Thirty years ago, the Huskies played a bowl game that was monumental and maddening, a peak moment for their legendary coach intertwined with a slight that still burns.
Factor in a two-week buildup in Miami, replete with a near-brawl in a disco on a cruise ship. Consider the stakes: the winner believed it would rightfully earn what then was still a mythical national championship. Toss in a back-and-forth game, featuring one of the most bizarre penalties in college football history — does the phrase “unhorsemanlike conduct” still ring a bell? — and you’ve got a seminal moment in Washington football history.
Some might even say “the” seminal moment.
Undeniably, the Huskies are still trying to regain the prestige and panache they carried in those days under Don James, who seven years later would finally earn the national title that the 1984 team, to this day, believes should have been theirs, too.
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“The ’91 team, based on how they beat everybody, you have to say they’re the best team in Husky history,’’ linebacker Joe Kelly said Wednesday. “But that ’84 team — we’d line up against anyone, on any alley, any field. We had some players, man.”
As this year’s version of the Huskies prepare for the Cactus Bowl in Tempe on Friday, let’s travel back in time to New Year’s Day 1985 for the Orange Bowl matchup between Barry Switzer’s swaggering Oklahoma Sooners and James’ “Purple Reign” Huskies.
Spoiler alert: the Huskies won, 28-17, to wrap up an 11-1 season, marred only by a loss to USC. Junior Hugh Millen replaced starting quarterback Paul Sicuro in the fourth quarter and engineered a 74-yard scoring drive that put the Huskies ahead to stay. The capper was a 12-yard touchdown strike from Millen to his old Roosevelt High School teammate, Mark Pattison — who had dropped a key pass against USC.
That’s the shorthand version of a game with a lifetime’s worth of twists and subplots.
“It’s funny — in Seahawks terminology, the 12th Man loved that game as much as I did,’’ said center Dan Eernissee, now Economic Development Program Manager for the city of Shoreline. “Friends of my parents in their 80s tell me even in the past several years, sometimes, when they’re depressed, they find an old VHS of the Orange Bowl game.”
Those who do will see an Oklahoma team ranked No. 2 in the nation — the Huskies came in No. 4 — get totally flummoxed by the blocking scheme devised by James and offensive line coach Dan Dorazio to neutralize the Sooners’ All-American defensive tackle, Tony Casillas. The trap plays, called via audibles based on where Casillas lined up, not only took the future NFL star largely out of the game but allowed the Huskies to deal with Oklahoma’s brash and talented freshman linebacker, Brian Bosworth.
“Bosworth was an absolute non-factor,’’ said Pattison, now living in Southern California.
“In our mind, Bosworth wouldn’t have started on our team,’’ added Kelly.
The Sooners came into the game allowing an average of 68 rushing yards per game. En route to the game’s MVP award, Husky running back Jacque Robinson gained 76 yards in the first half alone, and 135 in the game.
Eernissee recalls one of Oklahoma’s defensive players telling him in the third quarter, “Man, your coach is awesome. That thing you’re doing with the tight end, we have no idea how to respond to that.”
The Huskies were a team built around a stellar defense, dotted with future NFL players (as was, in fact, the offense, described by Seattle Times columnist Blaine Newnham that week as “sluggish, sometimes horrible.”).
Though the Huskies actually led the Pac-10 in scoring at 29.3 points per game, the game plans of James and first-year offensive coordinator Gary Pinkel were conservative. Millen recalls that they didn’t run a single play all year with more than two receivers in the game at the same time.
“It was just a pro-style offense,’’ Pattison said. “We’d run twice up the middle, then throw it for 5 yards to the tight end.”
“The defense was so good, our job was to not turn it over and not do anything stupid and score when they gave us the ball at the 5,’’ Eernissee added. “That was about it.”
The Huskies went ahead 14-0 in the first quarter, but Oklahoma rallied to tie the score at 14 as Washington’s offense stalled. Millen, who had started the first eight games of the season before being benched at halftime after a poor first half against Arizona, replaced Sicuro — now a doctor in Seattle — to start the fourth quarter.
It was about that time the game’s most memorable play happened. With just over 14 minutes to play, Oklahoma lined up for a 22-yard field goal to take the lead. The kick by Tim Lashar went through the uprights, but the Sooners were flagged for illegal procedure, setting off a bizarre turn of events.
The drivers of the Sooner Schooner, a covered wagon pulled by white horses that races onto the field to celebrate Oklahoma scores, didn’t realize the kick didn’t count. They galloped onto the field, and when the wagon wheels got stuck in a muddy patch, couldn’t exit fast enough to avoid a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct.
“I remember the wagon came literally right past me,’’ Kelly said. “I took a swipe at it with my foot, in a joking manner.”
