Emtman reflects on Husky football

In recent years, the shaved head and massive scowling presence of Steve Emtman was a familiar sight looming along the Washington sideline. In his role as a Strength and Conditioning Coach, the former All-American symbolized the toughness and discipline that once was the lifeblood of the program.

He endeavored to help return Husky football to respectability. But in the spring of 2005, following the hiring of Coach Tyrone Willingham, Emtman abruptly resigned and left the program. No public explanation was given. Now with the 2006 season two-thirds over, Emtman maintains a presence on the periphery.

It was ten days ago prior to the Oregon State game, that I spoke at length with Emtman. At the time, the Huskies were 4-2. We had no idea that Washington was about to be manhandled by the Beavers, that Isaiah Stanback was about to be lost to a gruesome foot injury, and that the Huskies would lose to the Cal Bears in overtime a week later.

Nevertheless, Emtman gave his thoughts on the overall direction of the Husky football program, his insights into this current group of players, and the reasons for his resignation from Washington a year and a half ago.

"I'm proud of those guys," said Emtman of the Husky players. "I had an opportunity to coach those guys. If you look at those guys that are stepping up and standing out-- especially Isaiah -- he has done a great job of stepping up and becoming a man. Isaiah has dedicated himself to learn. He never did that in the first few years. He finally figured out that you've got to be full-time at this thing. He's really stepped up. As a team, these guys deserve to win and I'm happy for them. Really, these seniors have been through hell and back. At least they're winning the games they should win.

"They went down and had a good performance at USC," he said. "It's not good enough—they should have won the game. That's the attitude that we should take as Huskies. There's no `Oh we played a good game.' No. If we lost the game, it's not good enough. But, they're doing the turnaround on this thing. When we look back three or four years from now, if this thing turns around, they will get the credit for that. But still the question right now is can we recruit well enough? Because all the guys playing right now are Keith Gilbertson's guys and Rick Neuheisel's guys. There's not a Willingham guy on the field yet. So that's the question that we really look forward to. Can we recruit good athletes, and not just guys that are good on paper? Are the tough questions being asked? In the Don James system, it wasn't just `who are the top-rated recruits in the magazines?' Don James and his staff would be asking the tough questions of the (high school) coaches. Finding the kids that are grinders and who will work, and who don't need a pat on the back to be here. If we can do that, then it'll continue to turn around. But we'll see how we do through the rest of the year, because we have still got to hold it together against some good teams."

Emtman expressed guarded optimism in the job that Coach Tyrone Willingham and his staff have been doing to improve the team. He specifically cited the offensive line play as a barometer of sorts.

"One of the biggest differences in my mind is the way that (Mike) Denbrock has that offensive line playing," said Emtman. "They're not as talented as other lines we've had in the past, but he has them playing really well, considering where they're at. I think that Juan Garcia has a lot to do with that. He's a good leader and kind of a brawler up there at center, and that's what it takes to get the job done. I see those things coming around, they've just got to continue to build on it, and not take a step back, now that we've taken a few steps forward."

Emtman went on to discuss the reasons why he is no longer coaching at Washington.

"They basically demoted me out of there," he said. "I'm fine with that, as long as you can tell me why. If my numbers weren't good enough and guys weren't improving, I could understand. But…that's the sad thing for me. That's why I have kept my distance and don't want to be bitter because I want this program to be successful. I'm just trying to keep my distance. But it's kind of tough to be demoted for doing your job. I would be at Montana right now if I hadn't been told that I would have a chance to win the job here. That was a source of frustration… But I didn't want to leave those kids, not after how hard they worked for me and Pete (Kaligis). No way. It's been tough. That's why I haven't talked about it and don't like being in the media too much."

