Coach's Corner

This piece is not intended as a critique to the series in the Seattle Times, although I do question their motives behind why they chose to run their four-part investigative look at the 2001 Rose Bowl Champion Husky team.

First we must first realize that football at the collegiate level is very much part of the educational process. There is no denying that it is big business and it is very much a part of the American entertainment industry. It does, however, have significant educational value and as every kid who has ever played it will tell you, it is a tremendous learning experience. You learn volumes about yourself and how to work with others - more so in the football classroom - than you ever do in any other class.

As educators, coaches understand that when you bring a kid into school that you also bring along any issues he may have. We therefore have an obligation to help those kids with all of their assorted and varied problems.

Believe me the players highlighted in the Times' series had serious problems. We tried to help these kids survive and have success in school and football while at the same time juggling classes, practice, and all of the other demands that come with their jobs as student-athletes. You help them grow and help them adjust and try to keep them on track.

At the major college level, the majority of the players are semi-employed via a scholarship system and therefore football serves as a vehicle for them towards getting a college degree which will hopefully enhance their occupational opportunities. I would estimate that less than 20% of college football players could or would be able to afford to go to college without their football scholarship. If they are on scholarship they are obligated to go to school, be progressing towards their degree, and participate in all of the activities that are involved in their sport.

They are also held to a standard of behavior above that of their fellow students and that is made clear to them. Each signs a code of conduct.

These kids know the statistics are against them playing professionally (less than 2-3% go on to the NFL) but that doesn't stop them from dreaming about it. Most, like Anthony Kelley, figure that out along the way and that the degree is the goal even if it isn't at the goal line.

There were anywhere between 100 and 115 kids on the team in the days when I coached. That means there were over a 100 different set of potential problems and agendas to deal with. Usually about 5-10% of the team caused you 90% of your problems off the field. That is just the way it is and I'll bet those are similar odds for every dormitory and every class at every major university. You will have at the very least 10% who struggle with the system and with the process.

The recent series by the Seattle Times, (front page mind you, not sports page), was about the 5-10% "problem kids." That was particularly difficult for me because I had spent a lot of time with each of the individuals involved. They were all young men who I helped recruit to come to Washington as an opportunity to earn both a college education and a Rose Bowl ring. I spent lots of time and energy working with Jerramy Stevens, Jeremiah Pharms, Curtis Williams, Anthony Kelley, and Anthony Vontoure.

We did thorough research on each of these kids during recruiting and fully understood the risks involved. We believed we could help them change their lives through education and a structured football environment. We believed that we could help these kids and that they could help us. We met with all of their families, went into all of their homes and promised people we would help their kids get through the college experience.

Kids get into trouble. It happens. But you don't just kick them off the team right away. You try to help them understand and learn and change the behavior. You help them grow up. It's part of what being a coach is all about.

That whole series interviewed exactly one coach. And that's sad and skews the story slant big time.

We'd already cried over Williams and Vonture. Particularly, Curtis, who had just begun to turn his life around. He was passing classes, advancing towards a degree and becoming the good player that we thought he would become. It took Curtis years to get on the field because of his problems off the field, as you read about in the Times. I am not defending any of his behaviors that were documented. However they didn't discuss how much Curtis had changed.

I was fortunate enough to attend both this teams' victorious bowl game as well as a graduation party for the majority of those senior players. I was extremely proud at both occasions and although I was no longer one of their coaches, they still called me coach. I was as honored then as I am now about that particular team. Those kids know they were proud to have been Huskies, proud to have won the Rose Bowl as a team, and proud to have completed their degrees. They had much to be proud about.

Now they as a group have been smeared, the last great Husky team will now be remembered by this series that paints the entire group from the actions of a few.

At all levels of football, players learn quickly that if they don't do what is asked of them then they do not play. That meant go to school, study table, tutoring, weight training, and meetings and be on time. Staying eligible was an incentive "carrot" for us, it was not the purpose. You go to school and pass your classes or you don't play. It is a very simple rule but the ultimate leverage to get kids through school. The objective was to get a degree, not to stay eligible like the series implies.

