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Sunday, November 25, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bud Withers

If this is it for Doba, he leaves on a memorable note

Seattle Times colleges reporter

Alex Brink's wobbly pass floated high into the dark sky and 72,888 fans held their collective breath. Brandon Gibson, the best player on the field not named Locker, waited for it, and waited some more.

"It was an eternity," said Gibson, laughing later. He said he thought, "Something's going on. Why are they playing mind games with me?"

Gibson, who doesn't drop passes, collected this one easily and the scoreboard clicked soon to 42-35, Washington State. From there, the Cougars negotiated the last seconds successfully and in an unexpected rouser, they upset Washington.

At midfield, Locker led a brief chapel among a large number of Cougars and Huskies. He had his right hand on the shoulder pads of Brink, who, no matter what you think of him, deserved to go out being known as something other than the most prolific quarterback who got the Cougars, well, nowhere.

And in a hallway near WSU's locker room, there was Bill Doba. He has won the Apple Cup three times in five seasons, a better percentage than any crimson coach since World War II, and for his handiwork, he may get fired Monday.

Except he wasn't acting like a guy checking for guillotines above his head.

He recited his agenda for the next week: "Get home tonight ... go in and look at the tape tomorrow ... team meeting at 3 o'clock ... vote for award winners and all that stuff ... I leave Monday morning to go recruiting ... I'll be out all week and back in Friday — got recruits coming in next weekend."

Athletic director Jim Sterk said the Cougars would have some announcement Monday on Doba, which might only be that they're in the process of sorting out their dilemma.

No doubt, they're in a spot. It would cost the Cougars perhaps $2.8 million just to excise Doba and the staff, never mind the commitment for the replacements. They have to weigh that against the future of WSU football and a possible stalling of momentum for stadium renovation.

Doba said he didn't have an endorsement from either Sterk or Elson Floyd, the new WSU president. Asked if he needs one, he said, "Yeah, I think you need something to say, we're going to be around a few years anyway, just for recruiting purposes."

Does he expect to be back?

"I think we're gonna be here," he said, voice lowering. "Yeah, I feel confident."

This was, hands down, WSU's best Apple Cup performance since the 1997 game when it clinched the Rose Bowl on the same field, an attempt to wipe clean a slate of mostly dismal efforts since then. If you're a Cougar, you're wondering: Where was this in the final minutes of regulation of the three-overtime loser in 2002, or in '06 when the Cougars were a solid favorite with a bowl game at stake?

Nobody ever questioned whether Doba knows football. The issue is whether he and his staff have been good enough to project how recruits will do, and in many cases, whether they can properly evaluate recruits' potential for academic success.

If this was it for Doba, he left 'em laughing. The Cougars were a bad joke last week in their 52-17 home loss to Oregon State, but he and his staff revived them from the doldrums.

The Cougars were nothing if not resilient as the game turned immediately ugly for them with Louis Rankin's 89-yard kickoff return. They were behind 10-0, not having made a first down, and with Washington at the WSU 34, Jake Locker made a freshman mistake. He could have easily run for a first down but threw anyway, and the Huskies turned it over on downs.

Finally, the Cougars got with it. They opted to try to force Locker to throw, a good decision, by bringing sophomore linebacker Andy Mattingly up, acting almost as a defensive lineman, and then rushing all sorts of other linebackers at him. Even when Locker had time, the UW receivers usually weren't good enough to make WSU pay.

So with the game tied at 35, there was Gibson, maneuvering behind safety Darin Harris, poised to ... to save Doba's job?

"I was scared," said the affable Gibson. "I said, 'I will catch this ball, and the state of Washington will be upset with me.' "

Well, partly. And now, 15 minutes after the game in a stadium mostly deserted, I found Sterk in the end zone and asked him if he could fire a guy who has won three out of five Apple Cups.

Big belly laugh. And he said, "That's a very good stat. I like that stat." And he said there's been no decision made, adding, "I think we'll talk next week. We'll make a statement of the timeline, or give an indication what our process might be. Right now, we'll just enjoy the victory."

Nobody more than Bill Doba. He walked away, happy and uncertain all at one time.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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