odds. A steady, game-long rain and biting cold conditions made the ball hard to grip. Quarterback Warren Moon had completed just three of 21 passes up to that point, and somehow, he had to take Washington from its own 22-yard line to score in about two minutes.

He needed about six seconds.

On the first play of the series, Moon lofted a pass into a crowd at about midfield. The ball appeared to bounce off defensive back Tony Heath, wideout Scott Phillips and perhaps another Cougar defender. Game film is inconclusive and Sweeney himself isn’t sure what happened.

“It was tipped at least twice,” he said. “I was in a bad place to see what happened. But I remember seeing the catch and not believing it.”

Spider Gaines, a fleet Husky receiver who was a sprinter on the track team, hovered behind the play. As the ball glanced off the pack of players in front of him, Gaines grabbed the ball, spun around and ran the rest of the 43 yards to the end zone.

Scott Robbins’ point-after was called successful, despite Cougar fans’ assertions that it was wide, and the Huskies, who trailed the entire game, took a 28-27 lead with 1:56 left.

“If we’d taken a knee, we would have won,” Sweeney said of the fourth-down play where Burleson intercepted Hopkins’ pass. “John was sure it would be open. I violated a law of coaching and refused to win the easy way. I got paid for making those decisions, and didn’t do it.”

Washington State finished the season 3-8 that year after a 2-0 start. Sweeney resigned a week after the game, although he said he had told WSU officials earlier in the season that he’d planned to quit.

Sweeney went on to coach Fresno State for 21 years and ended his career with a 200-154-4 record. Time has healed the hurt of Nov. 22, 1975. He even laughs about it now.

He says he keeps in contact with Hopkins, who now lives in Los Angeles, owns a construction company and is a high school assistant football coach.

“We still talk about the play,” Sweeney said. “He says it took a great play by Burleson to beat us, but … “

Then he laughs, not finishing the thought.

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