The Montlake Boys

At times I dream of the summertime scene that marks the Washington campus, of evergreen trees and Gothic buildings. In this dry summer, sprinklers accompany the light rain that falls and, as the long summer fades to fall, patches of brown turn to green, under a rainbow of purple and gold. It is my first quarter at Washington, and I carry a slide rule to class. None of us, the men, dare carry an umbrella.

In that year, 1957, new cars had fins, men's haircuts had white walls, the Caddy sported saber spoke wheels and Husky Stadium had half its jaws. As a peacetime president, Dwight Eisenhower, who had ended the war in Korea, was trying to hook his drives around that loblolly pine at Augusta's seventeenth hole. In October of that year, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, and a new era in technology and scientific development began.

Likewise, a new era in Husky football was launched, but nobody really cared, and certainly not in a Sputnik way. Seemingly, Washington football players were a lollygagging bunch on the practice field, more interested in girls and having fun than playing football.

In that year, Jim Owens came to Washington from Texas A&M, where he had been an assistant coach under Paul "Bear" Bryant. Prior to that, he'd coached under Bryant at Kentucky and joined him at Texas A &M when Bryant took over as head coach in 1954.

Owens, who was two months shy of thirty years old, said, "I'm here to stay."

No one expected the neophyte, clean-cut coach to stay for long. Everybody in Seattle joked about Husky coaches, each of them being a metaphor for a guy on his way out. The Dawgs had finished 5-5 in 1956 and, in their last game at Husky Stadium before Owens' arrival, had lost to UCLA, 13-9, in front of 27,950 apathetic fans.

Washington players had little tolerance for discipline. In 1955, head coach John Cherberg had failed miserably as a disciplinarian, and a player revolt forced his ouster. Replacing him, Darrell Royal jumped ship one year later to herd the Texas Longhorns.

Owens' job appeared Herculean and doomed to failure, much like the Vanguard Rocket that would topple off its platform and explode before its launch several months later.

Taking over the Washington head coaching job in 1957 was akin to replacing the Captain of the Titanic just after it had struck the iceberg. The crew was mutinous, having little respect for authority, and the passengers were scurrying for their lifeboats, leaving the ship in droves.

On Saturdays, the "new" upper deck at Husky Stadium (dubbed Cassill's castle for AD Harvey Cassill), was as almost empty and dispirited as the castle of Henry VIII the night after Ann Boleyn was beheaded.

Besides the miasma that hung over players and coaches, the slush fund scandal made for more uncertainty. In 1956, Washington was banned from the Rose Bowl (a two year ban) for its slush-fund scandal, wherein, boosters had illegally funneled money to players.

Up until the mid-fifties, buying football players was commonplace, even at Texas A&M. When Bryant first arrived on campus, he collected $30,000 from boosters, knowing it would buy 2 or 3 good players.

With a glint in one eye and a Will Rogers' smile on his handsome face, Owens had a certain self-assurance about him that no one understood. The enigmatic coach belonged in Hollywood, as a John Wayne incarnate--not in Seattle. Husky coaches were the bad guys, who, if not hung in effigy by the students, got run out of town by the alums.

What they didn't know was that the "naive" Owens had been schooled by a master and was about to embark on a program that would forever change West Coast football.

What was to follow at Washington had its roots three years earlier with Bryant at Texas A & M, where Bryant had installed a training program that resembled a military boot camp.

"You never know how a horse will pull, until you hook him to a heavy load," Bryant said.

During the summer of 1954, Bryant took 111 boys to Junction, Texas; ten days later he returned to College Station with 35 real men.

Most of those who quit lit out late at night, so they wouldn't have to face Bryant in the morning and tell him they were leaving the program. They thought they had good reason to quit, for Bryant's conditioning program was harsh.

In the midst of a Texas drought, Bryant worked his men in temperatures as high as 114 degrees, while the periodic dust storms that covered the Texas panhandle obliterated the practice field during the afternoon. If it could have rained then, it would have rained mud. But it stayed dry and hot, the air almost too stifling and dusty to breathe.

