In a Seattle region that has transformed radically since 1889, the University of Washington's football team has been one of the few constants. Washington has appeared in 14 Rose Bowls, which is second only to USC (University of Southern California) and Michigan. It has been represented by legendary coaches such as Gil Dobie (1879-1948), Jim Phelan (1893-1974), Jim Owens (1927-2009), and Don James (1932-2013), as well as All-Americans such as George Wilson (1901-1963), Hugh McElhenny (b. 1928), Warren Moon (b. 1956), Steve Emtman (b. 1970), and Marques Tuiasosopo (b. 1979). The team has also endured its share of controversial firings and scandals. Most notable have been the Pac-10 sanctions of 1993 that led to Don James's resignation, and The Seattle Times series in 2008 detailing the turmoil surrounding the 2000 UW team that won the Rose Bowl.
Formative Years 1889-1907
The Seattle of 1889 was not a shiny metropolis with Starbucks, white collar execs from Microsoft, and massive sports stadiums. It was a male-dominated seaport town teeming with saloons, brothels, timber mills, hardware stores, and horse-drawn carriages which churned along muddy streets. On June 6, when a hellacious fire engulfed most of the city, people took solace that the most prominent building still stood. It was a white colonial-style building housing the Territorial University in downtown Seattle.
Due to a looming milestone, Seattleites needed no extra motivation to rebuild. On November 11, 1889, Washington officially became the 42nd state of the United States. The Territorial University therefore became the University of Washington.
It was amid a backwoods setting that the University of Washington played its first-ever football game on Thanksgiving Day, 1889. It took place at the Jefferson Street Park, just east of downtown. In a game resembling something closer to rugby than today’s football, UW lost 20-0 to a team composed of Eastern College alumni (Eastern College was the generic name of the team made up of players from various Ivy League schools.) Four of Washington’s 11 players had never played football before that day!
By the 1890s it was decided that the rough elements of downtown Seattle were not conducive to a prestigious university atmosphere. Property was purchased five miles away, in a wooded area bordering beautiful Lake Washington. In an effort to establish school traditions, a heated debate broke out one day in an English class over school colors. A teacher named Louise Frazyer settled things when she read aloud from Lord Byron’s "Destruction of Sennacherib." The poem contained these decisive lines: " The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold, And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold" (University Chronology).
On November 22, 1900, Washington ushered in the new century by playing Washington Agricultural College (now known as Washington State University). The game ended in a 5-5 tie, establishing a new rivalry that later would become known as The Apple Cup (University Chronology).
On November 20, 1903, Washington football unified Seattleites like never before. A game between Washington and Nevada was witnessed by 5,000 raucous fans at old Denny Field (located on the northwest corner of the campus near 45th Street). A small contingent cheering for Nevada was drowned out by the hometown fans. Washington won 2-0, and was considered West Coast Champions. Thousands of people exited the park and paraded along downtown streets beating on drums, guzzling alcohol, and singing into the night. Said The Seattle Times: “Seattle wasn’t large enough last night, and never will be large enough to hold the backers of Washington” (Bow Down to Washington, p. 25)
Gloomy Gil Dobie (1908-1916)
Due to the constant flow of new arrivals flooding into Seattle, the area’s population swelled. Civic leaders fostered visions of Seattle becoming a beacon city on America’s West Coast. They decided that a powerhouse football team could further the city’s national reputation. Soon after, Washington boldly hired a coveted coach named Gilmour Dobie at the stunning salary of $3,000 a year.
In his nine seasons at Washington, Dobie never lost a game. He compiled a record of 58-0-3, which included a 39-game winning streak and was part of a streak of 63 consecutive games without a defeat. As of 2008, the latter remains a NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) record. In those same nine seasons, Washington surrendered only 12 touchdowns.
Dobie also was dour, gruff, and intimidating. Recalled a former player: "No smile, no handshakes, no slap on the back -- nothing but a pair of eyes peering coldly out of a dark face that was hidden partially by a slouch hat drawn loosely over a head of mussed black hair" (The Glory of Washington, 49).
