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Flying under the radar
Richard Linde, March 5, 2007

In the foreseeable future is there an historical pattern that would indicate Washington is about to return to its once prominent position as a dominant player in college football?

The Washington football program peeked in 1991, when it shared the national championship with the Miami Hurricanes, and since then has deteriorated, except for a win in the 2001 Rose Bowl. Since 1997, Washington has posted a 53-54 record, including the 2000 season when it went 11-1-0.

Over the years, the Huskies have always been at a disadvantage when competing with the California schools for athletes. A few quality players like Hugh McElhenny, Don Heinrich, Marques Tuiasosopo, and Sonny Sixkiller came along and made a positive impact on the program. They were difference makers, when all else was equal. 

Other than these exceptional athletes, NCAA rules changes, more than any other factor, have either helped or hurt the Huskies over the years when competing with the California schools.

For example, Jim Owensí early years were aided by one-platoon football; whereas, unlimited substitution in the early sixties had a negative effect on his career, as did the racial unrest of the late sixties. Scholarship limitations helped Don James temporarily end what seemed to be the the total domination of UCLA and USC. James was concerned about the addition of the Arizona schools to the conference in 1978, but he managed to survive them.

Further reductions in scholarships gave the three other Northwest schools a boost in the early nineties, ending the Huskiesí previous advantage. 

Table 1. NCAA Rules' changes and their correlation with Washington football records
Period NCAA Era Coaches Record Pct.
1945-'51 Two Platoon Welch, Odell, Root (&) 30-35-2 .46
1952-'64 One Platoon Cherberg, Royal, Owens 72-54-2 .57
1965-'72 Unlimited substitution; no limits on scholarships Owens 39-38-0 .51
1973-'77 105 scholarships Owens, James 28-28-0 .50
1978-'91 95 scholarships (#)  James 128-41-2 .76
1992-'02 Mostly 85 scholarships (*) James, Lambright, Neuheisel 85-43-1 .66
2003-'06 NCAA investigation, lawsuit & Notre Dame's firing of TW Gilbertson, Willingham 14-32 .30

(*) 1992=92; 1993=88; 1994-2007=85 scholarships.

(&) Due to the illness of Howie Odell, Reggie Root (an assistant coach) took over as head coach in 1948 and coached one year. 

(#) For a period of time, the Pac-10 limited the scholarships to 90.

Except for the last four years, there is a strong correlation between Washington's won/lost record and the NCAA scholarship and substitution rules in effect. These rules provisions either mitigated or worsened the effects of the population advantage that California schools enjoyed at UW's expense.   

Needless to say, Don James and Jim Owens, both outstanding coaches, took advantage of the NCAA rules benefiting the Huskies and brought UW to prominence with their aid.

Being on probation for NCAA Bylaw violations has hurt the Huskies, as well. The major violations occurred in the mid-fifties and early nineties.  The 2003 imbroglio, involving former coach Rick Neuheisel, enervated the program and is the main reason for the Huskies' 14-32 record of the past four years.

In the foreseeable future, Washington will be at a disadvantage when competing with the Arizona and California schools for top quality players. Competition among the four northwest schools for better athletes has never been more zealous.

Is there any hope for the Huskies?

Upgrading the facilities could give recruiting a boost.

A top-notch head coach could make a significant difference -- like Jeff Tedford did at Cal. Iím not sure about Jim Mora Jr., though, not at this time. In the past, Mora expressed interest in the Washington job on a local radio station.

Although Head coach Tyrone Willingham (7-16) doesnít seem to be the answer to restoring the Huskiesí football fortunes in the minds of many people, we all need to wait and see. He is running a clean program and is keeping the NCAA infractions people at bay. He has control of the local media, which, for the most part in the past, has been hostile to having a big-time college football milieu in the Seattle area. 

The Seattle media which used to wag the dawg (pun on the movie) are in the unfamiliar position of being wagged. Thatís significant and a huge plus for the Willingham persona, his football program and, concomitantly, the publicís view of his program. 

With the hiring of Willingham, the University of Washington chose the conservative path leading back to renewed success on the gridiron. After all, Notre Dame had just fired him, and he was an enigma since the reasons for firing him were never made clear.

Considering the scandal rocked program in 2003, the super-clean Willingham was the correct choice for the head coaching job, even though the program was facing long odds because of its inherent and worsening recruiting liability. (*)

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(*) In 2003, the athletics program at Washington was beset by an NCAA gambling investigation, its basketball violations and the "Dr. Feel Good" scandal that rocked the women's softball team. Because of its prominence, the football program took the heat for all three scandals in the collective mind of the public. One Seattle columnist managed to lump the medical school's problems in with the whole kit and caboodle involving athletics. The public's perception of the UW athletics program is still under repair.

Hiring a Jeff Tedford or an Urban Meyer at that time of either Keith Gilbertson's (July, 2003) or Willingham's hire (December, 2004) would have been lamentable. Washington would have been better off hiring a coach from the netherworld, vis-ŗ-vis its most vocal critics, because of the money required to bring in a high-profile coach. You don't replace a $1.4 million coach (Neuheisel) with a $3 million coach at a troubled public university, which is bearing close scrutiny from the media and which is facing potential lawsuit settlements on the behalf of two former coaches. Not back then and certainly not now.

Washington had -- and still has -- no other choice than to fly under the radar with the scrupulous, low-key Willingham.

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Answers to some pertinent questions posed by anonymous Internet posters:

Has the Washington football program capitulated to the whims of the upper campus?

Answer: Yes, in a way, it has. But that's okay. I firmly believe that school president Mark Emmert and athletic director Todd Turner are committed to restoring Washington to its former status as a big-time player in college football.

Is there any hope for restoring the football program to its former status?

Answer: Of course there is. Somewhere down the line the time will be right to bring in a coach with a proven record if need be, not to say that Willingham can't be the answer. Making improvements to Husky Stadium will be huge.

It's up to the fans to support the Huskies in the interim years and to support the university with their financial contributions. Anonymously grumbling and complaining about the football program over the Internet will only make matters worse.

Malamute can be reached at malamute@4malamute.com

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