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Husky Football Blog

The latest news and analysis on the Montlake Dawgs.

December 25, 2011 at 10:25 AM

Guest blog — Sideline Smitty reviews “A Football Band of Brothers”

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We have a special holiday treat today on the blog, a guest appearance from one of the legends of The Seattle Times — Craig Smith, who covered just about everything there is during a roughly three-decade career at the paper that ended a few years ago. He recently sent me an e-mail telling me he was reading the book on the 1959-60 Huskies, “A Football Band of Brothers” and that he had some thoughts about it it all. I told him he should write something I could put on the blog, and he accepted.

So here it is:

Bob of the Purple Blogosphere: I just finished reading W. Thomas Porter’s 2007 book “A Football Band of Brothers” about the Husky teams of 1959 and 1960 and it refreshed my memory and filled in a lot of blanks.

That’s why I’m accepting your invitation to write about the book. I realize the book has been around for four years so this article doesn’t qualify as breaking news. I was too busy to pay attention to it when it was published but got lucky and came across a copy this fall in a second-hand store.

Now retired, I said to myself, “This could be interesting.” I was right.

Porter is a retired bank executive who got his MBA at the UW in the late 1950’s and is co-author of two previous books about UW athletics. His son, Doug, is a Lakeside School alum and coach who was one of the best all-around high-school athletes I ever covered.

The 1959 and 1960 Husky teams were special to me because I was in junior high at the time and players such as Don McKeta, Bob Schloredt, George Fleming and Dave Enslow were 10 feet tall to me. I confess they still are.

These two teams also are critical in Husky history because as Dawgfather Don James has said, “they laid the foundation” for later UW success.

The UW argues that the 1960 team was a true national champion because the Helms Athletic Foundation declared it to be. Newcomers can be excused from saying “huh?” and “what?” However, the Husky case is a strong one because the Associated Press and United Press International polls completed their voting BEFORE the bowl games in that era.

That may seem preposterous – like awarding an Olympic Gold Medal after seven laps of an eight-lap race – but don’t forget the earth was considered flat for thousands of years and that a lot of football coaches didn’t allow players to drink water at practices until the late 1970s. In 1965, the wire services came to their senses and did the final voting AFTER the bowl games.

Back in the early 1960s, the Helms Foundation and Football Writers of America waited after the bowl games to make their final rankings. The Huskies were No. 6 in the AP Poll and beat No. 1 Minnesota 17-7 in the Rose Bowl. No. 2 Mississippi (9-0-1) beat unranked Rice 14-6, No. 3 Iowa didn’t play and No. 5 Missouri beat No. 4 Navy.

The Football Writers picked Mississippi No. 1. Ole’ Miss was the only team over a two-year period with a better record (20-1-1) than the Huskies (20-2, with losses to USC in 1959 and Navy with Joe Bellino in 1960).

The 1959 and 1960 teams were coached by Jim Owens, whose clippings this century seem to deal more with the racial problems on the 1969 team than the achievements of 1959 and 1960 seasons – 10 win campaigns capped by Rose Bowl triumphs.

Porter’s book reminded me that Owens, who starred at Oklahoma under Bud Wilkinson, was only 29 when he took the UW job in 1957. He was a young-for-coaches 47 when he hung up his whistle for good after the 1974 UW season with a 99-82-6 record.

Owens was a master of one-platoon football, when the same players were on the field for offense and defense and conditioning and toughness often decided outcomes. Owens admitted to Porter that he lacked the same eye for talent when the rules changed in 1965 and free substitution was permitted and two-platoon football arrived to stay. A running back didn’t have to stay on the field and play defense. A kid who was a great pass-catcher but poor tackler could just concentrate on catching the ball.

“Looking back on it, we made some mistakes,” Owens told Porter. “We should have picked some people who were more specialized. But we hadn’t been experienced in that type of football.”

The book was published before Owens died in 2009 at his home in Bigfork, Mont., at age 82.

The Hollywood-handsome Owens came to the UW after six years as an assistant under Bear Bryant at Kentucky and Texas A&M. Owens was a coach on the Aggies’ infamous trip to Junction, Texas for the brutal training camp in 1954. The 10 days of hell has been made into a book and a movie, “Junction Boys.” The A&M squad shrank at least in half to 35 “survivors” in the merciless drills aimed at running off the weak during a Texas heat wave. Some players slinked away in the middle of the night to avoid the coaches spotting their departure.

