Huskies' football success in 1991 was combination of talent, hard work and a new game plan.
The passage of time might have dimmed the memory of some of the details.
But for members of the 1991 Washington Huskies, the two decades since that perfect football season have only deepened the appreciation for what they accomplished.
“I still look at that season as just an absolutely magical combination of timing and talent and hard work and people and dumb luck and all the things that (coach Don) James instilled,” said center and team captain Ed Cunningham, who spends his fall Saturdays now broadcasting college football games for ESPN.
“And a lot of that has to do with that I really know now how hard it is to do what that team did. It really only happens about once a decade.”
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Or at Washington, as it has turned out, about once a century.
As UW prepares to enter a new era, playing its final season in Husky Stadium, the specter of the 1991 team looms large.
Its 12-0 record is the only undefeated season in school history since the pre-World War I Gil Dobie era.
The 461 points scored are the most in the modern era of UW football, and the 101 points allowed the least.
It remains the standard by which all Washington football teams — past, present and future — will be judged.
Which makes it fitting that the 1991 team will be honored Nov. 5 when UW plays its final game in Husky Stadium before it undergoes a $250 million renovation.
“The one thing I remember the best is just what a team it was, and that a group of guys that would never have probably otherwise come together came together as such a tight-knit group and accomplished what we accomplished,” said defensive tackle Steve Emtman. “We were a group of guys that were from all over and connected and had a common goal.”
It was a season born out of the disappointments James suffered during a mid-to-late ’80s slump. The Huskies didn’t win more than eight games in any year from 1985-89 — considered abject failure at the time.
James had rewritten his playbook, installing schemes on each side of the ball that were considered revolutionary.
“Don was one of the listed hot-seat guys in the preseason magazines my first two years there,” said Cunningham, who arrived in 1987.
In fact, James famously turned down a scheduled raise after the 1988 season when the Huskies went 6-5 and weren’t invited to a bowl game for the first time since 1978.
Huskies legend has it that around that point, James began to recruit for speed.
James says now he always emphasized speed in recruiting but the Huskies had just been unable to find enough of it for a few years.
“We either did a poor job of evaluating or something, but we got some guys that were supposed to be linebackers, 4.6, 4.7 (40 times), that came in and were 4.9, and those guys get you beat in a good league,” James recalled recently. “And so I just got a little more strict with the coaches getting exact times, and tried to get guys in summer camps where you can time them legally and get true track times, and we did more research on vertical jump. Through our research and the NFL stuff, we found out if you can’t jump, you can’t run. And you could go to a high school and find a running back and put your hand up there and measure it and jump, takes you 10 seconds.”
Gradually, the new strategy paid off and the Huskies began to get a little quicker.
The trick then became how best to use the new speed.
James had rebuilt the Huskies in the late ’70s and early ’80s with a conservative attack based on running, special teams and defense.
The 13-3 win over the Marcus Allen-led USC team that helped clinch a Rose Bowl berth in 1981 — the Huskies scoring every point on special teams — might stand as the defining moment of that era.
But as the years changed, so did football philosophy, and what had worked so well during the early ’80s wasn’t working quite as well as the ’90s approached.
James recognized that, exhibiting what Cunningham says was one of his coach’s most underrated strengths — the ability to adapt.
“I give coach James credit that he realized that we just need to make an entire change in philosophy on offense and defense,” Cunningham said. “For a guy who was seen as stiff and kind of upper Midwest and plays his cards close to his chest and all of that stuff, it was a pretty deft move.”
The 1988 Huskies lost to Dennis Erickson’s Washington State team that used a one-back passing attack that was groundbreaking at the time. It helped reinforce to James the idea of incorporating that scheme into his attack.
Keith Gilbertson, then the head coach at Idaho, was an Erickson protégé and was also running the one-back spread offense. James decided to hire Gilbertson to implement it at UW.
“Gary Pinkel (now the coach at Missouri) was the (offensive) coordinator and said, ‘If you’ve got to give him the coordinator’s job to get him, then give it to him,’ ” James said. “And that’s kind of the way the staff was, it was just a bunch of good guys that wanted to do what was better.”
The defense, meanwhile, continued to be in the hands of longtime coordinator Jim Lambright, who, like James, realized changes needed to be made after a 32-24 loss at home to Arizona State.
The decision was to go with an eight-man front to get more pressure on the quarterback, though it would only work if the cornerbacks could cover man-to-man.
“We had gotten to a place where our secondary was better and we just had such great speed at our defensive ends and outside linebackers and then with Steve Emtman (in the middle),” James said.
