‘08 Apple Cup a stinker like ‘69

SEATTLE — Two teams, one win and a whole lot of losses.

Mix in some injuries, a healthy amount of inexperience and a whole lot of crushed hopes, and you’ve got the recipe for the 2008 Apple Cup.

Yet, for all of the struggles of both 0-10 Washington and 1-10 Washington State, this weekend’s exercise in futility is not unprecedented.

Seasons of exceptional success or failure tend to send people scrambling for the record books, trying to see if it has ever before been this good or this bad.

As it turns out, an equally appalling Apple Cup was contested 39 years ago in Seattle, and similarities between the 1969 and 2008 Apple Cups are striking.

In 1969, the 0-9 Huskies went into the Apple Cup on a school-record 10-game losing streak. Washington started the season with a brutal non-conference schedule, playing at Michigan State and Michigan, ranked 12th and 20th, respectively, at the time. The Huskies then lost to preseason No. 1 Ohio State to head into Pac-10 play with an 0-3 record.

Washington State was also a mess that year and headed into the 1969 Apple Cup having lost nine straight after winning its season opener against Illinois. Like this year’s Cougars, the 1969 team was blown out on almost a weekly basis.

Two teams without a conference win between them, Washington looking for its first win of any kind? Sounds familiar, yes?

Washington won that infamous Apple Cup 39 years ago, avoiding the school’s first winless season since it tied its only game in 1890.

“The one win we got, you could say it was a keystone because beating Washington State seemed to erase all of the losses that we had before,” said Roy Easton, a junior defensive tackle on that team. “It was a big deal. … There was a lot of emotion attached to it, and a lot of guys played with that, and that was somehow enough to get us over the hump. We just didn’t want to lose to our rival.”

But while there are many parallels between the 1969 and 2008 Huskies, the team of 39 years ago went through a lot more turmoil than what was happening on the field.

After the team started the season 0-6, UW coach Jim Owens met with every player and asked each if they were fully committed to the program. Based on those meetings, Owens decided to suspend four black players from the team.

As a response, the team’s remaining black players boycotted the Huskies’ next game at UCLA, which the Bruins easily won 57-14.

Easton, a graduate of Seattle’s Franklin High School, was nearly the only black player to go to Los Angeles. He eventually was talked out of making the trip at the last minute by white teammates who feared that the protesters blocking the bus would never let the team leave for the airport.

“For me it was really tough, because I was the only one that was on the bus trying to leave for the airport,” said Easton, who remembers teammates asking him to get off the bus. “My comment was, ‘Let me drive the damn bus because I’ll run over some damn people.’”

The outspoken Easton, who says his mouth has gotten him in trouble his whole life, didn’t agree with some of the what was going on on the team — players have said the coaching staff stacked black players at the same positions to keep them off the field. However, he also didn’t feel it was his place to make a stand. Easton said his mother always preached the value of education, and he wanted to avoid controversy so as to not jeopardize his scholarship.

“Somebody quoted that I said, ‘Hell no, we won’t go’ when I got off the bus,” he said. “That was totally misquoted, I never said anything like that. My feeling was that I was there on scholarship to go where my team asked me to go. I put a lot of emphasis on carrying out my mother’s wish, because I was more afraid of her than anyone else. This is a big southern woman, they don’t play.”

That doesn’t mean Easton agreed with everything that was going on, however.

“I just saw so much wrongdoing,” said Easton, a retired elementary school teacher who works security and as an usher for the UW event staff at sporting events. “I’m not going to say it was racially motivated, but when you look at it, you can’t excuse it. Just how some of the black players were treated by some of the assistant coaches.”

Easton says his problems were only with some of the assistant coaches, not Owens.

“A lot of people always ask me, ‘What do you think of Jim Owens?’” he said. “I had no problem with Jim Owens.”

Easton says the 1969 Huskies were more talented than their 1-9 record indicated, and that the racial tension took its toll on their play.

“We were better than the record, because there was a lot of separation of players,” he said.

Following their one-win campaign in 1969, the Huskies bounced back with a surprising 6-4 season, which can perhaps provide a glimmer of hope for current Washington fans.

The Huskies switched from a wishbone running attack to a pass-happy offense under sophomore quarterback Sonny Sixkiller, and opened the season with a 42-16 win over Michigan State, a team that had beaten Washington by 16 points a year earlier.

“It set the whole tone for the Puget Sound, it really did,” Sixkiller said of the 1970 season opener. “It created such excitement, and it was overwhelming at times how it created energy and enthusiasm. The fans were going crazy.”

Sixkiller was part of an influx of sophomore talent on the team — this was before freshman could play varsity — that helped spark a turnaround. With so many freshmen playing on this year’s team, the Huskies can only hope the improvement they make from year one to year two can lead to some similar success.

“I think all those kids who played this year will be a lot better next year and probably really good by the time they get out of here,” Sixkiller said. “I think there’s a lot of hope. Whoever they name as the new coach will bring a new system, new life and whole new approach.”

From one win to a winning season in just one year. The Huskies can only hope the similarities don’t stop at this season.

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com. For more on UW sports, check out the Huskies blog at heraldnet.com /huskiesblog

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