Getting back to basics

Last season there was an empty void residing within the essence of the Washington team. It was a combination of a lack of intensity, focus, confidence and understanding of history. Coming out of the locker room to start the game against Arizona, the entire Husky team trudged out of the tunnel and took their collective place upon the north sideline.

There was virtually no exuberance, clapping, fist pumping, head butting or even a thread of evidence that they were excited to play at all. You would have thought they were at a nondescript practice.

It had been happening all season long. In fact, it had been happening for a handful of seasons, and it was truly alarming.

It is a tremendous honor to play football for the University of Washington. Life is short and the college careers of these young players will whisk by before they realize it. There are only a limited number of games to experience first hand. In a seeming instant, it's their name that is being introduced by the head coach through the PA system, as they run down that tunnel for one last time on Senior Day.

Countless former Huskies have commented down through the years of the deeply rewarding experience of running out of that tunnel. Yet, in the past few years we have seen an ebb tide of enthusiasm from the Husky players as they enter into Husky Stadium. Emerging from the tunnel and trudging onto the turf, they have often looked downright disinterested... Before games! Also of note, we have also seen late-arriving and lethargic crowds to greet them.

One of the many things that excite people about the beginning of the Gilbertson Era is the fact that Gilby is cut from the Husky cloth. He is intimately familiar with the Washington tradition and the way that we do things here. By and large our community has blue-collar roots (Tyee notwithstanding). For the past 95 years there is a long-standing tradition of the Huskies outworking their opponents and being mentally tougher.

As Jim Lambright said recently, "There is a toughness that is associated with Husky football. It tends to be a thing that, unless you're a part of it, you don't truly know what it means. A USC, a UCLA, a Stanford, doesn't know what it means."

A prominent former Husky player said recently, "Don James always told us everything was mind over matter. If we didn't mind, then it didn't matter. We were taught to be tough. It was what it meant to be a Husky. I grew up in a warm climate, and it would sometimes get so cold at practice, but the only way we got to head for the tunnel was we saw lightening. So just to show how it didn't bother me, I would wear a half-shirt, and I would toughen myself up."

Photo courtesy UW Media Relations

Which brings us to the Husky tunnel. It is one of the most famous in college football. It is symbolic of who the Huskies are. It represents the great Washington tradition established by past generations.

There is mythological significance to the Husky tunnel. Walking down it in past years, you're surrounded by walls, and shrouded in semi-darkness. On game day it is a Jonah in the Belly of the Whale type of adventure.

In past years, on game day the Husky players would wait for the other team to enter forth into tunnel first, then would follow. In this type of mythological adventure, the Huskies would leave the light of the locker room and move into the darkness, making their way toward the threshold, and the bright light at the distant mouth of the tunnel.

The dark Husky tunnel was a personification of all that is in the unconscious, like the mystery of murky water. There would be great electricity in the air and among the teammates. Following the other team down the long tunnel, the Husky players would chant out their infamous "Say Who" or do their Mad Dawg Bark. Former Husky players have said that the intimidation felt by the visiting teams was palpable in the air. For opposing teams entering the stadium, the specter of the Husky fans awaited them up ahead, yet behind them were the angry, wild chants of the tough Husky football team.

Approaching the end of the tunnel, the path sloped downward, suddenly then jutting upward as they would gather at the mouth. The waves of crowd noise were thunderous and shook walls and ground, and the sights of outstretched arms framing the mouth of the tunnel.

At the first sight of the conglomeration of gold Husky helmets, the crowd would get whipped into a deeper frenzy. The band would be stomping and blasting their instruments. The roar through the stadium would start to build… Then with the exclamation of a dam bursting, the Husky players would explode out of the tunnel and onto the field. A former player explained it as feeling like he was "being shot out of a cannon".

The Huskies would all charge forth and take their place along the sideline, jumping up and down in a moving nebula of humanity, as if truly they were a wild pack of Dawgs. This in turn would further feed the crowd's excitement and bloodlust. Meanwhile, the visiting team was along the opposite sideline, looking over with a collective gulp and knowing that they were in for a battle this Saturday afternoon.

That Husky tunnel has existed since 1921. The echoes of countless, legendary Huskies still linger if you get a chance to walk down it, relax your imagination and breath in the history. George Wilson and Elmer Tesreau ran down that tunnel in 1922 when the Huskies stunned favored USC 22-0. Hugh McElhenny and Don Heinrich came down that tunnel in 1950 to beat favored Minnesota 28-13. Jim Owens was carried off the field by his Purple Gang and then charged up the tunnel in 1959 when Washington beat the Cougars 20-0 to clinch the Rose Bowl berth. It was a crestfallen Doug Martin and his fellow Huskies trudging back to the locker room through the tunnel in 1978, when they lost a heartbreaker to Alabama and Bear Bryant 20-17. It was a sky-high Husky squad starring Greg Lewis that exploded from of the tunnel to beat USC 31-0 in 1990. It was the tunnel that saw the deliriously happy ‘91 Huskies entering toward the locker room, after destroying Wazzu 56-21 and earning a birth into the Rose Bowl. It was a tunnel that saw Napoleon Kaufman introduced for the final time in 1994, in a meaningless game against California. And it was a tunnel that saw a stunned Ken Dorsey and his demoralized Miami teammates leave the field in the wake of 34-29 upset by the Huskies in 2000.

Over the years, the tunnel has ushered so many great athletes to and from the field at Husky Stadium. It has witnessed so many exciting games and has been a part of so much tradition. Keith Gilbertson understands this aspect, and the importance of conveying it to the players.

A rejuvenation of its proud history may be occurring in the near future.
Derek Johnson is a freelance writer as well a columnist for He can be reached at and can be read weekly at and monthly in Sports Washington magazine. Top Stories