For some college football fans, it's become a Saturday tradition that rivals sleeping in late and watching cartoons in your pajamas: locating the Washington State University flag — it's known as Ol' Crimson' — waving in the background of the ESPN College GameDay set. This weekend, Ol' Crimson is scheduled to make its 200th consecutive appearance on the show when GameDay travels to Fort Worth, Texas, for No. 8 TCU vs. No. 23 West Virginia.
Here's how the tradition started, how it morphed into something bigger than the creator ever expected, and what lies ahead:
The original purpose of bringing Ol' Crimson to the GameDay set was to catch the eye of ESPN officials who make the decision on where to set up the popular show each week. Tom Pounds, a 1981 Washington State alum of Albuquerque, New Mexico, traveled to Austin, Texas, for a Texas-Kansas State game with the flag in tow for Week 6 of the 2003 college football season, hoping that the flag — plus the play of the then-No. 14 Cougars — could draw the show to Washington State's campus.
A week went by and when the flag didn't make a repeat appearance at GameDay's trip to Tallahassee, Florida (for a Florida State-Miami game), someone reached out to Pounds.
"'Hey, send me that flag, I’ll wave it in Wisconsin,'" Cameron McCoy, the current organizer of Ol' Crimson's nationwide travel for GameDay, recalls someone saying, "and we’ve been doing it ever since. That was October 18, 2003, if I’m correct. The original intent was to get GameDay to go to Pullman, Washington, but it’s certainly morphed since then.”
Early on in the streak, the Washington State website cougfan.com was the hub for organizing where the flag was sent and who would wave it. Eventually, McCoy took over full-time coordinating responsibilities from Pounds. As the popularity of the flag grew, so did the pool of potential flag-waving candidates.
"Nowadays it’s got such life of its own that it isn’t too difficult to find someone," McCoy said, "though on occasion, we’ll have some challenges."
If GameDay chooses a location that's "sort of off the beaten path," as McCoy puts it, the potential flag bearers have to be vetted to confirm they're a Cougar. "This is now a streak," McCoy says, "and a player on a streak must respect the streak."
When GameDay returns to popular locations – say, Columbus, Ohio, or Tuscaloosa, Alabama – a familiar face usually is in charge of receiving and assembling the flag. Andrew Plannek of Spokane, Washington, who took advantage of his employment with Delta Airlines in the early years of the streak, is among the all-time leaders in flag waving with 13 appearances. Craig McDonald holds the record of 25 appearances.
One of the closest calls was Week 4 of the 2015 college football season, when GameDay went to Tucson, Arizona. The flag got stuck in a shipping facility and wasn't going to make it to Tucson until Monday. The Ol' Crimson Booster Club, a non-profit group that pays for shipping and travel expenses for the flag wavers, had sent one of its flags to ESPN after the network had recognized the tradition of Ol' Crimson appearing on GameDay and the flag was hung in the ESPN cafeteria. When employees heard that the main flag was caught up in transit, ESPN employees took the gifted flag from the cafeteria and "put it on a UPS express critical flight," McCoy said.
The streak had just reached 170.
"Even when we were in jeopardy, we really weren’t in jeopardy," McCoy said, "just because this is such a great crew that’s so dedicated to doing this."
Once the flag has arrived safely at the GameDay location in the hands of a Cougar, McCoy says everybody who wants to wave the flag will get their chance.
"If you’re a Coug, you certainly will have the opportunity," he said, "but we’ve had Sooners wave it, Huskies wave it. We’ve had fans who just want the chance to wave the flag and we’ll let them have the flag for a few minutes, I mean, it’s a three-hour show so there’s plenty of opportunity."
In fact, there have been multiple flags waved during the streak. It began with a white flag that has since been retired when former Washington State and New Orleans Saints safety Steve Gleason started his, "No white flags" mantra. There was also a grey flag and multiple crimson-colored flags, each dedicated to an individual or group, including the victims of the Virginia Tech shooting, Pounds' late wife Cindy, and McCoy's mother.
Pounds makes the flags in his home in New Mexico, so supply is never an issue. It's a team effort all around. One person is in charge of Ol' Crimson's media (you can check out its Twitter account @olcrimson). A Washington State fan living in Seattle wakes up early every Saturday morning to record every episode. Another fan, John Bley, does the accounting for the Ol' Crimson Booster Club.
The Washington State fans who run and take part in the Ol' Crimson Booster Club have had "plenty" of interaction with ESPN, McCoy said. "At this point, we’re effectively part of the show," he said, "and they’ve said as much.” A College GameDay promo featured ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit pulling a miniature Washington State flag from his pocket and placing it on set.
ESPN may recognize Ol' Crimson's 200th consecutive appearance on Saturday in Fort Worth, but McCoy isn't giving away any spoilers.
"And you may see something this week," he said. "That’s all I can tell you on that.”
While a College GameDay filmed live from Pullman, Washington, was the initial goal, prompting Pounds to drive 800 miles from Albuquerque to Austin, the flag has represented so much more than that.
"I can tell you when they get to Pullman, that’ll be a fantastic experience and we’ll be excited to have them there," McCoy said. "I don’t suspect that’ll be the end of what we’re doing, though.”