During the 1916 season, the university’s administration suspended a player for an alleged exam irregularity. Washington players threatened to strike, and Dobie supported them. This infuriated new UW President Henry Suzzallo (1875-1933). Rumors swirled for days that Suzzallo blamed Dobie for urging the strike. C. B. Yandell, Seattle’s Chamber of Commerce Secretary, announced: “Washington needs Dobie. His loss would be a loss to Seattle and to the state” (100 Years of Husky Football, 56) .
Finally, Suzzallo released a statement that concluded: “The chief function of the university is to train character. Mr. Dobie failed to perform his full share of this service on the football field. Therefore, we do not wish him to return next year” (100 Years of Husky Football, 56).
This news devastated thousands of Washington fans, who had seen their team achieve nine consecutive undefeated seasons. In response to his firing, Dobie stated that he had fulfilled his responsibilities in a thorough manner. “Dr. Suzzallo does me wrong when he says that I did otherwise” (100 Years of Husky Football, 56).
Over 30 years later, a former player stepped forward and admitted that it was he, and not Dobie, who had instigated the insubordination.
Dobie is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.
Baggy and the Boys (1921-1929)
In the four years following Dobie’s ouster, Washington lost nine games. This appalled everyone associated with the program. It was decided that improvements were needed. In eight months, Husky Stadium was built as 30,000-seat bowl carved from the earth by water pressure. Ground was broken on May 17, 1920, and the stadium opened on November 17, 1920. In the space of 15 months, the team’s nickname went from “Sundodgers” to “Vikings” to finally “Huskies.”
A heralded high school coach named Enoch Bagshaw (d. 1930) was named as Washington’s new head man. Bagshaw was a gruff and by-the-book type, going by the nickname “Baggy.” For much of the roaring twenties, Washington’s football fortunes mirrored the economic boom of America as a whole. A recruit named George Wilson followed Baggy to Washington, and became a legend.
The 1923 squad compiled a 10-1-1 record and played USC for the first time. It was the first sellout in Husky Stadium and the school’s first game broadcast on radio. UW beat the Trojans 22-0. Washington concluded the season in its first Rose Bowl, tying Navy 14-14.
The 1925 Huskies were a team for the ages, again going 10-1-1 and scoring 480 points, which led the nation. They opened with a 108-0 win over Willamette. Making their first trip east of the Rockies and traveling by train to Nebraska, Washington tied the mighty Cornhuskers 6-6. They concluded the season, and Wilson’s career, with a heartbreaking 20-19 loss to Alabama in the Rose Bowl. New York sportswriter Damon Runyon, who dubbed boxer James J. Braddock “The Cinderella Man,” said of Wilson’s Rose Bowl performance: “He is one of the finest players of this or any other time ... a one-man football team.” (100 Years of Husky Football, p.34)
Many observers claimed for decades afterward that the Washington-Alabama clash was the most exciting Rose Bowl ever played.
Baggy’s time at Washington came to an end in 1929, at about the same time that America plunged into the Great Depression. Despite much success during the decade, grumbling from boosters increased because of Bagshaw’s inability to recruit and socialize with alumni and supporters. Following a grisly defeat to Amos Alonzo Stagg’s terrible Chicago team in November 1929, Baggy was fired. His career record was 63-22-6.
The Phelan Years (1930-1941)
As America struggled through tough economic times, Washington hired the caustic James Phelan as Head Coach. Nothing better summarized Phelan’s personality than a remark he made to a reporter in the mid-1930s: “I’d rather outsmart those bastards on the upper campus than knock off Oregon State” (Bow Down to Washington, p. 73).
In Phelan’s 12 years at Washington, the team reached one Rose Bowl in 1937, where they lost to Pittsburgh 21-0. The highlight of the era was beating superpower USC five years in a row, and seven years out of eight. Influential UW alum Dr. Alfred Strauss recruited a string of great players from Chicago. They were called “Strauss Boys” and for two decades some 50 of them traveled to Seattle by train. Several -- including Ray Frankowski and Rudy Mucha -- were named All-Americans, as was Paul Schwegler from Raymond, Washington, in 1931. Schwegler later went on to moderate success as an actor in Hollywood.
In late December 1941, the UW suddenly fired Phelan, despite his record of 65-37-8. The announcement ignited a public backlash from fans and former players alike, with Phelan himself calling it “another Pearl Harbor deal” (Bow Down to Washington, p. 92). It was later revealed that administrators were troubled by Phelan’s drinking patterns.
