Where have you gone, Bill Stapleton?

Just by pulsing the dawgman.com message boards, where nearly every cyber Husky hangs out, there has been a pretty common theme. I've seen intense discussion about the lack of crowd noise and enthusiasm from the players. Theories abound as to the root cause.

Seeing Husky Stadium supplanted by Autzen Stadium as the loudest Pac-10 venue is painful enough. But seeing Husky Stadium resemble a mausoleum is another thing altogether. I am not sure what the ratio is, but there is certainly a correlation between the crowd involvement and the players on the pitch.

Recently I was watching a video of the 1982 Washington-UCLA game. It was the first time I had seen it since actually being there as a kid. In the game's waning minutes, Washington held onto a slim 10-7 lead. The Bruins were marching down the field with Tom Ramsey at QB (with Rick Neuheisel as his backup). Husky Stadium was sold out and there was incredible noise and tension in the stands. With about 1:00 left, UCLA faced a 4th down and 6 yards to go from about the Husky 40 yard line. Ramsey dropped back and threw a beautiful spiral down the middle of the field. For a brief moment, it appeared as if UCLA receiver Jo Jo Townsell had found a seam and was going to catch it for a big gain. You could hear the stadium crowd actually gasp. But as the lanky Bruin was hauling it in, Husky DB Bill Stapleton closed in and laid a devastating wallop that reverberated through Townsell's body. The ball popped loose and bounced harmlessly to the carpet. Townsell slapped the ground in frustration and then buried his face into the turf. The victory was Washington's.

Following that, two things struck me as interesting. Washington's defenders were jumping up and down in incredible exuberance. Bill Stapleton especially, a skilled and tough all Pac-10 defender, was flopping all over the field, almost like he was devoid of any coordination. It was just total, unabashed joy, like a little kid on Christmas with no inhibition. It was the same for all of his Husky teammates. In contrast to the Bruins' graceful, All-American athletes on offense, Washington's defensive players looked like a bunch of rugged lumberjacks from straight out of the woods. It was strange to watch them celebrate, as there was no pretense of playing to the cameras, doffing helmets, signing a football with a Sharpie, or whatever. It was just a different mentality from today's athletes, both college and pro.

The second interesting thing that occurred to me was the major league wallop applied by Stapleton, a Husky defensive back. It was downright bizarre to see a Washington defensive back absolutely blast a wide receiver who dared penetrate downfield, via a middle seam in the defense. It was something we haven't seen once in the past seven years.

With apologies to Anne Bancroft, Paul Simon would've asked, "Where have you gone, Bill Stapleton? Our Husky nation turns it's lonely eyes to you."

After reading the message boards and viewing this old UW-UCLA game, several thoughts occurred to me at once, pertaining to the lack of noise at Husky Stadium.

(1) Newcomers to our region haven't taken to Husky football. There has been a great influx of people who have moved to the Puget Sound area from other parts of the country. It has caused a doubling of our population, and all these people are not bringing with them a love or understanding of Husky football. Any chance they had to become Husky fans seems to have diminished because of the sanctions and mediocre football played the past decade.

(2) Many local kids don't consider the Huskies to be cool. There is a reason that Michigan, Miami and Notre Dame jerseys and hats sell so well around the Seattle area. The Huskies have a logo that resembles something you pay an exterminator to get rid of. If you had one of those living under your house, your kids would be terrified and would be clutching to your side. Speaking for myself, I have tried to force myself to like the logo, but I just haven't been able to embrace it.

There is also something that is creating a chasm between the University and the local fans. I'm not sure yet what it is. The general populace doesn't feel as connected to the University of Washington as it used to. When recently Seattle Mayor Greg Nichols announced his clunky plan to have all Seattleites wear purple on Fridays, it caused barely a ripple in the region's dressing habits. I mean, is purple that unpopular? If star jeans and mood rings were fashionable at one time, why not purple on Fridays?

Furthermore, I remember from when I was a kid, watching the Don James Show on Sunday afternoons, after which I'd play football outside with the neighbors. I'd be Ronnie Holmes and we'd all pretend to be various Huskies.

I cite this example because I don't sense that tons of Puget Sound kids are growing up desperately wanting to be Huskies. As we witnessed from the fans of Ohio State, there is a homogeny that exists in Columbus that doesn't exist here anymore. I can't for the life of me envision 70,000 Husky fans standing up chanting and cheering in unison while the Husky band performs on the field. Sure there are degrees of involvement and passion around Husky Stadium, but it's not even close in scope and size when compared to Ohio State or Michigan. That hurts to write.

(3)"Tailgater" is right in his assertion about the defense and crowd noise. Straight from the Dawgman.com message boards, we all know of the infamous poster known as Tailgater, who is one of my personal favorites. And not just because he gets on Fleenor's nerves, which entertains me to no end (just kidding Bill). I have no idea who this guy is, but in print and on the cyber waves, he comes across as being sort of a "benevolent, loveable curmudgeon." And he is right in what he says about the Husky defense. It is hard to generate a lot of crown noise and momentum on behalf of the team while inferior opponents are dragging the Husky defense up and down the field repeatedly. Who among us doesn't cringe when we have an opponent 3rd and long? As a Husky crowd, we certainly don't consistently smell blood anymore. Hell, I don't even think we smell the band-aid. We just cringe and hold our collective breath with the hopes that the opponent won't convert a 3rd and 12 with a huge 27-yard completion and another deflating first down.

Face it. These are new times in Husky football. There is an underlying concern that we may not have a premier football program. Ideally, the Husky crowd would have a deep love for football, which would show itself regardless of the opponent. But that isn't who we are anymore. Keith Gilbertson needs some time to exact his influence. That doesn't mean he gets much of a honeymoon with fans, especially when considering the way he took over the program. It's not fair, but it's reality. However, I think everyone can agree that some results will be seen by next month, but some not for another year or two.

One thing Gilby must know, and that is that the carriage can't go before the horse. The great Washington defensive tradition must be restored before all else.

That is the one sure-fire solution to filling up that silent void on game day. When the day comes that we reach a defensive critical mass, crowds will be raucous and everything will fall into line. Perhaps someday I'll have a son who will listen to the Keith Gilbertson show with me, before running outside to play football and pretend to be a favorite Husky. Odds seem to be high it will be a Tuiasosopo.

In the meantime, let's at least get rid of that damn weasel logo. Phil Knight is laughing his ass off at that one.
Derek Johnson can be reached at uwsundodger@msn.com

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