Husky Fans must look in mirror

Perhaps right now in a parallel universe, Gary Pinkel is coaching the Huskies with great success. Perhaps the team is going 9-4 or 10-3 each year, just enough to make demanding boosters happy. Perhaps the Huskies have a little less flash and a bit more blue-collar style of play.

Perhaps the offense is solid if not spectacular, and the defense has an assassin's attitude; they will get in your face and hit you in the mouth and you will feel it and know that you just played the Washington Huskies. Perhaps the Huskies have maintained an image of being generally clean and striving for relative academic excellence and athletic success, while maintaining a relative sense of integrity.

Perhaps there is an Athletic Director who lets it be known what is expected, then truly enforces it for all to see, especially when their coaches decide to play jump rope with the university's public image. Perhaps in this parallel universe, there is a Seattle media that actually strives to be balanced; making efforts to portray the local university in a supportive light, but not hesitating to level fair criticism when it is truly deserved. And if they're feeling journalistically frisky, perhaps instead of trying to sabotage the local university, the Seattle papers are even doing some undercover digging around the USC campus, trying to come up with any quasi-evidence of corruption amid the Trojan football program. But this is not some idyllic parallel universe we find ourselves in, but rather Seattle, Washington circa 2003. We have a well-meaning Athletic Director who currently seems more concerned with damage control than with corrective action and the setting of a consistent standard of behavior. We have a local media that is nothing less than vindictive in their coverage of the Huskies. For years now, (well before our mischievous coach arrived on the scene), they have constantly bombarded us with negative stories and cynical slants on the happenings at Montlake. It is perplexing.

And speaking of our mischievous coach, (and in case the San Francisco 49ers didn't notice), the Huskies went 7-6 this year, and often looked confused, lethargic and overmatched. The San Francisco 49ers must not have watched our sterling performance in the Sun Bowl, or paid attention to much of anything we did this past year. The UW offense was loaded with talent at the skill positions, but didn't have the strength or skill to manage any sort of running game. We had a defensive backfield that was out of position regularly, and a defensive system that constantly sent players scurrying onto the field in the final seconds of a waning play clock, leaving UW players (and fans) stressed out trying to figure where they need to be and get properly positioned before the opponent snapped the ball.

If you take away Washington's 11-1 Rose Bowl season (replete with 4th quarter comebacks due only to the intestinal fortitude of a specific Samoan quarterback), the Huskies have gone a mediocre 22-15 under Neuheisel's watch. They have also suffered two of the most humiliating defeats in school history, the 65-7 thrashing by the Hurricanes and the debacle at Michigan this past year. We also heard of Arizona State announcers noting on-air that by the 3rd quarter the Husky players had the look of a team that had quit.

Said Don James recently to columnist Blaine Newnham, "I could see Rick being interested in the NFL someday. (Much as with) Steve Spurrier, who had done about all he could at Florida."

This line of thinking confuses me. The blunt difference between the two is that Spurrier was a victory machine down at Florida, often destroying opponents with his lethal passing attack and finishing regularly with 10+ wins per season. Neuheisel is a charismatic and intelligent coach, yet there is always a sense of great things approaching from a nearby horizon, but as of yet, not quite materializing. This may seem somewhat odd to say considering the success of the 2000 season, but ask yourself this: If it weren't for Tuiasosopo's magnificent 4th quarter performances, what with a mediocre defense and no game-breaking threats at either wide receiver or tailback, would the Dawgs have had to struggle mightily to manage even a 6-5 season? I think we all know the answer to this.

For those of us fans who have been following the team for several years, who remember the bitter pain of sanctions and the crumbling of our gridiron empire, Neuheisel represented a fresh start and a return to those days of yore. He was to be a recruiting machine, a player's coach, an intellectual juggernaut that would outmaneuver all opponents and send Husky fans to Pasadena every other year. He said all the right things and inflated the collective esteem of the fan base. Phrases like Washington becoming the "Florida State of the West" fed into the ego and arrogance of all Husky fans, who ate it up and wanted more. Washington fans feel like there is something intrinsically different and special about being a Husky, something that no other west coast program can duplicate.

Husky fans have been babbling nonstop this past week about Neuheisel's lie regarding the 49er job interview. They feel incensed, disgusted and some are even wanting him out. But there should be no fresh anger directed toward Neuheisel, as he is only doing what he has always done. Husky fans weren't upset at him when he jumped from Colorado to Washington in the middle of the night. After all, he was coming to Washington, and isn't Washington the premier program on the west coast? Who wouldn't finagle a way to Seattle, if given the opportunity?

Husky fans are only upset now due to two reasons… First off, its because they are struck with the realization that there is a job out there that Neuheisel would prefer to have more than the one he has here. When he makes comments like, "I want to reiterate what I have said in the past. I am the football coach at the University of Washington and I am very happy with my position and I am not interested in coaching anywhere else"—Husky fans were flattered that there was obviously no finer place for a coach to go. But from Neuheisel, statements like these ring hollow, even if they sound great.

Secondly, the sloppy and lethargic results on the football field this season give hints of the winds of change. These weren't the Huskies for much of this season. There was something missing, a profound lack of intensity, concentration and toughness. Six sloppy losses at Washington is not acceptable, and suddenly some boosters and former players were telling me off the record that they were growing confused and disillusioned with Neuheisel. What surprised me (perhaps naïvely) at the time was that Neuheisel's behavior was only truly scrutinized once we started seeing sub-par results on the field.

There should be nothing surprising to Husky fans about what is occurring right now. Many thousands are acting indignant in hearing the news Neuheisel lied and had interviewed for the 49er job. Rick Neuheisel is what he is- generally a good guy, a charmer, a fierce competitor, but also a manipulator and someone who has a lengthy history of bending rules and looking for loopholes. To Husky fans, he still represents a fresh start and a flip of the bird to the rest of the Pac-10 Conference that reamed the program in prior times.

But Husky fans need to look in the mirror and make up their minds as to what college football should mean to our University. If we value integrity and stability to be most important, then perhaps Washington and Neuheisel are a square peg and a round hole, and should amicably part ways-- especially since Neuheisel envisions greener pastures anyway.

However, if Husky football is on the verge of great success upon the field, then none of these inevitable and regular Neuheisel shenanigans should come as any surprise to Washington football supporters. They should be regarded as nothing but potholes along the imagined road to Pasadena. Let the fans enjoy the chartered bus ride with a knowing wink from the gregarious driver that winning is the most important thing we all value, while overlooking minor indiscretions. Perhaps that's the American-Machiavellian way.

The bottom line is that Washington was not well coached this year. It seems to me that before the NFL comes clamoring for Neuheisel's signature, the Huskies should finish a season with the same emphatic triumph, as did Jon Gruden's Tampa Bay Buccaneers in this past Super Bowl.

Then things will feel completed, and it will feel proper for him to move on. In such a case, I think most Husky fans would wish him well.

Derek Johnson can be reached at Top Stories