Season reveals a flood of questions

I am still receiving emails from an article I wrote four weeks ago. I had written about the frustrated season ticket holders feeling taken for granted by the University of Washington's athletic department. These were not just short emails. I'm talking about long, drawn-out letters of anguish. Dozens and dozens of them. Many of the fans said that they had given up their tickets, or were going to give them up after this season is over.

Husky football is now at a crossroads. There was a feeling of hope stirred up in the loss to UCLA two weeks ago. That group of Husky players taking to the field that night looked like a real football team. They hit hard and tackled well. They executed and competed. While devastated by the loss, we were all encouraged as the improvement was evident. At long last, the Dawgs were headed in the right direction.

But then last Saturday in Eugene, everything reverted back to form. The real sting wasn't even in being humiliated by the Ducks. The real hurt emanated from witnessing and trying to fathom the team-wide regression in performance. Somewhere deep in the bowels of Autzen Stadium an exhumation took place, and the 2004 Huskies appeared. It was a potpourri of penalties, a melange of mistakes and missed tackles, a dose of dropped footballs, more than a soupcon of sloppiness and a penchant for players giving up on plays.

The Huskies were so pitiful that the Oregon fans didn't even feel like reveling in the rout. They felt bored and mentally looked ahead to the rest of their schedule.

So the questions creep and advance further into the minds of everyone affiliated with Husky football; if Rick Neuheisel was such a brilliant recruiter, where is all that illustrious talent? If Barbara Hedges was such an effective fund-raiser, why is this current athletic department raising ticket prices on a 1-10 team and scrounging for loose change under the couch of every Tyee member?

Is Tyrone Willingham's oscillating win-loss record throughout his coaching career the harbinger of inconsistency to come? Why did this team regress so dramatically against Oregon? Did anyone else watch that mesmerizing epic between USC and Notre Dame, and feel in their heart of hearts that Notre Dame would not have been leading in the fourth quarter if Willingham was still their coach?

Or is it too soon to judge Willingham harshly? After all, it must be acknowledged that he inherited at least twenty players on this Husky team that don't belong on a Division-1 roster. For crying out loud, he isn't even through his first season yet, right? Perhaps he should instead be viewed as a coach who has been to the Rose Bowl, knows how to win, and is in the right place at the right time to hit his stride in the coming years?

Is Todd Turner the right person as athletic director? As supporters of Husky football, do you feel like there is a powerful presence out front and leading the way? Should Montlake Boulevard be renamed 'Shakedown Street'? Does he have the foresight to quietly overrule Willingham and grant access to the program for the supporters who love it most? Or is it unfair to judge Turner harshly this soon, simply because in his previous stints as athletic director, he has never overseen a top-shelf football program? After all, he needed a pallet of Brawny and a lifetime's worth of genuflecting to the NCAA to clean up the untold messes by Hedges. Under Turner's watch the athletic department's revenue is up. Perhaps seeds are being planted that will produce meaningful results in the coming years. But shell-shocked supporters of Husky football have good reason to pose these questions.

Winning is such a strong tonic that it masked an unmitigated disaster in Hedges for over twelve years.

Finally, those of you who are Husky fans must shoulder blame as well. For years, you have felt superior to most other teams in the Pac-10 because of your unequalled support of the program. But now the chips are down and many of you are only in half-way. If you want to bail on the team, go ahead. From many of those anguished email-letters sent to me, I saw that many fans have legitimate and personalized reasons for feeling betrayed. But if you're going to bail, do it all the way. Many thousands of you show up sporadically for games. Many thousands more mysteriously arrive half-way through the first quarter, and head for the exits by the end of the third quarter. It is a surreal experience, akin to being at a Los Angeles Dodgers game.

If your loyalty remains to the University of Washington, then get involved. If you want to give value and honor to the years of thrilling afternoons spent in Husky Stadium, make your presence felt. People always talk about things occurring in cycles. California is a good example, as they are now in an upswing. The trouble is that it only took 52 years to await the arrival of their next rise to glory, led by Jeff Tedford.

But if we don't act now, we could be witnessing Husky football in just the infancy of its death throes. View this as a friend or brother in a fight. Do you have their back? If yes, then this means using your tickets and going the stadium and using your voice to be heard.

It means that if you want change to occur, then don't wait for someone else to act. If you want changes in how things are done, communicate with the athletic department. Apply pressure.

It means cheering extra hard when the Dawgs are on defense. Several current players have spoken about the lack of support at Husky Stadium, and how they feel jaded toward the fans. It would surprise them to hear raucous support unexpectedly sounding off from the grandstands this November. Many times, you hear sentimental types like Mariner announcer Rick Rizzs proclaim that Seattle (or fill in the blank) fans are the best in the nation. All of that rings hollow, unless the fans are really coming up big in the clutch. It's easy to cheer when you're beating Michigan 34-14 in the Rose Bowl. But what can you do when your brother is in trouble?

We are haunted because our heritage is that of winning football games, and it's difficult to fathom how far the program has plummeted. But if there is one thing that still separates Washington from conference foes like Arizona or Stanford, it is that our fan base and boosters have high expectations for success, even if they are failing to provide visible support.

But if all season ticket holders who love Washington football get more involved, it's ultimately that atmosphere that will signal a rallying-cry to the powers that be, facilitating a quicker return to tough, hard-nosed "Husky Football."

Derek Johnson can be reached at Top Stories