On the practice field, Bryant deprived his players of water, telling them that drinking water was for sissies. It was just as well, for thanks to the heat and strenuous workouts, nothing liquid would stay down, let alone anything solid at lunchtime between practices.

"If it ain't red, you can play," Smokey, the trainer, might have told them. There were no painkillers, anti-inflammatory drugs, acupuncturists, masseuses or tubs of ice to ease the pain. A player faced the next day's practices and conditioning exercises cold turkey, with the proverbial bullet between his teeth.

One player was hospitalized for heat stroke and had to leave the team. Another, who was cautioned by a doctor not to play because of bulging disks in his back, continued to play for Bryant.

Bryant, as tough as nails, literally butted heads with a player after ripping off his helmet, and broke the player's nose.

Many of the players feared Bryant, as did the beat writer who covered the practices and wrote about them the way Bryant wanted him to.

One of the survivors of Junction, Jack Pardee, long-time NFL player and coach, had this to say about Bryant, "Coach Bryant's major theme was 'Don't be a quitter.' He drummed into us that we can't quit on ourselves, our teammates, our family and our friends. He said it's easy to play in the first quarter, but how will you play in the fourth quarter? Junction was all about preparing for the fourth quarter."

For many of them, quitting the team meant losing a scholarship, leaving school and facing disappointed parents, who would lay awake at night thinking about the small town folk who huddled on the sidewalks gossiping about their son. In those Texas towns, there wasn't much work for a young man to do--but, then again, there was always the military draft hovering over him, waiting to take two years of his life away, allowing him to take cover and escape an embarrassing situation.

At Junction, the assistant coaches, led by Jim Owens, barked orders like marine drill instructors.

Barely awake in the morning, one player stammered, "'What are we going to do, Coach Owens, practice in the dark?'"

"'Nah,' Owens said, spitting a stream of Tobacco. 'But we're going to practice until it gets dark, dumb****.'"


Jim Owens was Bryant's right hand man and confidant. At Kentucky, Bryant had pointed him out to Husky booster "Torchy" Torrance, telling him "that fellow will make a great coach for somebody some day."

Torrance told Washington athletic director George Briggs about the incident, and three years later, the Big Fella came to Montlake, as head coach of the Washington Huskies.

The Montlake milieu, far different than the barren Texas landscape, must have been a shock to the lanky Oklahoman, for there were no prickly goatheads on the UW practice field to annoy the players and coaches, just small pools of mud, patches of green grass and a smattering of rocks, which appeared magically as the sporadic, light rain washed away at the field.

At the UW fall camp, on their first day of practice, many of the players who'd rebelled against John Cherberg's disciplinary measures stood defiantly, daring Owens to take command. After all, Cherberg had walked off the proverbial Husky gangplank, Royal had gotten out of Dodge, leaving a 5-5 season behind, and Owens bore the credentials of a short timer.

Owens had an ace up his sleeve called Junction, and he'd pull it out, if necessary, to call their bluff. For those who wanted to be football players, their days of melancholy, lollygagging, and panty raids were over.

Here in the Emerald City, water, snow-capped mountains and a verdant sereneness surrounded Owens; in return, he would add starkness, hustle and discipline to the practice field, essentials that had been missing since the days of Jimmy Phelan, Enoch Bagshaw and Gil Dobie.

During the first two weeks of practice at the UW, many of the players responded perfunctorily. Besides a lack of depth in the overall squad, the players had an attitude problem, emboldened by the Cherberg era and their antipathy for discipline. After one particularly bad practice, one week before the opener with the Colorado Buffaloes, Owens led his players out of Husky Stadium onto the practice field.

The Big Fella had had enough, had seen enough and was ready to take command.

Some of the players snickered as Owens coolly surveyed them, his head moving slowly from side to side.

"He's out of here in two years," one of them whispered.

"Hell, no, he'll pull a Royal on us."

Owens paused just long enough to show them he was serious.

