The 1991 Husky football team has become more mythic with each passing year.
We’ll never know if they would have defeated fellow unbeaten Miami for an undisputed national title, a hypothetical barnburner of a debate that still rages. But it can be said with little hesitation that it was the best team in Washington history, and coach Don James’ crowning achievement.
Now the ’91 Dawgs have a new book to commemorate, and illuminate, their 12-0 campaign, just in time for its 30th anniversary. It’s titled “Fear No Man: Don James, the ’91 Huskies, and the Seven-Year Quest for a National Football Championship,’’ and published, appropriately, by the University of Washington Press.
The author is a familiar name in Seattle sports circles, only as a talker, not a writer: Mike Gastineau. The “Gas Man” was a fixture on Seattle airwaves for two decades until walking away from his full-time KJR gig in December 2012. Who would have guessed he’d become a prolific and successful author, having penned two previous books?
“I joke with people that there’s all these really talented writers who said, ‘You know what? I can make more money in broadcasting,’ and they’re right,” Gastineau said. “And I’m the one broadcaster who said, ‘You know what? I should quit broadcasting. I can make less money in writing.’ “
Gastineau, however, has learned what every published book author has come to savor: The satisfaction of holding up the finished product and knowing it has heft and longevity.
That feeling hasn’t dissipated through his debut book on the history of the Sounders (“Authentic Masterpiece”), his follow-up titled “Mr. Townsend and the Polish Prince” (the fascinating true story of the first white football coach at a Historically Black College and University, which is in treatment to potentially become a movie), and now the loving tribute to an epic Seattle season.
“I’m so proud of everything I did in radio, but radio disappears at the end of the day,” Gastineau said. “I mean, you can save tapes, I guess, but I’m not sitting around going, ‘Let me listen to this old “Groz with Gas” tape.’ You just don’t that. But a book sits on a shelf, and there’s permanence to it, and there’s legacy.”
Jimmy Lake, the current Husky coach and the latest to try to replicate the massive success of James, recognized the ’91 legacy when he invited Gastineau to speak to the team Tuesday. Lake has been keen on connecting with the history of the program, and none surpasses that of ’91.
Lake’s marching orders to Gastineau were to tell his players why the ’91 team was great, and why it was important.
“And I just loved it,” Gastineau reflected. “It was such a unique experience, standing in a team room and facing 100 players. It was a little intimidating, almost. But they were great. They seemed to enjoy the stuff.”
Gastineau became enthralled with the ’91 team when he moved to Seattle in June of that year, and the Huskies stood out during a lackluster period of Seattle sports. Reflecting three decades later on their dominance, he became convinced there was a book lurking within. Gastineau flushed it out by poring through newspaper archives and talking to about 20 former players and coaches (though not Steve Emtman, the star of stars in 1991; Emtman declined to be interviewed, citing time constraints, but did allow his image to be used on the cover via a famous shot by then-Seattle Times photographer Mark Harrison).
Gastineau talked to more than enough key personnel to forge a compelling account. One emerging theme was how assistant coaches, particularly Keith Gilbertson on offense and Jim Lambright on defense, were vital to James’ success.
Longtime James assistant Dick Baird described the hierarchy aptly. Baird, as lead recruiter, was the “who” guy — he went and got the players for James. Gilbertson and Lambright were the “how” guys, detailing how the Huskies were going to play on both sides of the ball. And James was the “why” guy, mapping out the program’s vision.
Another theme was James’ coaching evolution after the Huskies faltered in the wake of their other hallmark season, 1984. That might have been reflected later in his embrace of quarterback Billy Joe Hobert, described by Gastineau as “a smart-aleck country kid” and “riverboat gambler” but also an intense competitor who oozed confidence.
Hobert was installed as quarterback when incumbent Mark Brunell hurt his knee in spring. James kept him there even when Brunell returned to health early in the season. You’d have thought the conservative James would have recoiled at Hobert’s brashness, but he embraced the quarterback.
“Don saw something in this guy,” Gastineau said. “I think in Don’s mind, he thought: ‘Hey, we’re going good right now. Things are rolling. Brunell was the starter, but now Billy Joe’s the starter, and he pulled off this gutsy comeback in Nebraska. We’re gonna stick with him. He’s the horse. We’re gonna ride.’ ”
One key for Gastineau in pursuing this book was getting the blessing of James’ widow, Carol. She gave it enthusiastically. Another was landing Alabama coach Nick Saban to write the foreword. Saban played for James at Kent State and views him as a beloved mentor.
The title, “Fear No Man,” came from the motto of the Husky defensive backs in 1991, as related to Gastineau in an interview with secondary coach Larry Slade.
Gastineau made the artistic decision to mostly ignore the revelations that would emerge during the ’92 season that several Husky players, including Hobert, had received improper benefits. The Huskies eventually received sanctions from the NCAA and Pac-10 that led to the resignation of James in August 1993, in protest of what he felt were excessive penalties. (James and his staff were never cited for breaking any rules.) The sanctions are mentioned briefly in the introduction.
“I just decided that I wanted this book to stand alone about the team,” Gastineau said. “That information is all out there. You can go find any of that if you want to, but in theory, none of it impacted the ’91 team.”
It’s a team whose legacy lives on in Husky annals. And now it has attained permanence on the printed page.