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Major mistakes
Malamute, 2 July 2009

Everybody makes mistakes. And the Big Kahunas – the people who have been running the football show at the University of Washington over the last 16 years – have been no different. What circumstances over that period of time have led to the Huskies precipitous fall from grace, that is, to the 0-12 season in 2008, which is part of 6-straight non-winning seasons?

Answer: In my opinion, the litany of head coaches following the resignation of Don James is the primary reason for the collapse of the program. Think Gene Bartow and the coaches who followed the legendary John Wooden at UCLA. It took years again for the Bruins to find that once-familiar road leading to the final four.

The lack of head-coaching continuity at Washington has proved just as disastrous in its own way.

Since Don James resigned in 1993, five different men have coached the Huskies: Jim Lambright (6 years, 43-24-1), Rick Neuheisel (4 years, 33-16), Keith Gilbertson (2 years,  7-16), Tyrone Willingham (4 years, 11-37), and the current coach Steve Sarkisian (0-0).

-- The resignation of Don James

Letting former head coach Don James walk the plank was the biggest mistake of all. It matters little of whom we blame for his departure (members of the Pac-10 conference, former university president William Gerberding, or former athletic director Barbara Hedges), retaining James’ services was critical to the survival of the program. In good health today, at the age of 76, he could still be leading the program.

As a result of the "fruit-basket" scandal (see Tabloid Times), the initial recommendation for penalties asked for one year of probation -- meaning that the team would have been barred from a bowl game only in 1993 -- and two years of forfeited television revenues, but member universities decided on a longer probation and shorter television forfeiture to alleviate the financial burden on Washington.

When Hedges told James about the change to a two-year bowl ban, James told her that he was going to resign, and he did.

-- Not accepting Paul Allen’s offer to refurbish Husky Stadium

In 1996, Seahawks owner Paul Allen was willing to pay for the renovation of Husky Stadium if the university would allow the Seahawks to use it as a venue for their home games -- with the Dawgs on Saturdays and the Seahawks on Sundays both up for viewing. Apparently, former Governor Dan Evans, a Montlake resident, was among the leaders of some nearby neighborhoods to squelch that idea. Ironically, Evans is now leading the charge to refurbish the stadium.

The stadium mess could have been solved years ago if Allen had been given the opportunity to restore the historic facility.

-- The firing of Jim Lambright

After giving Coach Jim Lambright (1993-1998) a public voice of approval, AD Barbara Hedges fired him one month later, presumably for losing to the Air Force in the Oahu Bowl, although she said that loss didn't affect her decision.

As it turned out this was a huge mistake.

However, it may have been player dissatisfaction with uniform changes Lambright made that cost him his job—at least, symbolically—so says Blaine Newnham (The Seattle Times) when he wrote in 1999, “It is preposterous to say Jim Lambright failed because he changed uniforms during his time at Washington, and yet the purple helmet is symbolic of his inability to please either the players or the alumni…He wanted the purple helmet and no one else did. He told the players they would wear white shoes when they wanted to wear black.”

-- Not going to bat for Neuheisel

I believe that the University of Washington should have supported former coach Rick Neuheisel during the gambling investigation by either placing him on probation or on a short suspension until the NCAA and Pac-10 could make a preliminary or final judgment of his case. Instead, he was given a six weeks’ suspension and then fired in July 2003 before the NCAA and Pac-10 had rendered their verdicts.

The final outcome of the NCAA investigation (2004) allowed Neuheisel to continue his college coaching career and supports the notion of his retention by UW, as does the outcome of his successful lawsuit against Washington and the NCAA. His legacy at Washington trumpets the idea as well.

-- Giving Tyrone the extra year

Retaining Tyrone's services runs counterintuitive to the continuity angle in coaching I'm writing about. But there are exceptions to every rule, and this is one.

Really, though, no one knew that Tyrone would inadvertently torpedo his own ship -- albeit, sailing in rough waters (that is, losing Jake Locker in the fourth game of 2008) -- when they gave him further license to lead.

In addition to the clean ship Todd Turner and Willingham skippered, supportive fans hoped to keep the football program from further crumbling under a litany of firings and new coaches. At the conclusion of the 2007 season, which went 4-9, they were willing to give Tyrone one more year.

The result: a 0-12 season and a mediocre 2009 recruiting class that scout.com ranks as 66th in the country.  I was among those people who felt he should be given another year to build his program and, now, looking back at last season, believe his retention was a mistake.

And the errors continue to compound themselves.

-- Scheduling LSU

Why schedule a blockbuster power to start the 2009 season when you’re trying to rebuild the program? Answer: money talks. In the long run, this money-making endeavor could turn out to be a hunt for fool's gold (iron pyrite), where the perception of Sarkisian’s effort to rebuild the program takes a major hit because of a sour won/loss record in 2009. For the Huskies, every win counts and is a rebuilding tool for the future.


Richard Linde can be reached at malamute@4malamute.com

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