The Pest Welch Years (1942-1948)
America’s entry into World War II coincided with UW’s hiring of Ralph “Pest” Welch (1907-1974) as Head Football Coach. Welch was well-liked by everyone, but Washington played out six nondescript years under his watch.
The one notable season came in 1943. It was strange season all around, as wartime restrictions impacted scheduling done by the Pacific Coast Conference. The Huskies played Whitman followed by three games against nearby military teams. That year’s Rose Bowl pitted the league’s Northern Champion with the Southern Champion. This is how Washington (4-0) came to play USC (7-2) in Pasadena on New Year’s Day 1944.
By the time the Rose Bowl rolled around, many of Washington’s top players were in Europe fighting in the war. For the first time, the Rose Bowl was being radio broadcast to U.S. troops all over the world. NBC announced that General Eisenhower gave every man not on the firing line permission to tune in, even though in Italy kickoff was at 1 a.m.
When the Huskies ran onto the Rose Bowl field, legendary announcer Bill Stern exclaimed: “You can see that this bunch of kids came from up in the Northwest where men are men. Look at those muscles!” (100 Years of Husky Football, p. 97).
But the talent-depleted Husky squad never stood a chance against the Trojans, falling 29-0.
The King and The Arm (1949-1952)
Having gone several years without a Rose Bowl appearance, the Washington Huskies were desperate to return to glory under their dapper and charismatic Coach Howie Odell. The successful recruitment of running back Hugh McElhenny made front page headlines throughout the Northwest. McElhenny had been heavily coveted by superpowers UCLA, Alabama, Notre Dame, Arizona State, Nebraska, and California. Seattleites were electrified. McElhenny was a big back, graced with breakaway speed and the remarkable ability to change direction on a dime.
Already on the roster was a promising quarterback from Bremerton named Don Heinrich. With McElhenny and Heinrich together, this was tabbed a dream backfield, aka The King and The Arm. For Husky fans, hopes of a Rose Bowl reached a fever pitch. As fate would have it, the duo would play only one full season together due to injuries.
That season was 1950. It began with the historic debut of a new $1,175,000 upper deck, which added 15,000 seats to Husky Stadium’s south side. UW beat Kansas State 33-7 as McElhenny rushed 16 times for 177 yards, including a 91-yard touchdown romp. Heinrich was 15 of 21 for 292 yards and 4 touchdowns. As the season progressed, Washington rolled up the victories and impressive statistics. McElhenny rushed for a school-record 296 yards against Washington State and finished with 1,107 for the year. Heinrich led the nation in passing and was named All-American.
The campaign ended with a colossal feeling of “what-if?” In November, with the Rose Bowl berth on the line for both teams, Washington faced the Cal Bears in Husky Stadium. UW trailed 14-7 late in the 4th quarter, and had the ball at their own 9-yard line. Heinrich and McElhenny led a drive all the way to the Bear two-yard line. What happened next still anguishes Husky fans that witnessed it more than 50 years ago. On fourth down, Heinrich made the decision to try a pass. He was hit and fumbled, and Cal recovered. The Bears went to the Rose Bowl. Washington finished 8-2.
It would be Washington’s last hurrah for another decade. The Huskies were put on probation in 1955 for an exposed slush fund, and they played out several mediocre seasons.
Returning to Dominance (1959-1964)
The 1959 Huskies were coming off a disappointing season and were under everyone’s radar. Led by third-year Coach Jim Owens, the Huskies endured grueling practices designed to weed out the less committed and ratchet up the toughness. As the season began, Washington pummeled its opponents into submission, losing only to USC. In the regular season finale, the Huskies beat Washington State 20-0 to capture the Rose Bowl berth before an overflow crowd at Husky Stadium. Owens possessed the popularity of a rock star and was awarded the key to the city. Players like one-eyed quarterback Bob Schloredt and running back Don McKeta were revered.
