On November 12, 2011 a tall, skinny redshirt freshman quarterback stepped on the field for the first extended playing time of his career at Washington State.
It was a cold, wet and snowy night in Pullman and midway through the first quarter his team, like usual, was already behind. He'd been called off the bench in a desperate move by his coach, who was about to be fired.
That kid was Connor Halliday. Washington State was playing Arizona State. The Sun Devils were in a tough battle for the Pac-12 South title. The Cougs were just trying to survive. Arizona State was heavily favored to win. They were a good team, and the Cougs, well, they were the Cougs.
Halliday's first pass was an 85-yard bomb for a touchdown. The Cougars won the game behind Halliday's 494 passing yards and 4 touchdowns. It was a freshman record, and went down as the second-best game by a Washington State quarterback ever. It was a glimpse of the future for the Cougars.
Halliday broke records in his first game. In his second game he became a Washington State legend.
One week later and it was another cold, snowy day in Pullman. This time Halliday was the starting quarterback and the Cougars were facing a Utah team that was 7-4. It was a hard fought game and Halliday was hit over and over again by Utah's physical defense.
With only 6 minutes left in the game Washington State trailed 27-17. In those last minutes Halliday passed for 143 yards and led the Cougars to 10 straight points, sending the game into overtime.
Utah won the game, but Halliday became a legend in the eyes of many fans when it was revealed the next morning that he had lacerated his liver in the game. It was an injury that could have killed him. It didn't occur late in the game either. Halliday had played three quarters and an overtime in excruciating pain, his liver literally torn open. And he had almost won the game.
He hadn't told the coaches about the pain in his side because he didn't want to leave the game. His season was done, and it took over six months for the injury to heal.
Those first two games had told a lot about Halliday. His competitive nature, his talent, and especially his toughness.
His sophomore year brought a change of coaches and offensive systems. Out was Paul Wulff and in was Air Raid guru Mike Leach.
Most assumed senior Jeff Tuel (now in the NFL) would be the starter. But Leach surprised everyone and by the third game of the season Halliday got the start. The rest of the year would be a game of revolving quarterbacks, with Tuel for one game then Halliday for the next.
It was during this period that a saying arose among fans.
If the "Good" Connor shows up we'll win but if the "Bad" Connor shows we're screwed, they would say. What they were referring to was Halliday's habit of either playing great or playing terrible. One week he'd have 400 yards and 3 touchdowns. The next week he'd throw 3 interceptions and the Cougars would get blown out.
It was like a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde arrangement. Connor would play great for a time, then the interception bug would show up. One interception would lead to another. Sacks would cause him to have happy feet and the interceptions would follow. But for all the poor plays "Bad" Connor would make, there would be spectacular touchdown passes made by "Good" Connor. There wasn't much consistency.
The next year Tuel was gone, off to the NFL and leaving Connor as the starting quarterback. His junior season started similar to his sophomore, with "Good" and "Bad" Connor alternating play.
Midway through the 2013 season the Cougars were 4-5. They were coming off four straight blowout losses. Connor was averaging 344 yards per game, but had 18 interceptions to only 20 touchdowns. They needed to win two of their last three games to make it to a bowl. Nobody gave them a chance in hell to get it done. "Bad" Connor had been showing up for way too many games.
Then something changed.
Everyone thinks Mike Leach just "plugs" a new quarterback in when he gets done with an old one. They believe it's the system, not the quarterback. Anyone could get that yardage in the Air Raid.
The truth is more complicated than that. The Air Raid is a difficult system to master. It requires quarterbacks to read the defense and adjust the play at the line of scrimmage. It's different from other systems and takes time to figure out.
At Texas Tech Leach would rely on the older quarterbacks to help the younger guys learn the system. Halliday had no one to tutor him, so it took some time to get it all down.
But something clicked, and Halliday all of a sudden had it down. "Bad" Connor was dead. He finished the last four games with 14 touchdowns to only 4 interceptions, and led Washington State to their first bowl game in over 10 years. Whatever had been holding him back was gone, and wouldn't return.
Nobody would say that Halliday's senior season went the way he wanted. A few minutes into the ninth game of the year a USC lineman broke Connor's leg, ending his career at Washington State. He was leading the nation in passing at the time, having thrown for 3,873 yards in eight games. He had completed 67% of his passes for 32 touchdowns and only 11 interceptions. "Good" Connor broke the NCAA single-game passing record by throwing for 734 yards against California. Almost every WSU passing record was his.
Halliday wouldn't consider it a success though. His team was only 2-6 and I'm sure he'd gladly trade some of those records for some more wins. That was the way he played at WSU. He played to win.
When Connor started at WSU the team was bad. Not just bad, but horrible. Nobody expected them to win, ever. Washington State still isn't winning a lot of games, but Connor has played a significant role in raising expectations.
Leading the Cougars to a bowl game in his junior year was a major accomplishment, but a bigger one was giving the program, and the fans, hope.
When Connor was playing you always thought the Cougars could win. You never knew when he would drop five or six touchdowns in a game, but you always knew it was possible.
Connor Halliday changed the expectations at WSU. Before him it was expected for the Cougars to lose. Now Washington State fans expect a win in every game.
With the strength of his arm and his heart, Connor Halliday has left a legacy of hope for the Washington State program.