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Husky Football Blog

The latest news and analysis on the Montlake Dawgs.

August 21, 2011 at 5:11 PM

A visit with Ed Cunningham

We’ll continue with the interviews conducted the stories on the 1991 Huskies with this Q-and-A with Ed Cunningham.

Cunningham, now an announcer for ESPN, was the starting center and a team captain on that squad.

On looking back 20 years ago on that season: “The one thing that has been great to me over time and I’ve been around college football now other than the five years I spent in the NFL, I’ve been around college football as an announcer the exact same amount I played football from high school to college and to the NFL and now covering college football for 15 years. So 30 years of my life and have been on the sport and although I make my living in other ways, my main living has come from football the last 20 years, and the one thing that is nice about that is you can get pretty jaded in this business and all those things that can happen and look at it like a business, but I still have a lot of joy and love the game and despite all of its barnacles think it’s a wonderful game. And for me what’s nice is that I still look at that season as just an absolutely magical combination of timing and talent and hard work and people and dumb luck and all the things that (UW coach Don) James instilled. And a lot of that has to do with I really know now how hard it is to do what that team did. It really only happens about once a decade. It was us maybe early in the ’90s and certainly Nebraska in the mid-90s and USC there in that 03-04-05 range, it just has become really clear that there is a difference. I remember the Oklahoma team with Jason White and I did the game where they beat Texas A&M 77-0 and that was a great team and I remember thinking that even they got knocked off and just how special 1991 was and all the things that go on. That’s the beauty for me is it’s not just the memories but the business at hand.”

Thoughts heading into the 1991 season and if they thought the national title was realistic: “I think we all had our foundation and confidence shaken pretty bad when Mark (Brunell) got hurt. No one really knew Billy (Joe Hobert). He was just a sophomore and frankly was never really very great in practice. And that position is the key position. You can talk about it shouldn’t be that way or too much credit or too much blame is given to the QB. That’s all true — but it’s also all true. And so we had a guy in Mark who was a tough, good team leader who fit the guys who made up that team for the most part, which was just a good hard-working tough person, and it just so happened that we had immensely talented people who were also those guys. So losing him I think was a big deal. We knew he was growing in the offense and they were going to work on some more run game stuff with him, and all the sudden in the middle of the spring when we knew we were going to be No. 2 or No. 3 he was hurt. And I think we opened at No. 7 or 8 in the polls and I think sometime in the fall when Billy had to go against the ones — because we went against the ones a lot. Coach James really believed in best on best and high competition. That’s when Mark got hurt. Not supposed to hit the quarterbacks but because we had a good O line and a good D line and when we went 11-on-11 it was war, it was really intense practice level that we worked on. And so I think we started seeing Billy in that camp where we thought, okay wait a minute, he has ability and he’s tough and he will work when prodded. And we did a fair bit of internal prodding which was one of that team’s greatest gifts. The people who told you to work hard were not your coaches, they were your teammates. And it was sometime around fall camp we thought ‘okay, we’re pretty good.’ And then we saw this kid Napoleon Kaufman and thought ‘Beno (Bryant) is great and he’s going to return punts’ but we’ve got depth at running back now and now all of those things started to shape up. I think we probably knew before the first game we had a real good shot.”

On how much the program changed from when he got there in 1987 to 1991: “Don was one of the listed hot seat guys in the pre-season magazines my first two years there. I got there and I redshirted and we went 7-4-1 and beat Mack Brown-coached Tulane in the Independence Bowl and the next year we didn’t go to a bowl and we went 6-5 after the Cougs beat us (in the Apple Cup). And the next year was when Keith Gilbertson came in and shared coordinator with Gary Pinkel and things started clicking and we went 8-4 and just killed Emmitt Smith (and Florida in the Freedom Bowl). And one guy who doesn’t get a lot of credit, as good as our defense was, it was as inventive, is Jim Lambright. That’s the defense Bo Pelini runs a version of now at Nebraska. . … It was just a real neat thing, yet coach James was one of the pictured guys in the pre-season magazines I think the year before we went to the Freedom Bowl he was one of the top three in the hot seat rankings.”

On what else started to come together: “It was the perfect combination. At about the same time, the one-back spread offense was again it was literally just cutting edge stuff that now is just a fabric of football across all levels, the spread option and all of that came out of this one-back and is the next generation. So we had both a cutting edge, sound, new defense but we also had an offense that with the right people playing the right positions at times could be unstoppable like we see now with an Oklahoma. We averaged 42 points a game that year and Don was running an I formation with two tight ends before Keith Gilbertson got there. So I think the combination of two really smart groups of coaches, offensive and defensive, it was the first time we could move the ball against our defense in practice and frustrated them. I don’t really know where coach Lambright and his staff came up with that defense, but I remember when they started to unveil it in practice it was like ‘this sucks. I can’t block this.’ We eventually figured it out and knew what they were doing because we saw it every day, but it was a really neat combination of things that came together. And in fairness to coach James, who cares if he was on the hot seat, he made very, very, very major changes to his

On James and being flexible enough to make those changes: “Every program goes through it when you have success. The Huskies had great success in the ’80s. I remember living on the East Coast and seeing that 1985 season. But then you start losing coaches, and I think that every program goes through that. You can’t lose top-notch coordinators three, four years in a row. You are going to strike out eventually, you are going to miss. And I give coach James credit that pretty quickly he realized that we just need to make an entire change in philosophy on offense and what Lambright did on defense. For a guy who was seen as stiff and kind of upper Midwest and plays his cards close to his chest and all of that stuff, it was a pretty deft move by coach James. It was probably that winter we stayed home (in 1988) that’s when he realized it. That’s when a lot of things changed that we did on a daily basis, sort of focusing more on speed, all of the things that make a big difference.”

