It was a long year for Gilbertson and the Huskies stop ‘grinding’

  • By John Sleeper / Herald columnist
  • Sunday, November 21, 2004 9:00pm
  • Sports

PULLMAN – It was finally over. The quarterback futility. The injuries. The speculation. The losses upon losses upon losses.

Keith Gilbertson had addressed his Washington Huskies for the last time as their head coach following the 28-25 loss to Washington State. Someone rolled a large, inflatable exercise ball for him to sit on, to rest his glowingly painful hip while he talked to the media.

He politely declined.

“With my season, that thing would pop,” he said.

Gilbertson is a master of gallows humor. Lord knows, he’s had ample time to use it this fall, watching his team finish 1-10, the worst record in the school’s 115-year history.

“What a year,” he said, shaking his head. “What a year.”

It wasn’t a year. It was a death march. It seemed like a decade. It was seven months trying to find a consistent quarterback. It was shuffling and reshuffling the lineup because of injuries. It was a coaching-change announcement three weeks ago. It was 11 weeks of bad football. It was a season of fretting over possible NCAA violations.

Gilbertson has every right to be bitter. Then-athletic director Barbara Hedges gave him a football program polluted with controversy and investigations and told him to clean it up.

Even Gilbertson’s boss this season, Todd Turner, admitted that Gilbertson’s chances for success were miniscule.

Yet, through it all was Gilbertson, who refused to panic. He was an exemplary leader of these men, a man who never let them cave in, who always demanded they kept fighting, because good things happen when, as Gilbertson would say, “keep grinding.”

And they did, only without the reward.

That’s life. They’ll learn that. Life guarantees us nothing, even if we keep grinding.

But they battled on. They did so even though they had the worst offense in the country among 117 NCAA Div. I teams. They did so, even if they couldn’t find the end zone with a compass and a flashlight.

They may have been undermanned, but they never lacked heart. It may never be a consolation prize, but those who observed the team all season respected the players and coaching staff for that.

Oh, sure, they had times when they wanted to take a sledgehammer to their helmets. Injury upon injury left an already thin lineup thinner.

Offensive tackle Khalif Barnes, their best blocker. Zach Tuiasosopo, a highly regarded fullback. The starting receivers, Corey Williams (fractured wrist) and Charles Frederick, whose 9-week bout with a hamstring pull brought out more than a few skeptics.

On defense, linebacker Joe Lobendahn fractured his wrist against California. His partner in crime, linebacker Scott White, unbelievably missed a Friday practice and didn’t make the trip to Pullman. Safety Jimmy Newell was bothered by a sore ankle all season. Fellow safety Dashon Goldson now needs surgery on his good shoulder (he missed spring practice because of surgery on his other) and will miss out on another valuable stretch of conditioning and weights.

Defensive tackle Dan Milstein suffered a frightening break of his ankle, leading the way for the coaching staff to play three true freshmen on the defensive line.

And on and on and on.

“If you took a pointer and pointed to 12 to 14 names on our depth chart and said, ‘You can’t lose these guys,’ I think you’d see we lost those guys,” Gilbertson said. “This team had a lot of bad things happen to it and a lot of bad luck, but it kept battling.”

Some of it was beyond explanation.

What happened to the Casey Paus recruited by so many programs before he chose Washington? Isaiah Stanback’s stunted development was understandable, given the fact that he took much of last season to play receiver. Yes, he had moments against Oregon State and Washington State, but was simply awful most other times.

We didn’t see enough of Carl Bonnell to assess him, but one would hope he’s not as physically fragile as he demonstrated he might be.

The next coaching staff has so much to fix. Gilbertson brought toughness and discipline to the program, but as White’s one-game suspension for missing a meeting, along with Frederick’s lingering “injury” and the number of silly penalties demonstrated, it has a long way to go.

“It’s probably a fact that there’s going to be a ton of people that say, ‘How did this happen? Who do we blame?’” said Gilbertson, who will unfairly have more than his share of fingers pointed at him for just that reason. “I’ll take my fair share of it, but I think the energy should be spent on getting it back right, to where we’re all used to it being.”

A foundation has started. The UW defense appears promising. The offense needs two and possibly three recruiting classes. There’s a fine array of young linemen on both sides of the ball.

Perhaps what the program needs most of all is the understanding of the people with deep pockets. It can’t prosper with the outrage and hand-wringing from the mucky-mucks it’s had for years.

This was a program that won a Rose Bowl just four years ago.

It will take at least that long to even approach what it was.

The new coaching staff deserves that consideration, which is a lot more than this coaching staff got.

John Sleeper is The Herald’s college writer

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