In Pasadena, Washington found itself a heavy underdog against Wisconsin of the heralded Big 10 Conference. The Big 10 had dominated the Rose Bowl for many years. Although the Huskies made a nice story, observers considered them in over their heads. Husky fans didn’t care. Forty thousand of them, adorned in purple and gold, made caravan car trips bound for Southern California. From the game’s opening kick, Washington bludgeoned the Badgers and won 44-8, to finish the season 10-1.
In 1960, Washington walked the tightrope to a string of victories and landed back in Pasadena. This time, they played the No. 1 ranked Minnesota Gophers. Washington prevailed 17-7, to finish at 10-1. This team later reunited in Seattle in 2007, to be retroactively recognized by the University of Washington as National Champions.
The Huskies returned to the Rose Bowl again in 1963, losing to Illinois. Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray summed up Washington’s toughness: “I won’t say Owens gets the hungriest football players in the west each year, but if they were in the Roman Coliseum the lions wouldn’t come out” (Husky Stadium: Great Games and Golden Moments, p. 49).
The Sixkiller Renaissance (1970-1972)
As quarterback Sonny Sixkiller (b. 1951) prepared for his first career start against Michigan State in 1970, enthusiasm for Washington football was on the wane. The program had suffered through a couple years of racial strife and misunderstandings that led to civil rights leaders calling for the resignation of Jim Owens. In 1969, the Huskies had staggered to a 1-9 record while protests over the Vietnam War raged on their campus. Seattle was also suffering through a dreary recession led by Boeing’s massive lay offs.
On September 19, 1970, Sixkiller changed everything. He led UW to a 42-16 upset of Michigan State, which invigorated Seattle. He had a “Showtime” passing style, zipping the ball all over the field. His friendly charisma drew everyone in, leading Sports Illustrated to feature him on their cover. There was also a song in his honor, entitled “The Ballad of Sonny Sixkiller.” Native American groups actively sought him out for their causes.
In an era when the Pac-8 Conference only allowed its champion to go to a bowl game, Owens and Sixkiller never did reach the post season together. However, UW did post records of 6-4, 8-3 and 8-3 while restoring hope to a region that needed it.
The Don James Era (1975-1993)
When Washington began their 1977 season with a 1-3 record, Husky fans were venting over their floundering football team. Third-year Coach Don James had a 12-14 record amid rumors that players felt disconnected from him. On October 8, in the visitor’s locker room of Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Oregon, something happened to bring the team together. UW booster Dave Torrell was standing behind a roped-off area as the Huskies ran out of the tunnel. “I hadn’t seen us look that intense in forever,” he said. “I told [a fellow booster] that this game had the makings of a slaughter” (Husky Football in the Don James Era, p. 23).
Washington demolished Oregon 54-0 that day, and ushered in a new era. The Huskies won the rest of their games and stunned heavily favored Michigan in the 1978 Rose Bowl. UW linebacker Michael Jackson made a play for the ages near the goal line, taking the ball away from a Michigan running back for a game-saving interception. Warren Moon, who overcame struggles as Washington’s first black quarterback, was named the game’s MVP.
From that point, Don James and the Washington Huskies came to the nation’s notice. They were known for disciplined play, tough hitting, and ferocious defense. The 1979 team finished 10-2 and upset Texas in the Sun Bowl. The 1980 and 1981 teams both went to the Rose Bowl, with the latter squad blanking Iowa 28-0. In 1984, Washington beat Brian Bosworth and Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl to finish 11-1 and ranked No. 2 in the country. It was during that year that Sports Illustrated named the top three coaches in college football. On their list was “1. Don James, 2. Don James, 3. Don James” (Husky Football in the Don James Era, inside cover).
In December 1991, as the undefeated Huskies prepared to play Michigan in the Rose Bowl, a booster delivered a note to Don James. It was from President George H. W. Bush, who had just commemorated the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. It read, “Dear Don -- Coach of the Year. When I got back yesterday from Pearl Harbor, I flipped on the TV and there was the great news. Congratulations on such a well deserved honor. My warmest wishes to you. I hope our paths cross again before long. Good luck to you and that inspiring team. George H. W. Bush” (Husky Football in the Don James Era, p. 181).
In front of 103,566 fans and millions of TV viewers, Washington trounced Michigan 34-14. The Huskies were declared National Champions by the CNN/USA Today Coaches Poll. Washington had achieved its first undefeated team since Gil Dobie’s 1916 squad. The team possessed future NFL first round selections like Steve Emtman, Napoleon Kaufman, Lincoln Kennedy, and Dana Hall.
