Coach's Corner

The New Year really came in with a bang at Montlake University. While both basketball teams are struggling and battling to stay out of the cellar, the football team continues to change faces, and the administration is rocked by the unexpected and sudden departure of longtime AD, Barbara Hedges. Wow!

Lots of unrest at the University of Washington Athletic Department, following a year of chaos and scandal. Here's hoping 2004 shines brighter for the teams wearing the Purple and the Gold. Wouldn't it be nice to get the focus back to the games and the kids, as well as the excitement of sports competition?

I believe that Ms. Hedges was really trying to change the focus back to the kids when she stepped down as the CEO of one of the most successful athletic department in the west by announcing her accelerated retirement. She leaves after 12 years of service (the second longest tenure in school history) to play golf and get out of the spotlight. Not a bad gig.

She leaves behind a legacy of facilities, programs, and firings. She certainly changed the face of Husky athletics and the remodeled facilities for all sports will serve as a constant reminder of her fund raising and administrative skills.

Ironically, Hedges' most significant hires wound up in the end being her most significant fires. Gone are Bob Bender, Rick Neuheisel, and Teresa Wilson (in that order). They join a club of many of us whose careers were terminated or severely altered by her subsequent employment decisions.

Of course, that is the nature of the beast in world of coaching, but still there are over 70 people who also departed or were dismissed turning her reign. Most were not hired by her, but there is no question that those who were enjoyed unparalleled support in running, building, and retooling their programs.

Teresa Wilson is obviously the most successful coach to ever coach softball at Washington. She is the only coach that program has ever had. Her hiring was one of the very first by Hedges and she was able to build a program from the bottom up and the results are obvious. For the past ten years, Wilson's program was the most successful of all Husky teams, except for Women's Crew. Her facility was first and foremost in Hedges plan to change the face of Husky Athletics. Yes, there was a tremendous cost overrun on that, but Wilson enjoyed a carte blanche reign and really operated as her own little independent dynasty. She was hardnosed, organized and driven. She built one of the best programs in America and got fired...err, reassigned, without getting to defend herself. Still, Wilson leaves behind a softball program that is strong.

Former Men's basketball coach Bob Bender finally got the facility he had been promised just in time to get the axe. Bob was a class act. His recruiting deficiencies were his ultimate downfall, and despite taking his team to the NCAA tournament a couple of times, he got shown the door even though he was one of Hedges' brightest stars. He, too, left behind a facility that was updated and a program that seemingly could be competitive in a short amount of time. Someday Washington basketball will reemerge, but for now it's obvious to me that the problem was not all Bender and his staff.

The obvious golden boy hire by Hedges was Rick Neuheisel. He impressed her so much that she ignored the reputation and baggage that he reportedly had at Colorado. She was taken by his personality and his swagger, and all of his answers in regards to accountability for the aforementioned baggage were such that Hedges was convinced. Rick could literally take over a room and did so during his interview with the UW search committee.

Barbara had been bold in going outside the Husky family and she made a statement by paying him one of the best salaries in the nation. Nothing wrong with boldness, you cannot fault her there.

Neuheisel took full advantage of his special relationship with Hedges and the results will benefit Husky Football for decades. He knew what kind of facilities Washington had, or more importantly, what they would never have at Colorado, and within a short time projects moved forward that changed the Huskies competitive edge drastically. A new indoor practice facility, new locker rooms, and new practice fields and turf are all things that he helped get for the program without delay.

Following a Rose Bowl victory in only his second year, it appeared that her hire was stroke of genius. Never mind the warnings from Colorado that he would eventually self destruct.

He did.

Still, the facts remain that Rick Neuheisel was great for his assistants as he immediately jumped all their salaries to be competitive with anyone in the conference. He too, enjoyed the unchecked support by Hedges. He could do no wrong and even when he did, she gave him another "get out of jail free" card. He was exciting, glib, effervescent, and personable. He used it to full advantage and brought lots of attention to Husky Football.

Unfortunately, the attention he brought with him was not always positive, and when it turned to gambling, he, too, was shown the door. But that doesn't change the wonderful things he did to change the face of football at Washington. He had taken full advantage of his special relationship with Hedges and the program is better off because of it.

Personally, I will forever appreciate the way he befriended me and understood my relationship with the players at Washington and allowed me to be close to the program.

So, here we are at the start of a new year and a new era. Husky sports are again filled with optimism yet the whole department is still walking on eggshells. Everyone is watching their backs as they are being investigated again, this time for compliance issues. I find it amazing when you have to hire someone else to tell you what to do. There are three people with law degrees in the UW compliance department, but they have finally figured out that the NCAA rules have nothing to do with legal rights. Law has no relevance in the NCAA. It is an organization that literally strips all it's people (including the student-athletes) of their rights so they can be members.

So where are the reasons for optimism? Of course I'm going to find them, that's who I am. You all know that. First of all, things can't get any worse than they have been for the last year. The "old school approach" is now back and the emphasis on recruiting local kids is showing up in every program, but particularly football this year. Husky Football will sign at least 12 kids right out of western Washington, they have 11 verbals from local kids as I write this.

Second and most importantly, Coach Gilbertson is after the tough, hard working, character kids. He is building his program the way he was taught by Coach James, and definitely making a statement in the finally announced changes in his staff. He rehired Chris Tormey, and that in itself shows the direction he is taking his team. He is concentrating on changing attitudes, rather than changing facilities.

Fortunately Barbara Hedges and Rick Neuheisel already did the latter for him. Now it's Gilby's turn to use that to his advantage to further the cause of Husky football.

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