The “Junction Boys” experience puts Owens’ 1957 “Death March” at Washington into perspective and makes it no big surprise that it occurred. Bryant acolyte Owens was displeased at the Sept. 10 practice and ordered extra scrimmage periods and then so much extra running that today it would be labeled sadistic. Seven players had to be hauled off to University Hospital to have fluids replaced. It’s part of Husky lore, and the early years under “The Big Fella” have no shortage of macho stories.

Sometimes brawls would break out at practice between entire teams (“golds” vs. “greens,” for example) and coaches would jump in and throw some punches too. Later, everyone would laugh about it, players told Porter. The author quotes Ben Davidson, who went on to play in the NFL, recalling that assistant coach Tom Tipps got so frustrated during one practice that he took off his belt and started whacking Davidson with it.

“That probably wouldn’t play too good today,” Davidson told Porter with a smile.

Owens’ Huskies blocked and tackled with their helmets. Spearing was taught, encouraged and expected. Any opponent standing near a pile was a target for a concussion if the whistle hadn’t blown.

This was the era of one-platoon football and players played both ways. The offense didn’t blame the defense for mistakes or vice-versa because the same guys were on the field.

Players weren’t the huge specimens they are today. Some Husky interior linemen weighed under 200 pounds. Weight training was in its infancy and Owens got it started at the UW in 1958.

Porter’s admiration for Owens is obvious and reflected in the book’s title. He admires the toughness, fitness and brotherhood of the 1959 and 1960 teams and Owens’ role in shaping them. Porter also nostalgically savors the absence of trash talking and prancing and showboating by players after sacks and touchdowns. He also likes the sportsmanship of crowds in that era.

The book has amusing information.

When Owens came to the UW, there was only one film projector in the entire athletic department. There were also rats living under the basketball floor in Hec Edmundson Pavilion and they scurried for cover when the floor was lifted for indoor football practices.

Porter tells the reader where the players had played their prep or junior-college football (Roosevelt High School had a disproportionate number of Huskies) and what they did in the decades after UW graduation.

He also gives the history of Husky football from the 1890’s through the Owens era without getting bogged down in too much detail in the first half of the century. One proud topic is the 61-game unbeaten streak under Gil Dobie. (The UW still holds the NCAA unbeaten-streak record of 63 games, 1907-1917.)

Later topics include the player revolt under coach John Cherberg in the mid-1950s and the under-the-table excess pay-for-players violations of the 1950s that led to sanctions and also to the formation of the Tyee Club.

Porter also provides an account of the Huskies abandoning their fellow Northwest schools (Oregon, OSU, Idaho and WSU) in voting to withdraw from the Pacific Coast Conference. The UW joined what debuted in 1959 as the Athletic Association of West Universities but was commonly known as the “Big Five” – USC, UCLA, Stanford, California and the UW.

Any discussion of Owens always includes the turbulent 1969 season and it is included in the book. After an 0-6 start, Owens asked every player to pledge loyalty to him, the UW and the program. Four black players refused and quit the team. Unrest among black players had surfaced the previous season and their complaints led Owens to hire his first black assistant, Carver Gayton, who had played on the 1960 Rose Bowl team. Gayton resigned in the 1969 loyalty-pledge turmoil.

The racial turbulence reflected how things had changed in the 1960s, the decade when the Vietnam War eventually fractured the country, the civil rights movement split into militant and non-militant camps, rioting occurred in many cities and authority was routinely questioned.

There were calls for Owens’ firing and the 1969 ugliness was resurrected as a topic in 2003 when the statue to Owens was erected outside Husky Stadium. Owens seem to acknowledge mistakes when he said in his acceptance speech: “To my players, I thank them and apologize for any hurt they may feel. I hope today we can begin to heal the wounds of the past.”

I don’t know if those wounds will ever heal completely, but I’m at an age when I prefer my memories to be happy ones. My overriding memory of Owens is of him riding into town and then putting Washington back on the national football map with back-to-back Rose Bowl victories. Porter’s book helps keep those memories alive.

(Craig Smith, aka “Sideline Smitty,” is a retired Seattle Times sportswriter who is a UW alum. He also likes the Cougars as a result of covering them for more than a dozen years during his career.)

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