On November 5, 1992, five days after Washington had beaten Stanford for its 22nd win in a row, a Seattle Times headline made tsunami-like waves. It read “HUSKIES’ HOBERT GOT $50,000 LOAN.” The story detailed how UW’s star quarterback Billy Joe Hobert received loans from an Idaho scientist named Charles Rice. A month later, The Los Angeles Times began its own series of articles, attacking the integrity of the Washington’s football program. Speculation ran wild across America as to whether under Don James Washington was an outlaw football program.
On August 22, 1993, following a six-month investigation, the Pac-10 Conference put Washington on a two-year bowl probation. They also docked the Huskies 20 scholarships and $1.4 million in television revenue. The punishment was the most severe in conference history. The Pac-10’s report detailed 24 allegations referencing Hobert, Husky boosters and manipulated expense reports by student hosts. The Pac-10 also stated that “there was no evidence that the University of Washington set out to achieve a competitive advantage” (Husky Football in the Don James Era, p. 273).
The investigation determined that Charles Rice wasn’t a booster, and had no connection to the University of Washington. The Pac-10 did say that although Rice’s loan was inappropriate because it was predicated on Hobert’s projected NF L earnings, it was “inconclusive” whether Husky coaches should have known about its existence. The Pac-10 cited a booster in Southern California for instances of paying Husky players for minimal or non-existent work in a summer jobs program (Husky Football in the Don James Era, p. 272).
Following the announcement of probation, James promptly resigned in protest. This news rocked the college football world. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s Art Thiel took the Pac-10 to task, but said that in quitting, “James committed an act of cowardice he would not respect in any of his players or assistants” (Husky Football in the Don James Era, p. 273).
Former Washington State Coach Jim Walden, a rival of James’s, expressed his thoughts. “It’s almost like police brutality that the conference would go beyond the law,” he said. “They put the death penalty on Don James, one of the most highly respected people in our profession” (Husky Football in the Don James Era, p. 273).
James later expressed his belief that the UW had turned its back on him and the team, leaving them to the league’s mercy. Declared James in 2004: “I said that if this university isn’t going to support us any better than that, after all the money these players have made for them, then I’m not gong to work here anymore.” About the Pac-10, James said: “It seemed like they were out to get us because we were so good, rather than help us get through this.” In 2007, former UW President William Gerberding claimed he did defend James and the team. “Some small minds and people seized the opportunity to punish our coach, our team, and our university. It was and remains a bitter experience” (Husky Football in the Don James Era, p. 288, 289, 295).
James’s 153 wins are the most in Washington history. He is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.
Taking over a team that was on probation, Jim Lambright (b. 1942) faced an uphill battle. Lambright (known as Lambo to his players and friends) had been associated with Husky football as a player, Assistant Coach, and now Head Coach for 30 years. In the next six years, he won 44 games but never seemed to escape the shadow of expectations cast from the Don James years.
Lambright will always be remembered for the 1994 “Whammy in Miami.” The Huskies traveled to the Orange Bowl and dominated the Miami Hurricanes 38-20. The win snapped Miami’s NCAA record 58-game home winning streak. Husky players hoisted Lambright upon their shoulders and carried him triumphantly off the field.
Lambright was fired in December 1998, after the Huskies were routed by Air Force in the Oa’hu Bowl.
The New Millennium (1999-2007)
The twenty-first century has been a grueling ordeal for Husky football. It began well enough with new coach Rick Neuheisel leading the Huskies to an 11-1 record and the 2001 Rose Bowl Championship. That season featured the inspired leadership of quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo and another victory over the Miami Hurricanes. The season also featured the tragic story of Curtis Williams, who suffered paralysis from colliding with a Stanford ball carrier. Williams never recovered, and would die two years later in his brother’s home in California.
Since late in the 2001 season, Washington’s football fortunes have been on the downslide. It started with a demoralizing 65-7 road loss to Miami. The 2002 team finished last in the Pac-10 in rushing yards and ended up at 7-6. In 2003, Neuheisel was fired for betting in a gambling pool and lying to NCAA investigators.
