By Ben C. Nelson
Ben C. Nelson is a law student at the University of Washington and a lifelong fan of Husky football.
Long after the final whistle blew in Washington’s resounding 38-6 victory over Boise State, I remained in my seat at the new Husky Stadium reflecting on where the team had been and where it might be headed.
For fans of Washington football, the past 20 years have read more like a Russian epic than the routine script of college sports. From national prominence to a winless season and everything between, the journey to its remarkable 2013 opener has been the stuff of fiction. For me, the victory merely represents the latest chapter in the team’s return to greatness.
As a young Huskies fan, all I knew were Rose Bowls. At least that’s the way my purple-tinted mind’s eye remembers the 1990s: with an ascendant Husky football team playing year after year in the Granddaddy of them all. Back then, it seemed like each season a handful of Huskies, and every quarterback, went on to play in the NFL. As a sophomore in high school, I delighted in watching Marques Tuiasosopo fearlessly pitching the ball to darting running backs and bedeviling opposing defenses. That year included an impressive win over national powerhouse Miami, a Pac-10 Conference championship and, like so many seasons before, a Rose Bowl trophy.
Like most Huskies fans, I had no idea we were watching a cresting wave. For as long and fun as that golden era of Husky football felt, the fall from grace was shockingly quick and miserable. A program that appeared exemplary had its share of dirty secrets teeming beneath the surface. The coach, who allowed the team to decay from within, was fired for questionable ethics. The athletic director who fired the coach never regained the trust of fans and was also gone before long. Players packed their bags early for the NFL or transferred to firmer ground. Recruits who once flocked to the cool shores of Montlake headed for warmer weather. Predictably, the off-field turmoil translated over to Saturdays.
As a young-adult Huskies fan, all I have known are setbacks. My memories from the 2000s are an agonizing collection of failures: a humiliating home-loss to Nevada in 2003, a maddening nine-game losing streak to our arch-nemeses at Oregon, and worst of all, the 0-12 season that punctuated a gloomy era of irrelevance. Seasons came and went without a player selected in the NFL draft. I watched dejectedly as Tyrone Willingham took the Dawgs from bad to worse and talented players eluded the program like an opposing team’s all-conference running back. The home crowds dwindled, and the fortress on Montlake was suddenly no more than an outdated venue, where opponents came to claim victory with increasing ease. Like Mount Rainier, which looms quietly over the stadium, the Husky football program had gone dormant.
The tenure of Coach Steve Sarkisian has mostly played into the continued narrative of frustrated hopes. He has returned the program to respectability but struggled to get beyond the purgatory of so-so football, illustrated by three consecutive 7-6 seasons. There have been glimmers along the way, but they have mostly involved heaping lofty expectations onto the shoulders of individual players — think Jake Locker and Chris Polk — or the shortcomings of other teams. Those of us who tried to anoint a savior that would lead the team back to the top have only been disappointed. In retrospect, the 2009 win over No. 3 USC was more about the decline of the Trojans than the rise of the Huskies. The highlights of the Sarkisian era have always seemed to be followed by a step backward.
Sports fans tend to measure progress solely in terms of wins and losses. In doing so it becomes easier to lose sight of the big picture and miss what is happening right before your eyes. Simultaneous to hiring Sarkisian, UW athletic director Scott Woodward laid out a bold plan for updating Husky Stadium to improve not only the game-day experience for fans but level the playing field for recruiting and player development. And while the team was enduring .500 seasons, Coach Sark was consistently bringing in highly rated recruiting classes and redshirting more players. In response to his team’s middling performance, Sarkisian hired a new coaching staff and changed offensive systems to better harness the roster’s growing talent. Just as fans failed to see the off-field ills that plagued previous Husky teams, many of us overlooked the structural changes that were positioning the program to succeed in the long run.
So on a perfect Seattle summer day, at a sold-out and spectacular new stadium, the 2013 Huskies showed their fans why we should have been looking at the big picture. With a group of skill position players deeper than Lake Washington, the Husky offense raced past a Boise State defense. Guided by defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, a talented young defense showed grit and muscle in holding the Broncos without a touchdown for the first time in 16 years. It has been a long time since an opponent of Boise State’s caliber has come to Husky Stadium only to be dominated in every phase of the game (Boise State coach Chris Peterson’s words not mine).
Skeptics will caution against reading too much into one game — we’ve been here before, remember? Fair enough. But,it’s hard not to focus on what the Dawgs have going for them: a talented roster featuring sophomores and juniors, an innovative coaching staff and a home field that is the jewel of college football. Combine that with the renewed fervor unleashed among Husky fans on opening day, and one cannot help feeling as if a sleeping giant has awakened. The game was a turning point, not a climax — a short-term success cemented in long-term promise.
Greatness is only a few chapters away.
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