These are trying times for fans of the University of Washington football team. Once a national power, the Huskies now routinely lose more...
These are trying times for fans of the University of Washington football team.
Once a national power, the Huskies now routinely lose more games than they win. The athletic director, Todd Turner, was forced out last month, and many fans want coach Tyrone Willingham fired. One prominent booster, the former mayor of Everett, recently offered a $100,000 donation for the coach’s ouster.
Husky faithful look back wistfully to their last great team: the 2000 squad, winners of the Rose Bowl, owners of an 11-1 record, ranked No. 3 in the nation.
“A mystical, magical season,” one sportswriter called it at the time. What happened on the field in 2000 may have been magical. But what happened off it was not.
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An unprecedented look behind the scenes — based largely on documents unavailable at the time — reveals a disturbing level of criminal conduct and hooliganism by the players on that team.
Former coach Rick Neuheisel and athletic director Barbara Hedges accepted most of it, demanding little discipline or accountability from their athletes. And other community institutions, including prosecutors, police, judges and the media, went along.
Beyond the roses, that was the legacy of the Neuheisel-Hedges era — and the ruins Willingham and Turner inherited in 2004.
When that Rose Bowl season began on Sept. 2, 2000, against the University of Idaho, the UW’s starters included:
• A safety who, according to police reports, had cut his wife’s face, broken her arm and broken her nose. He had already served time for choking her into unconsciousness. While playing in front of 70,000 fans on Montlake that day, he was wanted on an outstanding warrant.
• A linebacker under investigation for robbing and shooting a drug dealer. He had left behind a fingerprint stained with his blood. By the season opener, police knew the print was his — but they didn’t charge him until the season was over.
• A tight end under investigation on suspicion of rape.
At least a dozen members of the Rose Bowl team were arrested that year or charged with a crime that carried possible jail time. At least a dozen others on that team got in trouble with the law in other seasons.
On the occasions that Neuheisel did take disciplinary action, his message was muddled.
When a star player made headlines for crashing his pickup into a retirement home and fleeing, Neuheisel suspended him — for half a game. When another player was late to a team meeting, the coach suspended him — for a full game. Then, after the game, Neuheisel said: “We decided we’d put him in if it was necessary. We decided it wasn’t necessary.”
Legal authorities weren’t much tougher on Husky outlaws.
When one player was sentenced to 30 days in jail, the judge wrote in her order: “To be served after football season.”
Another Husky, facing a felony charge of assaulting a police officer, was released without bail and granted a delay so that he could keep playing.
Yet another player in trouble was allowed to perform 150 hours of community service at football camps.
Hedges, who recruited Neuheisel without asking around, stood by him even as he violated recruiting rules and his players broke the law. She wrote in his 2000 evaluation that Neuheisel “represents the university in an exceptional manner. … He is a role model in every sense of the word.”
Neuheisel declined to comment for this story. Hedges did not return phone calls.
Turner says when he became athletic director 3 ½ years ago, he found “the level of accountability was not high.”
Players “were confused about their direction, their leadership, the expectations people had of them,” he said. “They were confused about their responsibilities.”
When Turner awarded a five-year contract to Willingham in December 2004, he hoped his new coach, who had a reputation for integrity, could mend the damage done. A check of court documents shows the Huskies are clearly in less trouble off the field. But Willingham’s 11-25 record has some fans calling for his job. As one wrote on this seattletimes.com poll: “Nice guy Ty but in over his head. Nice guys finish last. UW deserves better.”
When Turner resigned in December, he lamented how the average fan cares only about wins and losses. “Have I been naive all this period of time? Have I spent all my time working on the student-athlete experience and trying to create better lives for people and our proper place in education, when all I should have been worried about was how many games we won?”
Less than three weeks later, UCLA hired Neuheisel to be its head coach. UCLA’s athletic director, Dan Guerrero, said the school was concerned about Neuheisel’s history of NCAA violations but figured that was in his past. More relevant was Neuheisel’s 66-30 record.
“In the end,” Guerrero said, “it was all about 66 collegiate wins.”