This is not Husky football, we said. He asked me what I was going to write about. As we chatted amongst ourselves, a rotund, purple-clad gentleman went lumbering past. He overheard us and from it deciphered who I was.
"Oh, are you that Johnson guy from Dawgman.com?"
I indicated that I was, and he cut right to the chase.
"For your next article, I want you to give those coaches hell!" he bellowed. "They're running our program right into the ground!"
I looked at him, shrugged, and indicated that there are many factors involved with the team's failures this season. I said that in my opinion, the players, coaches and circumstances have all contributed to the struggles.
"That's a bunch of B.S., it's Neuheisel!" he scoffed, before storming off.
I mention this exchange because of the irony involved. It was only back in August, I had written an article for the PigskinPost.com, entitled "Oregon has Legitimate Reason to Loathe Rick Neuheisel."
I learned a lot about fan mentality from that experience. In that article, I had detailed how a Duck friend of mine had sent me a videotape of the 1996 Cotton Bowl, when Colorado whipped Oregon 38-6. Then Colorado coach Rick Neuheisel had run a fake punt when leading 32-6, and kept up the aggressive play calling in an effort to score again. The essence of my article was that I finally understood why Oregon's fans hate coach Neuheisel so much. As I wrote, "if that had happened to a team I cared about, I would be seeing red, too."
You would have thought that I had been found guilty of setting fire to an orphanage. You should have seen my email inbox. I received well over 100 emails, with 80% of them being vitriolic rants. The Dawgman message boards also had a meltdown. People said that I had betrayed Neuheisel and the Washington team, that I had shamed the University of Washington. Others were saying that I should issue a public apology, and that I was not a "true Husky". The article was neither slanderous nor containing innuendo, and it never questioned his abilities as a coach.
It's now not even three months later. The people's staunch defense of Neuheisel has suddenly vanished. Everywhere you look, fans are foaming at the mouth and seething with rage at how Washington has decayed into mediocrity. For people who cherish this football program, it hurts deep in the heart. And many people, including my acquaintance at the grocery store, are furious at the coaches.
I must admit that find it intriguing, that many of the furious posts on the message boards are from some of the same people who defended Neuheisel tooth and nail, just three months ago. These days, my inbox has emails coming in with people demanding explanations for what has happened to the team.
I guess for players, coaches and even writers, it is very much a case of "what have you done for me lately?"
For me, lately I feel like my Dawgman column is turning into a weekly list of grievances and rationalizations.
To me, oddly enough, the best part of the game came right after Nate Robinson was screwed of an interception he made in the end zone. ASU was able to get a field goal on the next play. When the Devils kicked off, Robinson took the ball seven yards deep in the end zone and he didn't hesitate to bring the ball out. He was subsequently buried at the 6-yard line, and it was a very poor decision on his part.
But I loved it! Here was a guy who was robbed of a great play by the officials, he's fuming and frustrated, and damn it, he's burning to come right out and strike back. It showed pride and fire. This showed a sign of N-Rob being a great leader for the Dawgs in future years. I wish more of our players would make these kinds of mistakes. I would never advocate physically injuring an opponent, but I would rather see a Husky get a late hit penalty than to not line up properly following a time out. It's not just the mistakes, it's the kind of mistakes that's occurring that bothers me. Nate's mistake was somewhat from youth, but mostly from passion and the desire to compete.
I'll take more of that.
What I found disheartening against ASU was Washington refusing to go deep, even in the face of a furious pass rush. I couldn't understand the obsession with running off-tackles on virtually every first down. (I know, I know, establishing the run to set up other plays. But what did accomplish to throw away so many downs with futile 1-yard gains?). I couldn't fathom why Washington didn't bring greater pressure defensively. This is not Husky football.
Do you realize, that if Washington hadn't managed that miraculous last-minute TD to beat Arizona, they would be 0-4 in the Pac-10 and 3-5 overall? This is not Husky football.
As we straggle toward the season's finish, another thought pops into my head. I want to use Steve Emtman as an example, not for Outland Trophy Winner he became, but for what he was when he started his Husky career. Here was a guy that was not heavily recruited. WSU and Boise State were the two chief competitors for Steve's letter of intent. He was even told that he might not be smart enough to get into Washington. He was hungry. At practices, he was infamous for clubbing teammates upside the head and bellowing his displeasure, if they were sleepwalking through a drill. His teammates said it was contagious.
And he scared the Hell out of them, ensuring that everyone from the scout team down would know what Husky football was all about.
Neuheisel was brought in to upgrade the talent level at Washington. He is certainly doing that but I wonder if there is a proper mix that leads to the best chemistry? Blue chip athletes are the "top in breed," and they are constantly praised as a stud by coaches and internet sites that have never seen them play a down. But are these thoroughbreds challenged like the "mutt" is? Do they face the adversity?
Talent is necessary, but perhaps Washington needs a few more hungry Steve Emtman-types now, guys who have talent but have been told they aren't quite good enough. Guys that have something to prove. This is just speculation on my part, I must emphasize.
I thought back in August, as I think now, that Rick Neuheisel is a capable coach. I can say with total sincerely that I am happy he is here. I say this even after the stigma he has brought to Washington after running afoul with the NCAA regarding recruiting practices both here and at Colorado. I say this even after this embarrassing string of recent poor performances. Rick Neuheisel has many good qualities and he is very intelligent and wants to win badly. It must sting greatly to be on record as stating that he wants UW to be the "Florida State of the West", when currently his team more closely resembles Rutgers.
However, I truly think that Neuheisel can continue to learn from this, make the necessary changes, and get this team back to where it needs to be. Remember that I wrote this, even if it won't happen this year.
Anyway, I haven't had a drop of alcohol since late one night on Prince Edward Island in 1998. I feel wiped out, and now might be as good time as any to start drinking again. So if you'll excuse me, I think I'll go out and get something strong and pungent.
Derek Johnson can be reached at djohnson@Dawgman.com
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