UW football: Fall from glory (and recovery?)

Once Washington replaced Rick Neuheisel with Keith Gilbertson as head coach in 2003, I was only half-right. In these pages back then, I detailed the Huskies' fall from their Pac-10 perch in the decade since the conference placed them on probation and handed down a two-year bowl ban.

The hiring of Gilbertson -- the Don James offensive consigliore turned Cal coaching failure -- indicated a clear lack of direction. I predicted that Pearl Jam, those notoriously low-profile Seattle rockers, had a better chance of appearing on MTV again than did Washington of returning to dominance.

Who could have known what was coming? Only now are the No. 22 Huskies beginning to look like a legitimate program again.

Elsewhere in the Northwest, Boise State's ascent from Division I debut (1996) to BCS bowl champ (2006, 2009) offers hope to the little guys across college football. Washington's total absence from relevancy over the same stretch gives fair warning to the establishment that a leadership void can result in disaster. Last season's 7-6 record broke a string of seven straight losing campaigns.

Seattle hosts a program, buoyed by a huge fan base and years of tradition, which sunk to an 0-12 record in 2008. This period of futility came after reaching bowl berths in 24 of 26 seasons (1977 to 2002), a purple reign that featured seven Rose Bowl trips and culminated with the 1991 co-national title.

According to longtime Seattle Times college football scribe Bud Withers, the bad example started at the top of the school's athletic food chain. Blame for the slide can be placed on four (four!) straight bad coaching hires.

"Barbara Hedges, the athletic director at the start of the fall, wasn't a football-first AD," said Withers, who penned a good chunk of the ESPN College Football Encyclopedia (ESPN Books, 2005). "She upgraded the non-revenue sports facilities, but fell behind (in football)."

James' abrupt resignation after the 1993 probation led to Jim Lambright's promotion. Lambright, a career assistant with little head coaching acumen, preceded Neuheisel, whose recruits filled the roster of the 2004 1-10 team. By then it was abundantly clear that Gilbertson was beyond saving. Yet the replacement brought aboard the next year soon revealed himself to be "a colossal mistake," per Withers.

As one BootBoard poster once said years ago, Tyrone Willingham would have preferred his teams played in the Utah salt flats rather than a packed stadium. Washington fans, on the other hand, demand an active relationship with their team. While going 11-37 in four seasons, the embattled coach consistently operated against those wishes.

"[Stanford has] a fairly tepid fan base that doesn't necessarily need to embrace a coach as they feel they need to here," Withers said. "Willingham didn't work hard at recruiting here, was a PR disaster, a cold fish who closed the doors to practice and didn't realize how that might work against him."

Steve Sarkisian has since won games while embracing his role in the public eye, just as he promised nearly three years ago when he was introduced as head coach.

"I want our practices to be fun and exciting. I want people there. I want students at practice. I want alumni at practice. I want media at practice," Sarkisian said at the time. "We've got 105 kids on this football team, but they're not the only ones making this thing and making this experience what it's going to become."

As for the greatest Husky coach of them all, Don James remains a presence and, naturally, a revered figure in Huskyland. He'll be part of a ceremony honoring the 1991 champs during the Nov. 5 home game against Oregon.

The feelings will surely be mixed among those on hand, who've in the meantime endured the Sonics leaving for Oklahoma City and the officials jobbing the Seahawks out of a Super Bowl against Pittsburgh. Quote Nicholas Cage's character from "The Rock": "Gosh…Kind of a lot's happened since then."

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