"Okay, let's run some sprints, men."

Most of them were too tired to run, having just scrimmaged. Owens lined them up on the goal line and they began running in 15-yard bursts. They'd line up in a three-point stance, run until Owens blew the whistle, and line up in a three-point stance again; they ran from one end of the field to the other and back again. Then up and back again.

Seattle reporters stood dumbstruck as Owens and his assistants, Tom Tipps, Chesty Walker, and Bert Clark, urged the players to continue. Although Owens didn't line up in a three-point stance, he ran backwards with the players.

They formed a V-shaped wedge as they ran, those too tired to continue falling back along the flanks.

"My leg's hurting, I can't run anymore," a player yelled out.

"Had enough?" Owens responded.

"No," a fifth stringer replied.

"Shut up," several others retorted.

The reporters had seen nothing like it before--oh, maybe, in a war movie about boot camp training and such, but not on a football field. One reporter dubbed the Husky practice he witnessed that day, the "Death March."

"Owens destroyed the team that day. He broke the spirit of players and he lost their cooperation. A lot of them felt he had been unfair," one player told Seattle sportswriter Dick Rockne.

During the practice that preceded the Death March, the same player lay prostrate near the sideline and refused to get up. Having a charley horse, he feigned to pass out.

"Run the next play towards him," Owens ordered the team. And sure enough, the player rolled off the field before he was trampled over.

Behind the background of the Death March, the scene was set for what would transpire two years later. The NCAA's limited-substitution rule was in effect (one platoon football), and Owens had brought in an outstanding freshman team, led by Bob Schloredt, the one-eyed quarterback from Gresham, Oregon.

A pre-dental student, Schloredt attracted a lot of attention at Washington because of his athleticism and academics.

I remember reporters bursting into my physics lab to photograph Schloredt as he stood by the equipment he'd set up for a lab experiment. The flash bulbs that popped off that day supplied the energy for the lightning that struck the Husky football program two years later.

Later, on a cold, cloudy day, I watched Schloredt lead the freshmen team to a rout of the Coubabes, the freshmen team from Washington State College.


On the varsity practice field, Owens' Death March continued to flourish, the 15-yard sprints, the 80-yard gassers and the endless punt drills.

One badly dehydrated player was taken to a hospital for intravenous fluids; eventually he returned to the team.

After certain heated practices, to cool enmities built over time, players and coaches alike would brawl, participating, unknowingly, in a preview of the mud-soaked free-for-all that would follow years later, in Clint Eastwood's movie, "Heart Break Ridge."

During many of the practices, the youthful, raw-boned Owens continued to lead his team in the sprints, running backwards with them as they navigated the field, in short bursts of sustained energy. Some of the men would fall flat on their faces, too weak and exhausted to continue. Taking the players to the point of where they think they can do no more is "when you find out what guys really want to play ball," Owens told a reporter.

The dispirited ones, each as bedraggled as any of Bryant's Junction boys, bolted the team, feeling that Owens had been unfair to them.

The ones who stayed with the team learned a powerful lesson: That strength of mind builds a certain confidence in oneself that can overcome any physical limitation, imaginary or real. Once you quit at something, it is so much easier to quit the next time the opportunity arises, Owens told them--especially so in the fourth quarter.

Like Bryant's men who survived the "Death March" at Junction, Owens' survivors at Montlake were not quitters.

To boost the morale of those who stayed, Owens allowed linemen to challenge other linemen, to strive for a higher position in squad status. For example, a second-team guard might challenge a first-team guard for a starting role.

This, the "challenge system," started out with two tackling dummies placed two yards apart. Starting out in a three-point stance, the challenger tried to block his opponent back to create a hole for an imaginary running back, sufficient enough for him to gain at least ten yards. He had three attempts to do that. After switching roles, the process was repeated.

Like Bryant at Texas A&M, who won just one game his first year, Owens first two years at Washington were unsuccessful, his teams going 6-13-1. Two years after Junction, Bryant's Aggies won the Southwest Conference championship, using the foundation created at Junction for success on the gridiron.

