It was a football season that dawned with immense promise for the three major teams in the state of Washington.
The Seahawks had won 12 games and a division title in 2020, and seemed to have worked through the discontent of quarterback Russell Wilson that flared up after the Super Bowl and lingered through the spring. With a defense that had found its footing in the second half of last season, Seattle’s goal was to get beyond the first-round playoff ousters of its recent past.
The Washington Huskies had similar lofty expectations, boldly stated by their second-year coach, Jimmy Lake. They aimed to compete for the Pac-12 title and be a force nationally. And judging by all the talent that had been amassed on Montlake, and a No. 20 ranking in the preseason AP poll, it did not seem unrealistic.
Meanwhile, there were some dark clouds forming across the state in Pullman, where Nick Rolovich, another second-year coach, was refusing to take the COVID-19 vaccine, leading to considerable divisiveness among Washington State’s fan base and across the college football landscape. Yet it seemed unthinkable that Rolovich would compromise not only his ascending coaching career, but a promising Cougars season, by continuing to defy Gov. Jay Inslee’s mandate.
Several months later, it’s hard to wrap one’s brain around the discord, dysfunction and dismay that the 2021 season has wrought for those teams. It’s not the worst football season in this century — it would take far more misery than this to unseat 2008 — but it has been tumultuous in a fashion that would have been hard to fathom during the hopeful summer lead-up.
The Seahawks have been in the midst of the golden era in franchise history — nine consecutive winning seasons, with double-digit victories and playoff appearances in eight of them. But it’s suddenly possible to see the end of that reign in sight. The Seahawks stand 3-6 and are coming off their first shutout in a decade. If they lose Sunday to the division-leading Cardinals, their playoff hopes would plummet to six percent.
Even if they win, the playoffs are a remote possibility. With Wilson’s future in Seattle still a question, and coach Pete Carroll falling under ever-increasing scrutiny as he hits his 70s, it’s fair to wonder if the glory years are waning. Or over.
The Huskies’ precipitous fall in 2021 has been truly stunning. The good feeling that prevailed in the preseason was completely punctured in a shocking season-opening loss to Montana, and they have spent the rest of the season futilely trying to get it back.
But beyond the poor record — UW stands 4-6 entering Saturday’s game with Colorado, meaning the Huskies have to win their final two games just to be bowl eligible — has been Lake’s fall from grace. His disastrous choice as offensive coordinator, John Donovan, was fired the day after a hideous loss to Oregon. The next week, Lake himself was fired in the wake of a sideline incident in which he pushed a Husky player.
Lake had been expected to elevate the highly successful results of his predecessor, Chris Petersen, who had presided over the most prosperous stretch of football at UW since the heyday of Don James. Instead, the program is in tatters as athletic director Jen Cohen begins the search for a new coach.
The Cougars, 5-5, have actually acquitted themselves comparatively well on the field, and need only a victory over woeful Arizona on Friday to become bowl eligible. The Huskies’ seven-game winning streak in the Apple Cup has never felt more endangered. But it will be impossible to reflect on WSU’s 2021 season without centering on the ugly showdown between Rolovich and Cougar administration that resulted in his firing Oct. 18 — seven games into the season, with the Cougars riding a three-game winning streak — over his continued refusal to take the vaccine.
Washington State is 1-2 under interim coach Jake Dickert, coming off a 38-24 loss to Oregon. The Cougars season could still have a happy ending — as could, for that matter, those of the Seahawks and Huskies.
But it hasn’t trended well. The lesson, I suppose, is to appreciate the good times when they’re happening, because there are no guarantees they will last. And on the brighter side, remember that these things are cyclical, and the downside doesn’t last forever, either.
That lesson was driven home in 2008, which as I mentioned was a miserable year for those three teams. The Huskies suffered through an 0-12 season under Tyrone Willingham, who was fired after a 33-7 loss to Notre Dame in Week 7 — but was allowed to finish the season. That went as well as you’d expect.
The Cougars were barely better at 2-11, their lone wins coming over Portland State and, obviously, Washington in what was dubbed the “Crapple Cup.” The Cougars prevailed 16-13 in overtime.
The Seahawks, coming off four consecutive division titles, stumbled to a 4-12 record in Mike Holmgren’s final season. That designation came before the season, with Jim Mora Jr. proclaimed the coach in waiting. It was an exceedingly awkward setup that cast a pall over the entire season.
The misery wasn’t limited to football, either. The Sonics went 20-62 in 2007-08, then bolted for Oklahoma City to cause a hurt that hasn’t healed all these years later. And the Mariners established dubious milestone by becoming the first MLB team to lose 100 games with a $100 million payroll.
We can only hope we’ll never see such a dreary season again. But look what followed — an eventual renaissance by all three football teams. The return of the NBA has never appeared more realistic. And even the Mariners, with a 20-year postseason drought, are thinking playoffs after a 90-win season.
It’s understandable to wallow in the sorrow of these downtrodden football teams. But at least remember this: It could be, and has been, worse.