Keith Gilbertson coached the Huskies in 2003 and 2004, going 7-16 before being fired. Washington hired Tyrone Willingham in December 2004, as the first African American Head Football Coach in UW history. His record after three years is 11-25. His teams have finished 10th, 9th, and 10th in the Pac-10 Conference, rendering him the first Husky coach to register three consecutive losing seasons.
Victory and Ruins (2008)
In early 2008, The Seattle Times published a series of explosive articles examining lawlessness perpetrated by players from the 2000 UW team. The series was entitled Victory and Ruins. Said The Times: “Once a national power, the Huskies now routinely lose more games than they win. The athletic director, Todd Turner, was forced out last month, and many fans want coach Tyrone Willingham fired. One prominent booster, the former mayor of Everett, recently offered a $100,000 donation for the coach's ouster. “Husky faithful look back wistfully to their last great team: the 2000 squad, winners of the Rose Bowl, owners of an 11-1 record, ranked No. 3 in the nation. `A mystical, magical season,’ one sportswriter called it at the time. What happened on the field in 2000 may have been magical. But what happened off it was not” (Seattle Times, January 30, 2008, p. A-1).
The Times’ articles focused primarily on three troubled former players: Jerramy Stevens, Jeremiah Pharms, and the late Curtis Williams. Stevens had been arrested via SWAT team in July 2000 for an alleged rape of a sorority girl, among various brushes he had with the law. Pharms was charged with robbing and shooting a drug dealer. Williams had a volatile marriage and was arrested on several occasions for domestic violence. Said The Seattle Times: “Former coach Rick Neuheisel and athletic director Barbara Hedges accepted most of it, demanding little discipline or accountability from their athletes. And other community institutions, including prosecutors, police, judges, and the media, went along. Beyond the roses, that was the legacy of the Neuheisel-Hedges era -- and the ruins Willingham and Turner inherited in 2004” (The Seattle Times, January 30, 2008, p. A-1).
In the series’ aftermath, newspapers and blogs across the country decried the 2000 Huskies as being a team of thugs. Said one blog’s headline: “The 2000 Washington Huskies were Horrible People” (Deadspin.com). Among the fractured UW fan base, debates raged as many questioned why this series needed to be written eight years after the fact. For supporters of Tyrone Willingham, it was evidence that he was burdened with cleaning up Neuheisel’s colossal mess, and deserving of more time. For those in favor of Willingham’s dismissal, it looked like an attempt to prop up an embattled minority coach, while dragging dispirited Husky fans through the mud again.
The Times did succeed in creating public discourse as to what the priorities should be for a Division I college football coach. As UW President Suzzallo stated back in 1916 as he fired Coach Gilmour Dobie: "The chief function of the university is to train character. Mr. Dobie failed to perform his full share of this service on the football field. Therefore, we do not wish him to return next year" (100 Years of Husky Football, 56). While Willingham had unquestionably cleaned up the program, a key difference was that Dobie was 58-0-3, while Willingham, going into 2008, was 11-25.
And things did not improve. Although Willingham headed into the new season with hopes pinned on young phenom QB Jake Locker and a solid incoming recruiting class, the Huskies lost every game they played that year, including a double-overtime cliff-hanger to cross-state rival WSU in the annual Apple Cup. But even before this loss, the decision to replace Willingham as coach had been made. In December 2008 the Huskies announced that their new coach would be Steve Sarkisian (b. 1974), then the associate head coach and offensive coordinator of the University of Southern California Trojans.
New Coach, New Hope (2009-2010)
In Sarkisian's first season, 2009, the Huskies improved to five wins and seven losses. In 2010, despite a mediocre record of six and six, the team won a trip to the Holiday Bowl, where they beat the heavily favored Nebraska Cornhuskers, 19-7. To add to the satisfaction, the Huskies took the coveted Apple Cup from WSU in both 2009 and 2010.
Going into 2011, the revitalized Huskies under Coach Sarkisian are looking to make some waves in the Pac-12 conference. After games against Eastern Washington and Hawaii, the team will travel to Nebraska for a September 17 rematch against the Cornhuskers. The following week brings the conference opener against the California Bears at Husky Stadium.