Big "W" keeps players in touch

SEATTLE - Say who? It was those two tiny words that arguably changed the perception of Washington football. Up to that point the Huskies were known as a west coast team, a good little program that had tasted a decent amount of success but rarely registered a blip on the national scene. Say who?

But those two words spoke volumes to former Washington players. They knew what you were talking about. "That chant is the one that true Huskies understand. It's like the secret code," Terry Hollimon said of the chant, the one Huskies would yell unmercifully as they ran down the tunnel and out into Husky Stadium before games.

"When we were saying it, it threw chills up and down our spines," he added. "That's just straight-up, balls-out, tough Husky."

The good old days: The days of winning football, of packed game days, of the way people remember Washington football and how intimidating it could be for opposing players. But those days are over. 'All I saw was purple' has been replaced by 'All I saw were fans masquerading as empty seats'.

For Hollimon, who signed with UW in 1993 after a strong prep career at Cascade High School in Everett, it's been a tough row to hoe, watching his beloved Huskies go from perennial champions to the Pac-10 cellar in the span of five years. He even admitted that when current UW quarterback Jake Locker went down with a hand injury against Stanford, his faith in what Tyrone Willingham was doing went out the window. There were a couple of points during the season where he left his own house out of sheer frustration.

"If the grass needed cutting, I'd go cut the grass," he said.

While in college, Hollimon's personality led himself to be the guy that tied all the diverse groups on the team together. "I was always good at networking," he said. "I always seemed to have everyone's number."

Unknowingly, Hollimon was acting as an adjunct to the Big "W" Club.

Today, the Big "W" Club is more involved than ever when it comes to keeping former Husky athletes connected to their school. Since 1900 the Big "W" Club has existed to preserve the history and heritage of Husky Athletics, but has ramped up its presence considerably this decade. Now under the leadership of former UW football player Elliot Silvers, the club is building off the work done by their first Executive Director, Greg Lewis, as well as other former players like current Washington ISP General Manager Andre Riley.

"There is always a disconnect when you initially leave the program, because once you're done you are a regular guy, and not the big man on campus you once were," Lewis said. "There is no exit strategy. You are unceremoniously dumped."

Hired in 2000, Lewis - who is now Director of Advancement for Scholarships and Student Programs at UW - started putting together events that would unite former and current players a couple of years later. In Willingham's first year - 2004 - they had 160 former players show up, up from 75 the year before. By 2008, there were 110. The fall-off in numbers mostly came about because of the product on the field and the tenor around the program. "Just like with anything, the novelty of something can wear off if there is no new energy associated with it," Lewis said.

In short order the Big "W" Club went back to doing things in relative obscurity, like heading up the summer jobs program and performing the induction ceremony for every Washington student-athlete who earned a letter in their sport the year before. But little interest in football meant the Big "W" Club continued to work with little to no support by Washington's athletic administrators. It was a shell of what it could have been.

"It felt like it was almost a separate entity - like a fan club," Hollimon said.

A couple of changes in late 2008 put the Big "W" Club front and center: The hirings of Scott Woodward and Steve Sarkisian provided the impetus needed to bring back the tradition of Washington football, and all the former players along with it.

When Silvers saw Lincoln Kennedy on the sidelines when he was a player, he was awestruck. He also knew that the current team had no link to Washington's rich football heritage. An even bigger problem was the fact that no one on the current team had any association with those that had won while wearing the purple and gold.

That needed to change.

"There's pictures and posters in the locker room, but the players never got the chance to really connect with the past," said former cornerback and current Super Bowl champ Roy Lewis. "Everywhere you saw these great Husky legends, but they were almost fictitious. You couldn't touch 'em. We were at the bottom of the barrel, and it probably hurt them more not being able to come around. Those are guys that bleed purple and gold, who want to come back to UW and talk and share stories. But they just didn't have the opportunity. We were blind to the fact. We just thought they didn't want to come, but it's clear now they did want to reach out. They probably would have imparted some very good information on us."

Starting in January, Woodward, Sarkisian and Silvers started working on changing the public perception that shrouded UW football in a fog. The new Athletic Director did his part by encouraging the work of the Big "W" Club. "I think the new staff in now saw all the work and momentum we made with no support," Lewis said. "And Woodward is a smart businessman. He knows that if you don't invest a lot, you don't get a lot out of it."

Sarkisian flipped his predecessor's practice policies, allowing full fan and media access. "With Willingham we could come to practice, but we had to call 24 hours in advance," Lewis said. "I think at USC, they're used to a certain culture. They are used to doing certain things, where we always felt our hands were tied because of the sanctions and the Pac-10 looking over their shoulders. I don't think they are as in fear as we've been around here. They want to be engaged and they want to get guys involved."

Roy Lewis came back to Seattle after the Steelers' championship triumph, mostly because his girlfriend is finishing up her education at Washington. He was surprised when Sarkisian asked him in to talk about things even though the two had never met before. According to Lewis, Sarkisian was warm and engaging, and the two 'saw eye to eye'.

"There's no more seclusion," Lewis said, matter-of-factly.

Silvers, who took over as the Big "W" Club's Executive Director in November, knew his mission: To take what had been done in the past and improve on it. "We wanted to shake things up and make things memorable," he said.