Cunningham recalls a day in practice when he realized, “I can’t block this.”
Says Emtman, making an analogy that might not please all UW fans: “The defense at that time was something like Oregon’s offense is now. The reason that Oregon was successful on offense last year is the same reason we were successful on defense, because people went into the game terrified at the prospect of something that was new.”
Of course, neither scheme would have worked as well without the proper players who, as Emtman recalled, came from everywhere.
Cunningham, like speed-rushing end Donald Jones, was from Virginia. Credit UW’s coaches for being willing to branch out. Credit also that Cunningham’s high-school sweetheart, who was a year older, had decided to attend Washington.
There were also six players from Oregon, which James says would be “hard to do now because of (the success of) Oregon and Oregon State.”
Mostly, though, they were from the core recruiting territories of Washington and California. Receiver Mario Bailey, from Seattle, and Emtman, from Cheney, were the Pac-10 offensive and defensive players of the year.
It all began to come together in 1990 as the Huskies went 10-2 and beat Iowa in the Rose Bowl.
The members of the 1991 Huskies, however, mostly remember 1990 for the disappointment of a late-season loss to UCLA that might have cost them a shot at the national title.
That defeat never strayed far from the minds of the 1991 team.
“We kind of made a team commitment on the flight back from the previous Rose Bowl that we weren’t going to lose — we were going to do whatever it took at that point,” said Emtman. “There was kind of that commitment from everybody to not let things slip from that goal.”
It might be easy to forget now, though, that there was a lot of worry heading into the season about the quarterback spot after returning starter Mark Brunell suffered a knee injury during spring practice. That thrust little-used sophomore Billy Joe Hobert into the starting role.
“The biggest dilemma was the Mark Brunell injury, and now we were going into a season that opened up at Stanford and at Nebraska with a rookie quarterback, and that’s just hard to do,” James said.
But, as James says, “He had a good supporting cast.”
The Huskies relied on that early, then watched as Hobert flung a touchdown pass to Bailey late in the first half of the opener against Stanford “that literally went end-over-end” to put UW ahead 21-7. It was about that point, Cunningham says, that the Huskies realized “we were way better than them.”
And, it turned out, just about everyone else.
The Huskies outscored conference foes an astounding 321-77, and had just one game in which the opponent finished as close as a touchdown — a 24-17 win in Berkeley against a California team that finished 10-2.
Besides that game and a second-half comeback at Nebraska, the Huskies were never really challenged, winning six times by 35 points or more.
It all ended with a dominant 34-14 win over Michigan in the Rose Bowl that clinched a share of the national title for the Huskies along with Miami, which also went 12-0.
Cunningham graduated after that season, Emtman left early for the NFL, and things got a little messy in 1992.
But for one season 20 years ago, the Huskies stood as tall as any team in college football, casting a shadow over the program that remains.
“Obviously we had some pretty good talent and some great coaches, but it was just how everyone worked together the way they did,” Emtman said. “I’ve never seen that anywhere else in athletics, I don’t think.”
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or email@example.com
|1991 Huskies in the NFL|
|The 1991 Huskies roster featured 25 players (including redshirts) who were selected in the NFL draft.|
|DT Steve Emtman||Colts||1st (1)|
|CB Dana Hall||49ers||1st (18)|
|C Ed Cunningham||Cardinals||3rd|
|TE Aaron Pierce||Giants||3rd|
|OT Siupeli Malamala||Jets||3rd|
|WR Orlando McKay||Packers||5th|
|WR Mario Bailey||Oilers||6th|
|LB Donald Jones||Saints||9th|
|G Kris Rongen||Seahawks||11th|
|LB Brett Collins||Packers||12th|
|LB Chico Fraley||Seahawks||12th|
|OT Lincoln Kennedy||Falcons||1st (9)|
|QB Billy Joe Hobert||Raiders||3rd|
|LB Jaime Fields||Chiefs||4th|
|QB Mark Brunell||Packers||5th|
|LB Dave Hoffmann||Bears||6th|
|FB Darius Turner||Kan. City||6th|
|OT Pete Pierson||Bucs||5th|
|RB Napo. Kaufman||Raiders||1st (17)|
|TE Mark Bruener||Steelers||1st (27)|
|WR Eric Bjornson||Cowboys||4th|
|C Frank Garcia||Panthers||4th|
|OT Andrew Peterson||Panthers||5th|
|TE Ernie Conwell||Rams||2nd|
|RB Leon Neal||Bills||6|