The word in certain circles is that Coach Tyrone Willingham wanted a Strength and Conditioning Coach with more experience. An attempt to contact Willingham on this matter was declined. "Certainly it is obvious that Steve was, and remains, a significant figure in the Washington football program," responded UW Sports Information Director Richard Kilwien. "Coach Willingham and the entire athletics program here is deeply appreciative of the impact he has made on the program and continues to encourage him to be involved.  In fact, he was on the sidelines during a game this season and I believe in a few weeks we are publicly recognizing his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame.  However, it is not in Coach Willingham's or the University's best interest to comment on private personnel matters.  I hope you understand."

The conversation with Emtman turned toward the needed transformation in attitude to help carry Washington back into the upper echelon of college football. Despite Fresno State's current struggles, Emtman cited the Bulldogs' head coach as an example of someone who successfully turned a program around from extreme lows.

"If you look at Fresno State's Pat Hill, whom I respect the hell out of as a coach, he comes up here and loses, and he's like `Hey you know what? We're not going to come up here and whine about the talent that we have. Those people at Washington never gave our kids a sniff, but we don't care, we're going to go up there and compete with them. We're going to line up our best twenty-two players and we're going to go at it. And if we lose, it's because we didn't do something right, and not to be blamed on not having talent. I don't want to hear we don't have talent.'

"Washington clearly has enough talent right now," continued Emtman. "So we have to step up and win. If we win seven games, then it's a great year, considering where we've come from. I would expect us to win at least seven games. If we don't, then we've failed. And that's the attitude that we have to have as Huskies if we want to get back to where we should be. Why should we sit here and accept .500? We're better than .500. We've got enough talent as these other teams.

"I know these kids," said Emtman. "I know how strong they are. I know how fast they are. We've got the talent, and we've had the talent here. But it's a matter of getting them to believe and not be thinking that you can't win... You've got to go into the games KNOWING you're going to win, and more times than not you're going to win."

It was mentioned to Emtman the team-wide transformation that took place during his career at Washington. In his redshirt freshman year of 1988, the Huskies went 6-5. By his fourth and final season of 1991, the team went 12-0.

"In looking back at my career at Washington, a big turning point was the loss to UCLA in 1990," he said. "After that game, we resolved that we would go into every game knowing we were going to win. It wasn't a question of `if,' it was a question of by `how much.' If there's a loss, there's no excuse. We never lost again while I was there. I was glad to not have to experience the pain of a loss again.

"When I was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts, they had gone 1-15 the year before," he said. "Three or four years later, as a group of guys gets tight and believing in each other, all of a sudden, that 1-15 team was playing for an AFC Championship. It's crazy! To watch that kind of thing is crazy. Suddenly guys enjoy working together, and respecting each other.

"With all of the chaos that we've had at Washington for so long, the next step will be us not accepting defeat," he said. "I don't know how many guys I've talked to, and I even caught myself thinking a little bit, `Oh, what a great game at USC.' But you know what? It wasn't—because we lost. And when we get that attitude back, then we'll be OK."

In discussing the current Washington roster, Emtman made an intriguing assertion.

"In all of my football life, I am still shocked from the way those kids worked that they didn't win more games last year," he said of the '05 Huskies who went 2-9. "Because I have never seen a group of kids work harder in the off-season, and grind and train and dedicate themselves—at least on the side that I was involved in. It still baffles my mind that they didn't have more success last year. I almost feel like a liar because I told those kids that if they pay the price and work hard it will pay off. And yes, it takes time and doesn't happen overnight. And they're starting to see dividends. We all know it's not the coaches that ultimately determine success. The coaches can give you an opportunity to win with the right schemes and all that, but it takes the guys believing in themselves and working hard that gets it done. The kids are doing it now. The harder games are coming up, but the guys are starting to believe in themselves. If you go into a game believing you're going to win, more times than not you will win.

"And I'll be around," concluded Emtman. "But it's a bittersweet thing to sit and watch and not be a part of the program. But I respect the program and want it to succeed, and so we will wait and see, and let the cards fall where they may."
Derek Johnson can be reached at derekjohnson1@verizon.net

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