On how he came out to UW from Virginia: “When I was between my sophomore and junior year in high school I was competing in track in the Junior Olympics and just started getting recruited for football. And the national championships for track that year were in Husky Stadium in August so I came out (with his father) and we had one of those great father-son weekends and it was 82 degrees at Husky Stadium, just kind of the interest started there. But the linchpin was my high school sweetheart was a year ahead of me and her home state, her dad was a military guy, was Washington. So she went to Washington and Dick Baird found out about that, was the recruiting coordinator at the time, and very smartly had her around at all of the recruiting activities. So it was that combination that ultimately got me there.”

On the blowout of Stanford the first week: “The reason we knew we were going to be good after that Stanford game is we kind of played poorly. Billy threw a touchdown pass to Mario (Bailey) that literally went end-over-end. We just knew, we were better than this and we were way better than them, and 42-7 is not really accurate. And it wasn’t cocky. A lot of it went back to the year before and losing to UCLA — that was just awful. That’s the worst loss I’ve ever had in any sport was to UCLA my junior year when we were at times probably better than the 1991 team. People don’t realize that Greg Lewis without that knee injury might be in the NFL Hall of Fame right now. He got hurt in that UCLA game and that’s the knee injury that cost him his NFL career eventually, that was the degenerative knee that he got. People don’t realize that Greg Lewis was Terrell Davis before Terrell Davis. He was the first back that really fit into that system. He averaged 90-95 yards his rookie year (at Denver). And we lost to UCLA because they had a great game plan. They had Tommy Maddox, who ended up being a really good quarterback, in the shot gun and they dared us to blitz and we did, and they burned us on a fullback dive and they outplayed us and probably outcoached us and everything else. Once we knew Billy was okay we knew how to prepare well because we didn’t prepare well for UCLA. We were 22-points favorites, and the (UW) Daily (student newspaper) was talking about don’t tear down the goal posts because you’ll be thrown in jail — everything was just set up. And I’ve gotten to know Terry Donahue over the years and I think to this day he will say that was the best coaching job of his career. So we just learned that there are a lot of ways to screw up good stuff and the best way to do it is to think you are better than you are and not prepare. So it became ingrained in us as a team and a leadership group and all of that, so Stanford was just kind of like ‘uh.’ It’s like getting a birdie after you duff it off the tee block. We were good enough to save it.”

On the win at Nebraska in the second week of the 1991 season: “For me that was a high point. I wasn’t a vocal leader but I just got really pissed at halftime. The offense and the defense stood up and I just said a few things, because I screwed up a few things. On a snap, I literally threw one on the ground between my legs — Billy’s hands were under my legs and I literally dribbled the ball as we were on the 1-yard-line ready to score. So we were making these dumb mistakes, and I was a captain and I shouldn’t fumble a snap on the 1-yard line. And our defense actually hung in there even though we put them in terrible positions — they were playing really well. And I was like ‘here we are on national TV, we are better than these guys.’ And in fairness to Nebraska, I think they were ranked 3-4 at that time but they weren’t that great yet. That was the beginning of their run to 94-95 but at that time they were all kids. But I’m proud of that moment because I felt like I said the right things. That was just as good an ass-kicking as you could have in the second half. It was the varsity against the freshmen. I think that’s what gave us our swagger maybe. We were like, okay this team is pretty good but we came into hallowed ground and their fans hated us when we got here and they gave us a standing ovation when we left — we started to figure out we were pretty good. But the nice thing was we realized it was the result of harder preparation and smarter preparation. The other thing that was nice was everyone had fun. We had a lot of internal pressure on that team but it wasn’t like having handcuffs on. You felt like you could be yourself on that team. Just kind of an open, good atmosphere. Because after the Nebraska game we became one of the top two or three stories in college football. That’s when ESPN showed up and we really became a part of the topline national story.”

On comparisons with Miami that season and how it would have gone had the two teams played: “It’s impossible for me to stay completely professional in that. All I know is that if you try to make an analytical argument, the Husky team based on guys who were in the NFL and their careers, not that Miami didn’t have some of that, but if you really pressed a Miami fan to rank their championship teams, that team would come in dead last. I wouldn’t have minded sharing it with one of their great teams. And if it was one of their great teams I would honestly say that maybe it would be a turnover here or a lucky bounce there. But I think we would have mowed the ’91 team — I think we would have mowed them. I think it would have been as bad or worse than Michigan in the Rose Bowl.”

On if that was a big deal to the players as the season went on: “Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. They almost lost to Boston College late and we were all gathered together to watch that game. So of course, it was really fun to be part of that. But then you are watching that game and the announcers are talking about you and you get caught up in it, which is part of the trap, Should you be watching Miami-Boston College? But we were mature enough to handle it, thankfully.”

On if it bothers him that that will be left unsettled forever: “Yes and no. Part of my day job is debating the BCS and one of the things that is completely overlooked is that we have a playoff in college football. I will not bow in my argument that we have a playoff in college football. What constitutes a playoff? Is it two teams, four teams, eight teams? Granted it’s only the finals, but we do have a playoff. And I would have given anything, anything, for that to have been the case in 1991 — anything. I wish it would have worked out. I would have given anything if it could have been in the Rose Bowl, as well. That place is different, it is the Grandaddy. .. I would have given anything for the BCS to have existed in 1991.”

On what he thinks of UW this year: “I like how they are flying under the radar. For me just the overall improvement from year to year. The offensive line is starting to look like an offensive line again. It’s really amazing how bad the program was broken, and of course we all learn a lot of things post these two-and-a-half years we just saw that explain this, but I think he’s the right guy for the job. I want to see some game management things improve, but I think he’s a smart enough guy to get all that stuff.”

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