Husky Legends have a story to tell

SEATTLE - For those of us born at the end of the 1960's, we don't have a lot of first-hand reference points when talking about what occured at the beginning of the decade. For Washington football fans, it was a proud time to be a Husky. In those days, Washington football was just starting to leave its modern-day footprint.

They won back-to-back Rose Bowls (1960 and 1961), and the second win catapulted the Huskies into uncharted territory - the realm of national champions. In those days, the Associated Press (AP) and United Press International (UPI) polls crowned a national champion before the bowl games were played. Two other recognized media entities - the Helms Foundation, and the newly-formed Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) - waited until after the season was finished.

The decision to wait was well worth it. Jim Owens' Huskies - who had gone from a 3-7 season in 1958 to back-to-back 10-1 seasons - beat the No. 1-rated Minnesota Golden Gophers 17-7 in the 1961 Rose Bowl. So while the AP and UPI heralded Minnesota as the national champs, the Helms Foundation voted the Huskies as the No. 1 team in the land.

It's that team who will be given their long overdue honor at halftime Saturday as the 2007 Huskies try to duplicate history by knocking off the No. 1-ranked USC Trojans at Husky Stadium. And if that were to happen, plans to honor the 1984 Huskies will be put in the works starting Sunday.

But back in 1961, winning the national championship was an etherial deal, something the team didn't know how to wrap their arms around for a while. For west coast college football teams, it was the Rose Bowl - that's all that mattered. And it was the first time in the continuous series with the Big-10 that a west cost team had won two Rose Bowls in a row. That alone appeared to be enough.

"It didn't seem to be that important at the time," McKeta recalled on Monday. "We were so happy to win back-to-back Rose Bowl and we were all caught up in the euphoria of doing that. I know all of Seattle was caught up in it. Bu it was the Rose Bowl, and we had an obligation to win. We wanted two wins in a row."

"We raised the bar for Husky football, and football on the west coast," added Allen. And he was right.

So why the wait? Why has it taken the University of Washington over 45 years to recognize a national championship team? Maybe it has something to do with the relative obscurity of the Helms Foundation, who stopped their poll 25 years ago. Maybe it's because there was no consensus even with the polls that waited until after the bowls were played. The FWAA crowned Mississippi their national champion that year.

The Rebels embrace their championship, and even recognize their 1959 team and it's 'mythical' national championship, as given by retroactive research polls, like Sagarin and Billingsley. And now the Huskies are going to be doing the same, even going so far as to wear a retrofitted version of the 1960 UW jersey. It's got the Nike swoosh on it, so it's not 100 percent authentic, but hey - someone has to pay the bills.

"Through this team, we were able to create a lot of pride for Washington and for the state of Washington," McKeta said. "We were a hell of a team."

That they were, and from a day in age where guys like Allen - who came from tiny Cle Elum - could make a difference on a national stage. My how times have changed. Players from Cle Elum nowadays would be lucky if a directional Washington school gave them the time of day, but back when tuition was $33 a quarter it just didn't matter.

And that's arguably the best part about this feel-good story - the reformation of the 'Band of Brothers'. And maybe some of the stories told by Allen and McKeta - as well as the lessons learned - will be passed down to this group of Huskies.

"The older we get, the better we were," Allen said, with a hearty laugh. "We're like good wine - we get better with age. And this honor seems a lot more important to us now."

And it comes at a time in Washington football history sorely lacking a connection with past glories. Sure, Husky Stadium is bigger than ever, the jumbotron is as snazzy as it's ever been, and the team still comes out of that vaunted tunnel.

"What an experience, to go the distance of the tunnel and then come out and see 50,000 fans in the stands," Allen said, noting that sometimes the linemen would bash out the lights with their helmets, so you had to sometimes use the sides of the tunnel as a guide to get out in one piece. "It was a great experience."

But there's something missing from today's 'Husky Experience' - something that's been as fundamental to UW football as a gold helmet. And listening to Allen and McKeta on Monday, they put a fine point on the differences they see in today's game. "We didn't always like one another, but we loved one another," Allen said. "We played like a team."

"Today's players are different animals, because they can specialize," McKeta added. "We were jacks-of-all-trades, but masters of none."

"(Today's players) are bigger, faster and stronger, but we played from the heart," said Allen.

And heart is what brought these dawgs from the Northwest two Rose Bowl titles and a national championship. And they did it back when 'treatment' meant a whirlpool, a band-aid and an aspirin. "And we taped ourselves," McKeta quickly pointed out.

"It was a sight just to look at the practice fields," Allen said, recalling how there were thousands and thousands of seagulls next to the garbage dumps that bordered the old football fields, and the seagulls never had to go far to release what they had just consumed. "Coaches would have us do these exercises where we had to hit the ground, and they'd say 'Hit it!' and boy, we would," McKeta said, laughing.

"The University never had to fertilize the field."

Instead of the Conibear Shellhouse, the 1960 version of the Washington Huskies football team slept outside the crewhouse, usually waking up at 5:30 or 6 in the morning to get ready for the day, their sheets soaked from all the moisture that had accumulated during the night. Sometimes the fog was so thick, players might miss a period or two of practice because coaches couldn't see them.

But regardless of the changes that have gone on in the nearly half-century since the 'Band of Brothers' remarkable run to the roses, McKeta and Allen still know what it takes to be a winner. "Looking at the program, it is really refreshing to see coach (Willingham) start to turn it around," McKeta said, addressing the current head coach directly. "I'd like to congratulate you, and we're behind you 100 percent.

"Keep up the good work." Top Stories