There was a time, a decade or so ago, when the University of Washington's football media guide proudly stated that the Huskies sold as many season tickets as the three local pro teams -- the Mariners, Sonics and Seahawks -- combined.
Proof of how far gone those days are: Earlier this spring, a camera crew showed up at Husky Stadium to film commercials aimed at filling a few more seats and featuring basketball coach Lorenzo Romar and football coach Tyrone Willingham.
|Tyrone Willingham returns eight starters from a defense that got stronger late in the season. (Getty Images)|
And matters have rarely been as desperate at Washington as they are now, with the Huskies going 3-19 the last two seasons and 1-15 in Pac-10 play.
It's a stunning fall for a program that once churned out winning seasons the way local behemoth Microsoft does computer software. UW went at least .500 every year from 1977-2003 and played in seven Rose Bowls during that span.
Now the Huskies are struggling simply to remain relevant in the Seattle sports scene -- suddenly dominated by the Super Bowl-runner-up Seahawks -- as well as the perennially competitive Pac-10.
The Huskies sold only 52,000 season tickets in 72,500-seat Husky Stadium last year, and sales are running about eight to nine percent less than that number so far this year.
"Obviously, we need to win more football games, no doubt about that," says Willingham, heading into his second year as coach after having been fired at Notre Dame following the 2004 season.
But when that will happen is anybody's guess. The Huskies faithful hoped a year ago that the hiring of Willingham -- and the subsequent stability his presence would bring -- was all that would be needed to get UW back on track after Keith Gilbertson's brief tenure ended in a 1-10 bottoming-out in 2004.
Instead, Willingham's first Washington team went 2-9, punctuated by a few embarrassing blowouts -- notably, a 56-17 home loss to Cal (the most points UW ever allowed at Husky Stadium) and a 45-21 defeat at Oregon -- that made it clear it could be awhile before UW returns to the top.
Indeed, last year illustrated that UW's problems run deeper than simply the messy coaching merry-go-round that began in 2003, when Rick Neuheisel was fired as a result of an investigation into his participation in college basketball pools.
In fact, there were some fissures developing even before Neuheisel was fired -- UW went 8-9 in his last 17 games. Neuheisel's critics say his recruiting began the slide, one common complaint being that he spent so much time going after big-name players such as Reggie Bush -- who took an official visit to UW -- that he didn't have enough of a backup plan when many of those big names inevitably chose other schools.
Neuheisel's recruiting classes also lost an inordinate number of players to injuries, especially up front. That's one reason UW has been a woeful running team of late and last fielded a 1,000-yard rusher in 1997.
Gilbertson, a beloved assistant, seemed in over his head as Neuheisel's replacement and the 2004 season was a lost cause in almost every respect, with recruiting taking a huge hit once it became apparent a coaching change was in the offing.
The result last year was a team thin in experience, often overmatched on both sides of the ball and lacking playmakers.
Willingham mostly received a free pass, though the way the Huskies blew a few late leads -- notably, in the opener against Air Force, at UCLA and against rival Washington State -- he didn't inspire much enthusiasm among the set that initially hoped UW might hire Jeff Tedford or Urban Meyer.
Afterward, Willingham admitted much still needed to be done.
"We have to get back to being a Husky-type team where that passion is consistent and undying and unyielding," he said. "Some of the culture can only be changed when you bring in new personnel that have bought in and agreed to what they are coming into."
Where will Washington finish in the Pac-10?
In the cellar
Top half of conference
Bottom half of conference
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By this spring, players said that culture had, indeed, begun to change, and optimism began to rain, er, reign, in the skies over Husky Stadium.
Even Willingham caught the bug. Asked, for instance, why he had turned down a chance for UW to play a 13th regular-season game at Hawaii, Willingham said it was because he believes the Huskies will play a 13th game this year -- in a bowl.
"Not guaranteeing," said Willingham, when pressed. "But the expectation of our program is that, yes, we should be a bowl team."
A few players spoke more boldly. Fifth-year senior linebacker Scott White said, "We are definitely a bowl team, no doubt about it. I will guarantee it, whatever you want me to do."
UW hasn't been in a bowl since losing 34-24 to Purdue in the 2002 Sun Bowl, Neuheisel's final game.
Few on the outside are as optimistic, and UW is generally picked to finish last in the Pac-10 by prognosticators. The schedule, which includes games at Oklahoma, USC, Cal, Oregon and Washington State, offers little reprieve.
Still, there is cause for some optimism.
The Huskies return 15 starters, eight on a defense that allowed an average of just 19 points over the last three games compared to 30.6 for the season.
Willingham is hopeful that some personnel changes in the secondary will result in vast improvement for a unit that was statistically the worst against the pass in the Pac-10 a year ago. And the defensive line, led by junior end Greyson Gunheim, could be salty.
Among the six offensive starters returning is fifth-year quarterback Isaiah Stanback, a marvelous athlete -- he ran a 10.50 to finish fifth in the 100 meters at the Pac-10 championships in May -- who could be on the verge of a breakout season. Coaches plan for him to run the ball much more than he did a year ago, when he gained 353 yards on 100 carries.
The offensive line, however, will again be a work in progress with five of the top eight from a year ago having departed, and there are still no proven playmakers in the backfield or in the receiving corps (though newcomers such as redshirt freshman running back J.R. Hasty and receiver Marcel Reece, a junior-college transfer, could change things).
Should Stanback falter, there will be calls for Willingham to play true freshman quarterback Jake Locker, a native of Ferndale, Wash. -- about 100 miles north of the UW campus -- who was the jewel of a 2006 recruiting class that otherwise was generally rated as mediocre.
But if Stanback does falter, it will also likely mean another long year for a program becoming all too familiar with them.