By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
SEATTLE — The Washington Huskies haven’t done anything yet. Not for a long time.
Seven years have passed since the University of Washington football program went to a bowl game. It’s been even longer since the Huskies have been a national — or Pac-10, for that matter — contender.
And now, almost twenty years after UW earned a part of its last national championship, the program might finally be on the verge of a rebirth.
“It’s really exciting because that’s really one of the reasons that I came here,” said senior defensive tackle Cameron Elisara, a Spokane native who considered Nebraska and Oregon before signing with UW before the 2006-07 school year. “I had the opportunity to go to programs that had already gone to national championships, and I chose the University of Washington because I felt like I wanted to be a part of something different, to turn around a program.
“I saw that opportunity, and it’s starting to come together.”
Two years removed from the nadir of the UW football program — an 0-12 season that included nine losses by 20 or more points — the Huskies may well be on the verge of getting back to national prominence. A relatively new coaching staff, a wealth of talent at the skill positions and a watered-down Pac-10 Conference all have Husky Nation entertaining thoughts of grandeur.
Star quarterback Jake Locker, who grew up in Ferndale but was too young to remember the great UW teams of the early 1990s, said this year’s Huskies have gotten as much attention as any Washington team he’s seen.
“I think there’s a lot of excitement around this program right now, maybe even more than there had been at that point,” he said last week. “If we go out and control what we can, and play hard and enjoy the game, I think we’ll put ourselves in a good position to have success.”
For the first time since 2003, the Huskies received votes in a preseason poll. The eight total votes in the Associated Press poll ranked 39th in the country, while one anonymous media member picked UW to win the Pac-10 in the conference’s annual media poll.
The expectations are pretty high, considering the depths to which this program has dropped in recent years. This year’s senior class has gone 9-28 over the past three years and was a part of the first-ever UW teams to finish 10th in the conference in back-to-back years.
“It was tough,” said senior linebacker Mason Foster, whose senior class has already lost more games in three years than former coach Don James did over the final nine years of his career at UW. “But making all my friends up here, we definitely stayed close, we stayed strong together. … All you have is your team and your brothers on the team. We persevered and stayed together, and now we’re looking forward to making it through the storm.”
The 0-12 season was worse than anyone could have expected, especially someone like Elisara who signed with the Huskies entertaining high hopes of bringing the program back to respectability.
“When we were 0-12, I was like, man, I’m halfway through my career here and things certainly don’t look like they’re going that way,” Elisara said. “But you just have to keep looking forward, keep looking forward, and try not to get down. It was after that season that the new coaches came in, and optimism came with them. And then everybody started turning things around.
“And look at where we are now. We’re on the brink of a pretty big season.”
The senior class wouldn’t be satisfied to go out with one “big season.” Much like second-year head coach Steve Sarkisian and his staff, the UW seniors are hoping to bring back another golden era of Husky football, with this year being the first of multiple seasons filled with winning records, bowl games and maybe even a few Pac-10 titles.
But snapping the seven-year bowl draught would certainly be a step in the right direction.
“It was a goal of mine when I first came here and something I was hoping to be a part of,” Locker said. “To have the opportunity be able to do that now, and to possibly go out that way, is something that’s pretty exciting.”
The players aren’t the only ones excited about the possibilities this year. Alumni, fans and former players and coaches have been suffering right along with them.
“The last eight to 10 years have been kind of hard,” said Meadowdale High School football coach Mark Stewart, who was a star linebacker with the Huskies from 1978 through 1982. “But you’re excited about what Sarkisian’s doing, you’re excited about last year, with the way they finished and the win over USC.
“You can tell it’s just headed in the right direction. I know I’ve got my fingers crossed.”
When Stewart was in school, the UW program was thriving. He joined a program that was coming off a Rose Bowl victory — quarterback Warren Moon led the way to that one — and Stewart earned a January 1 trip to Pasadena as a sophomore and junior. When the Huskies went to the Aloha Bowl after Stewart’s senior season, it was considered a disappointment.
How things have changed.
“I don’t think I’ve ever missed watching a Husky football game in the last 15 to 20 years,” Stewart said. “But the last few years, I could only take it for a half before I’d turn it off. I’d like to get it back to where I can watch a full game.”
Former UW coach Jim Lambright, who was defensive coordinator on the Huskies’ co-national championship team in 1991 and later succeeded James as head coach, is also pretty excited about what the next few years of Husky football might hold. Lambright said he can see a few subtle elements of the current program that were there when the Huskies were thriving in the 1980s and ’90s.
“What you see is a combination of hope and enthusiasm,” he said, “and those coaches are demanding it.
“… They’re starting to get that feeling and the aura, and that brings to mind the ‘90 team (that went 10-2 and beat Iowa in the Rose Bowl). They expected to win ball games. When our defense took the field, they expected to be dominant. It takes a while to get that back, and they’re starting to do that.”
The current Huskies are using UW’s storied football history as a benchmark of where they want to get the program.
“That’s always been a huge thing,” Elisara said of UW’s football tradition. “We watch old film of the early ’90s, the U-Dub teams with the cut-off jerseys. That’s the kind of thing we want to go back to. That’s something you watch as a kid and aspire to be. And now we have an opportunity to get back to that.
“We know that alumni have a lot of pride in their school, and to this point we haven’t done them very well. So we want to give back to them as well as fulfill our own dreams.”
Current players, alumni and UW football fans haven’t been able to dream big for a long time. While this year’s Huskies haven’t done anything yet, they’ve at least given people a reason to believe.
“When I first got here, I didn’t really realize how big UW football was around here,” Foster said. “After my first week as a freshman, I realized this is one of the biggest things going out here. It’s big for this program, it’s big to everyone around Seattle, it’s big to this school.
“So it would mean a lot to bring back the tradition to the University of Washington.”