Epic Underachievers: UW Has Been There Before

Husky football falloff reminiscent of Don James' UW coaching crossroad

Fans were clamoring for change. Washington players looked beaten down as the losses piled up. The coach tried to remain resolute as his Huskies football program tapered off, dropped five games and took an uncharacteristic dip. 

That aptly describes what's taking place right now. It also sums up 1988.

Don James' UW team back then fell flat. It entered the season ranked 20th. It had a new, hard-throwing quarterback in Cary Conklin, with people more than ready to move on from the graduated Chris Chandler. It underachieved in a big way.

Sound familiar?

The linebackers were a little slower than usual, with a couple of top recruits at that position, Tim Esary and Brad Durbin, transferring out. The secondary was young and had painful moments.

Sound familiar?

While offensive coordinator Bush Hamdan has become the current team's object of scorn, UW alums groused about the lack of a running game three decades ago, and more so the uneven play of the offensive line. 

Two days after the 1988 season ended, James fired his first assistant coach in 13 years in Seattle--he let go of offensive-line coach Dan Dorazio. He was very open about it.

A local columnist suggested the legendary coach had made too many incestuous hires, bringing on former players to handle key decision-making roles when experienced coaching minds were available. 

Sound familiar?

It's sort of what Chris Petersen has done with Bush Hamdan, a former Boise State quarterback.

In that same vein, James' 1988 offensive coordinator, Gary Pinkel, was an ex-player of his, a former Kent State tight end, learning his way around a headset, but the head coach resisted making a change there. 

Good thing. Pinkel, of course, was more than capable. He went on to Missouri and became a national coach of the year recipient when he turned that program into an SEC power.

In 1988, the Huskies had their consecutive bowl string end at 9, leaving them home for the holidays. They finished the season by losing to Washington State 32-31 in the Apple Cup. All of that galled people no end.

James had taken the UW to three Rose Bowls and an Orange Bowl by then, and a few overzealous fans even suggested that maybe he should go, which is what some have said about Petersen.

Instead, James made a great line coach hire in Keith Gilbertson, coaxing him away from Idaho as its head coach. James recruited faster players, concluding team speed was a big drawback.

Two years later, James had the Huskies back in the Rose Bowl. Three years later, he won a national championship. He did what was needed to be done.

Expect changes after the upcoming Apple Cup and before the bowl game. Hamden, shown in the accompanying video looking a little beleaguered, likely won't survive. Others may be asked to move on, too. It's part of the business. 

It remains to be seen whether quarterback Jacob Eason sticks around and matures as a collegian rather than jumps early to the NFL. The defense should become the backbone of the team again. A lot of young players are in physical development and haven't been on display.

These Huskies, if they make the right adjustments, such as James did, likely won't stay down long.