Husky Football: where is the emotion?

As the Huskies ran onto the field in Autzen Stadium this past Saturday, not even Warren Buffett could tell you whether Washington was a commodity worth buying or quickly unloading. After all, this team nearly beat powerhouses USC and California, yet looked woeful against ASU and OSU. There was only one certainty heading into the Oregon game, and that was the Huskies would start out flat.

Start out flat they did. By the end of the game, all that was left was a flat line. The flaccid performance was numbing to watch. Combined with the string of heartbreaking disappointments in October, it's almost enough to drive Husky fans over the edge (The USC, Cal and ASU defeats certainly sapped the life out of me). Most alarming about the effort against Oregon, however, was that the Ducks are supposedly Washington's most hated rival. The muted emotion and poor performance from our side was disheartening.

Given Coach Tyrone Willingham's stoic demeanor and organized manner, there's been an inclination amongst fans and former players to compare him to former Husky Coach Don James. The comparison is largely unfair to Willingham, since he inherited a team devoid of much talent. By contrast, in his second season at Washington, Don James had talent equivalent to the Garden of Eden, compared to the Dust Bowl conditions left to Willingham by former Coach Rick Neuheisel. When Neuheisel signed this current senior class of 2006, he chose to load up on seven wide receivers. Considering that none of the receivers even possessed the versatility to return kicks, it created imbalance and the recruiting effects of a scorched earth policy.

Since Washington was picked to finish dead last in the Pac-10 this year, Willingham merits credit for getting his team to challenge the likes of Cal and USC, and knock off UCLA. But there is at least one category in which he doesn't compare favorably to Don James, and that is in motivating his team prior to kickoff.

This past summer I was talking with a prominent member of Washington's national championship team of 1991. When asked about Coach James' presence on game day, the player replied: "What I loved was that when I looked into Coach James' eyes right before kickoff and saw his posture, I knew he was ready for a fight. He literally looked like he was about to get into a fistfight, yet paradoxically, he was always totally under control."

Those Husky teams intimidated opponents in the tunnel, and exploded onto the field like they were ready for a brawl. These current Huskies spill out of the tunnel with little emotion, then usually begin the game with an understated competitiveness.

I was talking with my boss Kim Grinolds recently, and he had an expression I liked. "Somebody needs to go Piniella on this team," he said. There is no question that this Husky team is a reflection of its coach. To Willingham's defense, there are benefits to avoiding the tumult of emotions. Ego can get the best of us when we make decisions fueled by emotion. In a sense, becoming emotional about a situation is to succumb to it. It renders one susceptible to rash judgments.

But in football, emotion is obviously critical to success. Especially on defense, emotion is a player's best friend. One year when Chuck Knox was coaching the Buffalo Bills, he signed a free agent in mid-season named Conrad Dobler. Dobler was an aging veteran whose skills were in decline. But Knox brought in Dobler specifically to tear up meeting rooms and emotionally kick the team in the ass.

Since the current Husky roster lacks the presence of fiery leaders, that emotion must emanate from near the top. It's an evolutionary step that Willingham has to make in his development as a coach, or at least until he can recruit better players for the coming years.

Washington has now lost five straight football games. With a weak Stanford squad traveling to Seattle this Saturday, this game signifies a must-win for the Huskies. A defeat would mark the sixth straight loss, and would negate any strides that have been made this season. Washington football would be back to square one, right back into the 2-9 squalor of a year ago.

A loss to Stanford could also drive me over the edge. Particularly if it occurs again in bloody overtime. Peer skyward and you might spy me hanging upside down like a bat from the rafters of Husky Stadium's north upper deck. Or perhaps you'll see me at a bus stop in Ballard, my Seattle-PI opened to Jim Moore's latest taunt, while wearing my faded 1991 National Championship sweatshirt and gibbering to passersby like a chimpanzee.
Derek Johnson can be reached at derekjohnson1@verizon.net

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