What he found was that there is a lot of support for Washington athletics out in the Seattle marketplace and a lot of businesses that were interested in helping out. All Silvers needed was a platform: Spring Game.

Like Ted Williams, the Big "W" Club let the idea of having a barbeque for the former players thaw from its cryogenic state, turning it instead into a two-day celebration that brought back teammates from multiple generations and different parts of the country.

The first part would be a celebration for the players and current staff, held at Boyd Hansen's Duchess Tavern. The next day, the club would host a spring game tailgate/barbeque, but this time it would be for players and family members. Silvers enlisted local caterers like Porter's Place and Ezell's to work the food angle.

But getting the former players to buy in appeared problematic. Since the football team had gone winless in 2008, interest from alumni was strained at best, and completely sapped at worst. Even when former Huskies like Lewis and Lawyer Milloy would cross paths in the NFL, they never talked about UW. What was there to talk about? In the past eight years, Greg Lewis estimates UW never had more than 15 players ask for a sideline pass for any one game - a far cry from when former UW Head Coach Rick Neuheisel had the track packed with people, creating an almost festival-like atmosphere.

With word getting out that Sarkisian was anxious to bring Husky traditions and players back in the fold, Silvers watched what was going on. He noticed the new Husky head man using internet technology to spread the word. Sark had his own web site; he was updating his own Twitter and Facebook pages on a daily basis.

Silvers wasn't new to social networking; he had his own Facebook page, and there he found kinship with former UW players that he had never met in person. One of those people was Terry Hollimon. Hollimon had been fiddling with Facebook himself.

"I figured, why not start something to connect all the networks in one single hub?" Hollimon queried. Out of that came the University of Washington football alumni page on Facebook, a place where generations and geography could be bridged with a single keystroke.

Silvers knew he had found something significant. In the past, players would get flyers in the mail about events, or emails would be sent if the Big "W" Club happened to have correct contact information. Hollimon sent out a ton of requests after forming the former players' group, and while he's not sure who the first member was, he believes it could have been former receiver Jerome Pathon. Pathon, along with Milloy, were seen working with current players this spring during practices.

And like the old Faberge Organics commercial, two friends told two more friends. And they told their friends. And so on. And so on.

Shane Pahukoa, safety from the national championship 1991 team, used the page to set up a tailgate for former players like Tommie Smith, Lamar Lyons, Darrell Daniels and many others when the Huskies played at USC this past fall. "Shane told me they ran out of beer," Silvers said with a laugh.

As soon as the word got out that the new staff and AD wanted the former players back in the program, they didn't have to be asked twice.

"That's the thing: People got so excited about it," Silvers said of the spring game events. "People want to come back, because they felt isolated and sort of put off for so long, it felt like a breath of fresh air."

As soon as his plane touched down in Seattle for the celebration, Roy Lewis had a message from Milloy, whom he met during a UW luncheon in 2004. "Whenever I get a chance I always talk to him and he calls to check up on me," Lewis said of Milloy.

Though the spring game was on Saturday, it was the Friday night gathering at the Duchess that got everyone's motor running. Sarkisian jumped on the bar and led the players in the 'Say who?' chant. "He gets it, and it resonated with everybody in the room," Silvers said of Sarkisian.

"The buzz is back."

Players spoke highly of the current coaches, guys like Joel Thomas and Johnny Nansen, who either grew up in the area idolizing guys in the room, or played against them in college. They get it too.

"They remember the powerhouse Washington was, and what we were doing to make it so strong," Hollimon said.

Since the event, the Facebook page for former players has been getting more hits than a pinata during Cinco De Mayo. Because of the response, Hollimon is talking about putting something together with the Big "W" Club for an LSU tailgate. "I'm just trying to make sure that people don't forget," he said. "This was such an important part of all of our lives, we shouldn't leave it up to anyone else to keep the tradition strong."

ISP is in the mix too, and there are preliminary plans to create an area where everyone can tailgate closer to the stadium, including former players from all sports, as well as sponsors, clients, administrators, students and the general public too.

"It's the right environment," Riley said. "It's the right thing to do. The timing is right. Everybody is working very well together and we're trying to do some special things at the University of Washington."

Silvers is using the momentum generated by the spring game events to ramp up activities for the Big "W" Club. There are tentative plans in the works for a 3-3 basketball tournament, hosted by Nate Robinson. Think: a smaller version of Hoopfest. It would take place in the E1 parking lot, which would hold 50 courts. It would be an event that could field as many as 125 teams of all-ages. Besides ball, there would be different food and drink vendors, as well as music.

"Everything we want to do, we want to make it a spectacle," Silvers said.

They will also host a golf tournament right before the LSU game, with the hope of getting as many players back on the sidelines as possible. "It's not only exciting for the former players to see their teammates, it's exciting for the fans and the players playing now," Silvers added, noting the enthusiasm generated by seeing guys like Corey Dillon, Bob Sapp, Steve Emtman and Olin Kreutz on the track, watching their team play.

The Monday after spring game, Silvers got a text from Kreutz, who had been back to UW exactly once since starting his career in Chicago back in 1998. This is what the text said:

"Please get me my letterman's jacket."


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