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Raise the flag! ESPN's 'College GameDay' has finally made it to Washington State

One of the oddest traditions in college football began as a whim, a one-time stunt that wasn’t supposed to amount to anything.

It was the fall of 2003 and Tom Pounds was planning to visit relatives in Texas. He heard that “College GameDay,” the pregame show ESPN broadcasts from a different campus each Saturday, would be in Austin.

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Pounds is an alumnus of Washington State, which has a small but wildly devoted fan base.

Though his team wasn’t remotely involved in the Texas-Kansas State proceedings that day, Pounds sewed the Cougars logo on a crimson flag that he brought to the outdoor set and waved from the crowd that always gathers behind the hosts. He wanted to get his alma mater a little airtime.

“It was just for fun,” he recalls. “A show of school spirit.”

The whole thing might have ended there except word spread among Washington State alumni. Two weeks later, with “GameDay” headed for the University of Wisconsin in Madison, a fellow Cougar called from halfway across the country.

“I live in Minneapolis,” Pounds recalls him saying. “I can drive over to Madison.”

The same thing happened a week later in Ohio and the week after that in Oklahoma. Each time, Pounds dutifully packed his flag with a collapsible pole and shipped it off.

At some point, he thought, maybe I can keep this going.

Fifteen years later, with “GameDay” making its first-ever visit to Washington State this Saturday, the flag known as “Ol’ Crimson” will wave in the background for the 217th consecutive episode.

People no longer look askance or heckle, not with ESPN featuring the streak in a commercial several years back. UPS now provides shipping free of charge.

“We really get the celebrity treatment,” said Cameron McCoy, who took over the Ol’ Crimson Booster Club for Pounds about 10 years ago. “It’s a lot of fun.”

The tradition’s longevity owes in part to the success of the nomadic show, which first aired remotely in 1993, but mostly to the tenacity of the Cougars alumni.

It isn’t like any of these people live around the Pullman, Wash., campus. Pounds has a home near Albuquerque and McCoy was in Oklahoma before moving back East.

Yet, for every flag that wore out, a new one was sewn, with gray and white versions joining the rotation. When shipping costs grew to thousands of dollars each season — before UPS signed on — donors provided the money.

More importantly, alumni in far-off cities kept volunteering to wave, even after Texas Tech fans shouted obscenities at them and Florida fans picked a fight.

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The early goal of the Ol’ Crimson group — they hoped to lure “GameDay” to their campus — faded as their team hit tough times in the mid-2000s. By then, the streak had come to mean something more.

“I realized that even if I wanted to stop it, I couldn’t,” Pounds said. “It had become that big.”

So the effort continued to grow, even after he bowed out to return to graduate school for a midlife career change. McCoy jumped in, creating a website and social media accounts, adding thousands more alumni to the volunteer list.

“We’re a really connected community,” he said.

It helped when ESPN aired the 30-second promotion, a fictional spot that began with co-host Kirk Herbstreit announcing no Washington State alumnus would be available for that weekend’s show. Vowing to keep the streak alive, he placed a tiny flag on the set’s desk, prompting colleague Chris Fowler to say: “Well, technically, that’s a tchotchke.”

The wind blew it away, but Herbstreit pulled out another one, licked the base and stamped it down.

“No, Chris,” he said. “Technically that’s a flag.”

The streak faced an actual threat six years later with a shipping issue that had the flag stuck, by various accounts, in Mississippi or Tennessee. As alumni traded anxious tweets, word got back to ESPN.

Months earlier, the booster club had presented a decommissioned flag to network executives, who had framed it and hung it on a wall at corporate headquarters in Bristol, Conn.

Someone yanked it down and stuck it in a UPS “express critical” shipment, which arrived the night before the next show in Tucson.

These days, McCoy is prepared for any such glitches, circulating five flags — two crimson, two gray and one bearing the number “3,” for Cougars quarterback Tyler Hilinski, who committed suicide in the offseason.

“Usually we can overnight the flags and have them in hand well ahead of time,” he said. “After the show, they go straight to the next folks.”

This weekend brings extra work, with celebrations planned on campus. Pullman officials, expecting droves of fans to pour into town, have declared a state of emergency.

“This will be big,” transit manager Wayne Thompson told the City Council. “We don’t want it to be a negative, we want to be prepared.”

The Ol’ Crimson folks see the matchup between No. 25 Washington State and No. 12 Oregon as a culmination of 15 years’ effort — “GameDay” is finally visiting their campus, the flag is finally coming home. That doesn’t mean they will stop.

Five more games remain on the regular-season schedule. There are volunteers to be arranged and shipments to be made.

“If you’re a Cougar fan,” McCoy said, “you know the flag is waving on ‘GameDay.’ ”

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