That streak ended in 1987, a season that held so much promise. It was Washington's first in a Husky Stadium with dueling upper decks and a seating capacity of about 75,000 if the fire marshal wasn't paying attention.
The Huskies had seven of 11 games in their new palace. And Chris Chandler, one of the program's most touted quarterbacks, was a senior possibly embarking on a Heisman campaign.
The conference landscape, however, was as treacherous as ever. Troy Aikman, an Oklahoma transfer, was eligible at UCLA, and rival USC had Rodney Peete, who would win all three of his games against Washington, at QB. Oregon, too, had a quarterback, Bill Musgrave, who gave the Huskies fits.
By mid-October, both Musgrave and Peete had outdueled Chandler, who took a ferocious beating in several games. Washington needed a 34-19 victory over Washington State to avoid a losing conference season.
A year later, the Huskies had a losing record (3-5) in Pac-10 play and would have had a losing season period had they not overcome a 27-3 halftime deficit against Cal (largest comeback in school history) in the second-to-last game. Any resemblance between that 6-5 team and the Huskies of the past two years is purely coincidental. The 1988 club was in every game, losing by one point twice (USC, WSU), three twice (Oregon, Arizona) and seven once (UCLA).
In speeches he gave in later years, James described the 1988-89 offseason as one of three times he feared for his job unless he and his staff could return the team to its always competitive/sometimes dominant ways. (The other two were in 1975, his first season, after a 52-0 shellacking by Alabama, and 1977 after a 1-3 start left his UW career mark at 12-14.) Of course, he couldn't have known that the class he just redshirted, with a couple of exceptions, would prove to be the most decorated in school history.
James made an interesting, and surprising, hire in the offseason. To replace fired offensive line coach Dan Dorazio -- the first and only time he dismissed an assistant at Washington -- James hired Keith Gilbertson, who surprisingly resigned as head coach of Idaho in hopes of landing a position at his dream school. Gilbertson was at the UW more than just to develop road-graders; James wanted to tap into his knowledge of spread, passing-oriented offenses.
The 1989 team also failed to keep hope alive, losing its first two conference games, to Arizona and USC, on the way to a 2-3 start. At that point, the Huskies were just 8-8 since the beginning of 1988. No one would have dared predict they would win 38 of their next 41, which they did on the way to three consecutive conference titles.
Washington won six of its final seven in 1989. After the one loss, to Arizona State, James changed defensive philosophies in mid-stream. The creator of the defense, modeled somewhat after the Chicago Bears' 46 alignment, was longtime defensive coordinator Jim Lambright, who had pleaded with James for a chance to install an aggressive, eight-men-in-the-box defense. The catalyst for the change was ASU QB Paul Justin, who lit up the Huskies for more than 350 passing yards in a 34-32 victory in Husky Stadium.
Armed with a defense that would become all the rage in the Pac-10 in the rest of the 1990s, the Huskies gave up only 30 points in their final three games in 1989, which included a Freedom Bowl victory in Anaheim over Florida and Emmitt Smith, who was held to 17 yards rushing. The next three seasons ended in the more prestigious L.A.-area bowl game.
Then probation, which Husky fans believe followed a witch hunt by a Pac-9 tired of being dominated, extinguished all hope for two years and ended the reign of James, who resigned to protest the second year of bowl sanctions. (The "Dawgfather," who always wanted an assistant to succeed him, undoubtedly timed his departure so that Athletic Director Barbara Hedges and the much-reviled "upper campus" would be forced to anoint Jim Lambright as successor.)
Lambright's first two teams, 1993 and 1994, finished 7-4, losing most of their games late in the year. His next three all brought Rose Bowl hopes into November. Unfortunately, Lambright's attention to detail and ability to fix problem areas in-season were no match for James'.
No team would demonstrate this more than the 1995 Huskies, who went 4-0 on the road in the Pac-10, something James did only three times and hasn't been done since. But Washington turned a 21-0 fourth-quarter lead against USC into a 21-21 tie -- the overtime rule was added the following year -- and three times failed to kick the winning field goal against Oregon in the last six minutes, losing 24-22. A victory in either of those games would have sent the Huskies to Pasadena.
In 1996, an opening-game loss to Arizona State 45-42 was Washington's last Pac-10 defeat, but it meant ASU needed to lose twice for the Huskies to claim the Rose Bowl bid. The Sun Devils were hardly invincible -- they trailed late in a few of their conference wins -- but they were undefeated until a last-minute loss to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl.
Washington was the preseason Pac-10 favorite in 1997, and had a 7-1 record and No. 6 ranking before losing the last three regular-season games, to Oregon (31-28), UCLA (52-28) and Washington State (41-35). The Huskies not only made a mess of their Rose Bowl dreams, they were forced to burn the redshirt year of freshman quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo, who had risen to the top of a depleted and completely inexperienced "bunch" of backups.
The 1998 team (6-6) ended Washington's 21-year streak of winning seasons and Lambright's coaching career.
Rick Neuheisel's first team started 0-2, but then went 6-1 to gain the inside track to the Rose Bowl before heading to the Rose Bowl to play an injury-riddled UCLA. The only things riddled after the game were Washington's hopes to come to Pasadena again, the one and only time Tuiasosopo failed to deliver with the conference title on the line.
The 2000 team took the Pac-10 title after a season of fourth-quarter comebacks (California, Stanford, Arizona), tragedy (Curtis Williams) and help (Oregon State's victory over Oregon).
The 2001 season would have been Tuiasosopo's senior year if he, like every UW starting QB in the last 25 years except Cary Conklin, had redshirted. Instead, his career ended with the Rose Bowl victory over Purdue when that game could have been a springboard for a Heisman campaign in 2001. Instead, the 2001 Huskies again brought conference championship hopes, albeit slim ones, into November. Oregon State turned slim into none.
We're still waiting for none to turn into slim, some, anything.
A final thought: The last time the Huskies went two straight non-probation years without keeping hope alive in November, the head coach changed philosophies on both sides of the ball. That might happen this time as well.
Richard Rambeck is a freelance writer and former sportswriter.
Keeping Hope Alive – Part One
The Legacy of Don James - Part 2
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