As the Huskies embark on Sarkisian's second season, it is generally expected by college football experts that this will be the year UW returns to the winning ways that were its hallmark for much of the 1970s, '80s and '90s.
Since arriving as the latest savior of Washington football in December 2008, Steve Sarkisian has promised often that the turnaround is close at hand.
“It’s not going to take us very long,” he has said on numerous occasions.
And he’s not alone in his optimism. As the Huskies embark on Sarkisian’s second season, it is generally expected by college football experts that this will be the year UW returns to the winning ways that were its hallmark for much of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s.
The Huskies have an experienced offense led by Heisman Trophy candidate Jake Locker, a young but improving defense and a roster seemingly brimming with more talent than it has had in years. It looks like the Huskies might be the closest of any of Seattle’s forlorn teams to righting the ship.
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Sarkisian, though, will have to excuse Washington fans if they feel as if the turnaround has taken forever.
Many of them, in fact, still are struggling to comprehend what has happened to their program. Of all the collapses of Seattle-area sports teams, the one endured by the Huskies might be the most perplexing.
A team that had 21 straight winning seasons from 1977 to 1997, no losing seasons from 1976 to 2004, and has played the second-most Rose Bowls of any Pac-10 team, has pretty much fallen off the edge of the world this decade.
After playing in 22 bowl games from 1978 through 2002, UW hasn’t been in one since, the longest active drought in the Pac-10 and the third-longest among all BCS teams, topped only by Duke and Baylor — neither exactly a traditionally strong football school.
“It is a bizarre thing,” said UW athletic director Scott Woodward, who arrived at the school in a nonathletic department capacity in 2004 (becoming AD in 2008) expecting the Huskies to continue that success. Instead, Woodward (and all UW fans) have helplessly watched six straight losing seasons, with a combined record of 17-54.
Woodward said making it more bizarre is that he still can’t quite figure out what happened.
“I still don’t understand, in my mind, what caused the downturn, because this is such a special place,” he said.
The fall of UW football is often distilled into one easy-to-decipher sentence: Coach Rick Neuheisel was fired for gambling in 2003, and everything went to heck from there.
But the collapse of a program as proud as was UW’s can’t be so easily defined.
(And never mind that Neuheisel wasn’t really fired for taking part in an NCAA college basketball pool, but for lying about it, which compounded an earlier lie about interviewing with the 49ers — indicative of how all of this is more complicated than usually portrayed.)
Some close to the program argue, in fact, that Neuheisel’s firing merely hastened a fall that was already coming. The Huskies were 8-9 in Neuheisel’s last 17 games, the clothes already appearing to drop off the emperor during a handful of embarrassing losses in 2001 and 2002.
Messy coaching changes, ill-timed quarterback injuries, questionable recruiting decisions, a lack of focus on football from those in charge — all are credited with playing a role in turning the UW program into one that a national football magazine earlier this year called “long-foundering.”
Woodward had worked previously at Louisiana State, which won the 2004 national title, and remembers being taken aback when he attended his first UW practice that fall.
“I looked at the players and the talent and said, ‘My God, this is night and day different from what I was used to seeing at LSU,’ ” he said. “They were physically undersized compared to what I was used to. I was trying to think to myself, ‘Is this because (then LSU coach) Nick Saban had recruited the most extraordinary talent in the country? Or because we were just undersized?’ I think it was more the latter than the former.”
Those generally viewed as most culpable for the fall are former athletic director Barbara Hedges, Neuheisel and Tyrone Willingham.
Some say Hedges left football on cruise control too long in the 1990s while other Pac-10 schools, notably Oregon, ratcheted up facilities and overall commitment to the sport (though others note that USC might have the worst facilities in the Pac-10 and obviously has survived just fine).
Willingham, hired in 2005 to clean up the mess left over from the firing of Neuheisel, never really won over his players or the alumni before he was fired during an 0-12 season in 2008.
Those with longer memories, however, say the downfall might really have begun on Aug. 22, 1993, when legendary coach Don James resigned in protest when the school was levied a two-year bowl ban for a series of NCAA violations. A program that played in six Rose Bowls from 1977 to 1993 has participated in only one since.
James was replaced by longtime assistant Jim Lambright, who not only had to deal with the bowl ban but also the loss of 20 scholarships in his first two recruiting classes — all while trying to establish his legitimacy as the head coach in the eyes of skeptics.
Indicative of how times have changed at UW, Lambright was fired in 1998 following a 6-6 season with a career record of 44-25-1 and a conference winning percentage of 66.0 (31-16-1) that remains 12th best in the history of the Pac-10.
Washington has had plenty of time since to turn the program around, but many will always wonder what would have happened had there not been a forced transition from James to Lambright. Would everything that followed been avoided had James made a more graceful exit, allowing time for UW to prepare better for life after the Dawgfather?
Hedges, seeking to make a splash, hired Neuheisel away from Colorado to replace Lambright in 1999, and a UW culture that had been handed down from Jim Owens to James to Lambright was changed forever.
At the risk of oversimplifying it, UW evolved under Neuheisel from a program built on hard-nosed, physical, old-school football — which seemed to mesh with the seemingly perpetually gray Seattle Octobers and Novembers — to one favoring flash and dash.
Woodward doesn’t name names, but says that in researching what happened to the Huskies in an attempt to figure out how to get them back on top, he has heard often that “previous coaches lost their way in the proper Don James model, where you recruit size and speed, and where you recruit geographically. I think a lot of that has merit.”
Many recall Neuheisel recruiting seven receivers and just three offensive linemen in 2003, for instance.
Neuheisel’s defenders say the philosophical shift made sense given the talent (quarterback Cody Pickett and receiver Reggie Williams), and that his 33-16 record at UW indicates he would have won if he had stayed.
He didn’t, however, and his June 2003 firing set off another messy coaching change to assistant Keith Gilbertson, who spent 15 months at the helm in what was essentially an interim role. That didn’t help him win over players, some of whom continued to feel Neuheisel had been treated unfairly.
Gilbertson was fired after a 1-10 season in 2004.
While UW pursued several coaches to replace Gilbertson, a feeling that the school needed to send a clear message it would clean things up following the bad publicity of the Neuheisel exit (compounded by some non-football-related issues, such as a drug-related scandal in the women’s softball program) eventually led them to Willingham.
Willingham arrived with a mixed coaching record — having just been fired at Notre Dame (six winning seasons and five losing seasons before coming to UW) — but a reputation for being a stern disciplinarian and above reproach off the field.
But yet another 180-degree culture shift left some of the players (most of whom were recruited by Neuheisel) feeling whiplash, and many never really bought in. Nor did many boosters, perplexed by the way Willingham closed off the program to the public.
Any chance Willingham had probably disappeared when Isaiah Stanback, who had led UW to a 4-1 start in 2006, was lost for the season in the seventh game.
Now it’s Sarkisian’s turn, an effort that began promisingly enough last season with a 5-7 record that is the best since the downfall began in 2003.
Woodward, while joining in the optimism about this season, says he remains cautious. “We are a 5-7 football team as we speak,” he said. “We’re not anywhere out of the woods yet.”
And when will they be?
“When we win championships,” Woodward said. “And I’ll still be paranoid then.”
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org