Pushed back 20 yards by the two penalties, the now 42-yard attempt was blocked by Huskies safety Tim Peoples. In the game’s lore, that play has been deemed the turning point, but many of the Huskies believe that’s overstated.
“They were going to be forced to re-kick it anyway (because of the procedure penalty),’’ Millen pointed out. “A lot of people think the Schooner took points off the board. They took their own points off the board.”
“In the flow of the game, it seemed kind of minor,’’ Eernissee said.
Oklahoma actually went ahead 17-14 with 8:45 left when Lashar hit a 35-yard field goal. That’s when Millen, who had battled nerves on his first series, a three-and-out, led the go-ahead drive.
“After the first series, I remember taking a walk and standing alone,’’ Millen said. “I just envisioned a big wall around the field itself. You’re thinking about everyone you know on planet Earth is watching the game. I built a metaphorical curtain around the sidelines and pretended we were just scrimmaging. I went into the mindset that it was just us against Oklahoma.”
The key passes on the winning drive were a 29-yard strike to Danny Greene on third-and-nine, and the fade to Pattison in the back of the end zone — “a play we’d probably practiced a thousand times,” Pattison said.
Millen noted that on a fade route, the quarterback invariably decides who to throw to in the moments just prior to the snap. But that time, “for probably the only time in my career, I said hut and the ball was snapped and I still hadn’t determined which side I was going to go.”
Millen chose Pattison over Greene, but not because he was his childhood buddy, he insisted.
“The last fleeting thought that went through my mind, after I pulled in the ball, was I thought Mark would compete for the ball more,’’ he said. “Danny was a great receiver, too, but Mark was going to compete for that ball like it had a million-dollar bill stapled to it. He did exactly what I thought he’d do. He laid out, and didn’t hesitate to do it.”
The Huskies added an insurance score on a Rick Fenney run after Kelly’s interception gave them the ball at the 2. It was a sweet victory for a Husky team that felt disrespected in the two-week buildup to the Orange Bowl.
“Before the game, people treated us like we were some kind of strange creatures from the great North country. Like we still hunt with bow and arrows,’’ Pattison told Newnham afterward.
Pattison said now, “I think they were shocked about what we were able to do, because they totally underestimated what we were all about.
“We did a lot of joint events between both teams. Switzer had a lot of swagger. That team had a lot of swagger. It was all about them, especially with Bosworth being such a self-promoter. Don James was the complete opposite. At the end of the day, we had our own couple of Bosworths on our team.”
One of those joint events was a cruise on Biscayne Bay in which some players were fueled by what was euphemistically called an “Orange Bowl special” offered up by the hospitality crew.
Said Pattision, “It was essentially electric ice tea. Some guys went too deep, and the cruise got a little out of hand. Let’s leave it at that.”
Added Kelly, “I don’t know why they’d put two opposing teams on the same boat in the ocean. … There was a little scuffle. The words they said added more fuel to the game.”
Millen recalled, “It got pretty chirpy in the disco (on the boat). At some point, it seemed like we were a hair away from getting into a brawl. Ron Holmes exerted his leadership; he was a captain and arguably the best player in the game. He grabbed a microphone and settled things down.”
The Huskies were also fueled by stories speculating that Oklahoma (which had a loss and a tie going into the Orange Bowl) would be voted No. 1 if they beat UW. There was no such buzz about the Huskies, who nevertheless felt they had earned the top spot with the win.
“It was no doubt in our mind we were going to be national champions,’’ Kelly said. “Oklahoma was going to be No. 1, and we destroyed them.”
But when the polls came out the next morning, undefeated Brigham Young was voted national champion in both The Associated Press and UPI (coaches) polls, despite its inferior schedule. The Huskies finished second in both polls.
Washington had turned down a chance to play BYU in the Holiday Bowl, opting for the more lucrative Orange, which at the time was a high-prestige bowl. To say the vote still rankles is an understatement.
“It goes beyond disappointment,’’ Kelly said. “For them to put BYU at No. 1, 30 years later that still stings. It hurts. It does.”
Said Millen, “The frustration for me, obviously national champion is something you can take with you for the rest of your life. It was a generation too soon. Now we’d be playing in the final four and settle it on the field, the way it should be.”
In the end, however, the satisfaction of producing one of the great Husky victories to cap a historic season trumps the pain of the polls. As the players from the 1984 Washington squad hit their 50s, the kinship of that team is stronger than ever.
“In retrospect as a grown-up, I just think it’s silly to feel sad about any of that,’’ Eernissee said. “My primary emotion is a huge sense of satisfaction. It’s just one of those few times in life when everything comes together.”