Each team Owens' 1957/58 teams played against and lost to knew that it had been in a football game. They fourth-quartered their opponents. In 1999, during a reunion of the 1959 team, Emmett Watson (Seattle Post Intelligencer) shared his memory of those Dawgs. "Players—winning players—were beat up, bruised, exhausted, sometimes stunned by what they'd been through. Instead of exulting they were moaning. That's what the Huskies were doing to teams they lost to."

The intense rehearsals on the practice field in Owens' first year at Washington led to a smash hit two years later.

In 1959, a period of thirteen, mostly-bleak years in Husky football ended. The Huskies finished the regular season with 9 wins, losing just one game to a USC team led by the incomparable Willie Wood--the first black to play the quarterback position in the Pac-10. Since players went both ways in those days, both Wood and Schloredt played defensive back as well.

Washington went on to win the 1960 Rose Bowl game, beating Wisconsin, 44-8.

"I punched the air out of his spare tire."

"Okay, over his hole, George, near right, 42 slam on white, on white, ready break."

"Check!"

"On white."

As I remember, one of our men drove his helmet into the gut of that all-American tackle from Wisconsin. Schloredt ran one of his men over his position, time after time, until, near the shadow of his own goal line, the lumbering tackle took himself out of the game.


"The coaches taught us to block with our heads," John Myers of that Husky team said. "We were going to break ribs, break noses."

Few of those Huskies ever taped an injury or took himself out of a game. "The coaches ridiculed us if we taped ourselves," Myers said.

By winning the 1960 Rose Bowl, Jim Owens also ended 13 years of embarrassment for the old Pacific Coast Conference (then the AAWU), which had made a regular habit of losing to the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl, having lost twelve of the previous 13 games.

Hardened by their time under their sun, their era so much different than ours, "Bear" Bryant, Jim Owens and Tom Tipps were men who lived through the Great Depression, World War II and the Korean War. Many of their friends never lived past those wars to achieve any success on the playing field.

Wrapped in the cushiness of a high-tech milieu, while emboldened by the successes of the players' coaches of today, those media members so critical of Owens' and Bryant's alleged "brutality" have no idea of what was taught by the lessons of their period, of what was "needed" to take a team of losers and cry babies and turn them into winners.

In his later years, Bryant apologized to his men at a reunion for the survivors. Many of them, now successful in their fields of endeavor, shook his hand and hugged him.

Should Owens apologize to the Montlake boys, or has he? I doubt that any of them would feel an apology was necessary or even asked for one during the 1999 reunion of the 1959 team. The lessons they learned from him, as applied to their later lives, most likely more than made up for any temporary discomfort they felt as student athletes.

Guided by Bear Bryant, Jim Owens stood tall in the saddle, helping his men become the best they could be. And, they, believing in him, practiced and conditioned themselves "until dark," in the spirit of Junction and Montlake, in an era long past...but never forgotten. They, the Montlake Boys.

Afterward: On behalf of those of us who were first hand witnesses to the results of the Death March, I wish to thank Bob Hivner, Bob Schloredt, Bill Kinnune, Ray Jackson, Kurt Gegner, Don McKeta, George Flemming, Lee Folkins, Chuck Allen, Roy McKasson, Barry Bullard, John Meyers, Jim Skaggs, Joe Jones, Stan Chapple, George Pitt, Ben Davidson, and all of the others for there outstanding effort and dedication to the team.
References:

"Celebrating 100 Years of Husky Football," Professional Sports Publication, New York City.

Burke, Roger, "Once a Husky, Always a Husky, Columbia River Book Company, 2001.

Dent, Jim, "The Junction Boys." Thomas Dunn Books, An Imprint of St. Martin's Press, 1999.

Rockne, Dick, "Bow Down to Washington," The Strobe Publishers, Huntsville, Alabama, 1975.

The opening sub-heading is from Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman."
The author of this article, Richard Linde, can be contacted at malamute@4malamute.com

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