I also took offense to the suggestion by the series that these kids were given special treatment because they were good athletes. Of course they were because they had special needs coming in. We owed it to them to help them succeed! I was proud that we increased the graduation rate of our players to close to 80% and if I'm not mistaken this class of 2000 had a similar rate, but that wouldn't fit into this series.

The articles also almost ignores all the people like those Student Academic Services (SAS) counselors, professors and administrators whose efforts were designed to help these kids get their degrees and instead focus on sources who felt the kids were being used by football. There are successes and failures in any educational system and to suggest that this team was infested with social failures is short sighted and demeaning both to them and to all their teammates who succeeded both on and off the field.

Every one of these young men in the Times series also happens to be African-American. I found that disturbing, as I know we had problems with white kids as well during that same time period. Something just wasn't right about this singling out.

When I was at the UW, we were proud that Husky football opened the door for minority students to gain admissions to this great university. We gave lots of underprivileged kids an opportunity for a college education. That is not a bad thing.

I just think the series sheds such a terrible light on the other 90% who were good students, good citizens, and also good football players. I think this sort of journalism only continues to foster resentment towards collegiate football and the role it plays in university life.

I guess I don't understand the real motive behind the series. I heard their editor explain their reasoning but I didn't buy it. What was it really designed to do? Why did it come out now? Because the Huskies are asking for state funds? Because they just signed their best recruiting class in decades? Maybe it just because there is nothing else to write about at this time of year.

The fact that the story was based on 7-8 year old rehashed news is what makes you wonder about timing or motive. Is the purpose to show that under Coach Willingham things are being done different to ensure there isn't special consideration or treatment for football players or is it designed to "expose" the dark underside of college football?

Both Curtis Williams and Anthony Vonture are particularly sad stories as both passed away in their early twenties. Both had multiple problems and both took up considerable time and effort by coaches and staff trying to help them succeed.

Every one of these kids was given counseling. Not just academic counseling but psychological and legal as well. This is not unusual although the magnitude of these particular problems were unique. Some had deep rooted problems that we quickly recognized both before and after we recruited them. As coaches we immediately referred them to our learning and behavioral specialists in the SAS and individual help was provided for each.

None of the players in the series actually made the field for us under the Lambright era with the exception of Jeremiah Pharms and he will be the first to tell you his position coach always emphasized education and responsibility to his family first and football second.

I know because I was that coach.

I may have failed these kids, but I am confident that they know I tried to help them and so did many others. Our system was designed to red-shirt almost every freshman to ensure that he could adjust to the demands of the program and the college classroom. They were mostly all below the academic level of their fellow students and many came from depressing backgrounds, but they were also shown how it could be done. They were shown how with hard work on their part and special assistance on our part, they could walk down that aisle and be handed their college degree. Of course winning games was to be expected but you didn't even get in games unless you did your work in the classroom.

Regardless of the motive, I have to admit the Times' approach of stealing slime from the past worked. They got the attention they wanted and the reaction they expected from idiots like me but what good did it serve?

Every kid on your team has some personal problems during his 4-5 years on the team. Part of growing up is to learn to handle those problems yourself and some fail in doing so. Every year there are kids dismissed from the program because of such failures.

I had already lived through all these tragedies once and because of my personal involvement with each kid found the Times perspective to be interesting and thorough although bias and unfair.

For example you hear Curtis Williams's story but obviously you don't hear from Curtis. Sam Blanche was never arrested much less convicted yet is implicated as an accomplice to a felony. Is that fair journalism? Curtis Williams never made it onto the playing field or had any chance academically until he was out of his marriage. There is a lot more to the story, but what purpose would it serve? The Times didn't bother to get the entire story, and that is too bad, and I'm not going to rehash it here. It's done.

I also know for fact how hard the next staff worked to help these same kids succeed. I know Coach Neuheisel personally bent over backwards to help each of these kids and I know how hard it was to see some of them fail in life or lose life altogether.

I hope that the positive outcome is that now people will realize what an outstanding person we have in Coach Willingham and how respected he is by his student-athletes. He is holding the kids accountable and he is winning the battle off the field. Hopefully he will start winning more on the field which would give people a chance to realize that he is a wonderful sports-educator.

I hope that was the intent of the articles, but I doubt it.

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