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USC USC 2005 News and Notes
Tuesday, August 2, 2005
Willingham's rebuilding job mirrors the one James faced
Attendance was down, expectations low. A new coach didn't seem to be jazzing the Washington Huskies faithful.
It's 1975, Don James' first season. With little fanfare, he took over a program coming off 2-9 and 5-6 seasons that had been in the news for off-field problems as much as on-field ineptitude.
Thirty years later, those who were around during that dreary period can't help but feel a little déjà vu.
"The Washington program in 1975 was as low as it could get," said former quarterback Warren Moon, a member of James' first recruiting class. "Now, in 2005, it's about as low as it can get."
That will be somewhat quantified today, when the annual media polls rank the Huskies last in the Pac-10, nipping Stanford for the conference toilet.
Washington never has been voted so low in the preseason. Its previous worst position (seventh) came last year, and that prediction proved optimistic. The Huskies imploded under second-year coach Keith Gilbertson, went 1-10 and finished last.
Remember this endlessly regurgitated factoid: The Huskies posted their first losing season in 27 years, snapping a streak that was tied with Florida State for the third longest in the nation.
Twenty-seven years ... or 1976, James' second season.
While it's hard to convince folks draped in purple that James didn't walk on water (and, by the way, no one has proved he can't), it might be worthwhile to remember the Dawgfather didn't merely snap his fingers and transform the program into a national power, winning 73 percent of his games over 18 seasons.
That might be something to hold on to if the Tyrone Willingham Era doesn't begin with a sprinkling of fairy dust. This reclamation project could take some time, just as James' did.
After all, James started his third season 1-3, and some of the natives were starting to get restless.
"I never had any doubts, and I never felt that many Tyees did either," then-athletic director Mike Lude said. "The media people were wondering about that. If you go back and look in the P-I and The (Seattle) Times, you'd find some thoughts about what the heck was going on."
Under the least ambiguous of headlines -- "A Disaster" -- P-I columnist Steve Rudman observed after a 22-20 Week 3 defeat at Syracuse, "... if there is a word that describes accurately the Washington football team it most assuredly is 'embarrassing.' "
Change of pace
Jim Owens' tenure as Huskies coach ended badly, and asking his former players about that period -- notable for highly publicized racial issues as well as embarrassing defeats -- only proves that history is a matter of perspective.
"Things weren't going so well on campus and people were saying terrible things about athletes," said All-Pac-8 linebacker Dan Lloyd, a co-captain in 1975. "The press was so negative against Coach Owens."
Many players liked Owens and felt loyal to him, but they also knew it was time for a change. The program had lost its Northwest dominance, and a glance at the athletes suiting up for USC made it clear the Huskies' talent was hardly elite.
The racial controversies, fairly or unfairly reported, damaged the program. Moon, for one, said he wouldn't have signed to play for Owens.
While being recruited by James and assistant coach Jim Mora, Moon talked to a black quarterback already on the roster, Cliff McBride.
"He told me not to come there," Moon said. "I had questions about what had happened in the past. But I believed in (Mora and James)."
Recruiting fell off dramatically during Owens' final few seasons, but it didn't take long for James to change that. He started contacting prospects the day he was hired, pursuing speed, which the team sorely lacked.
His demanding, organized intensity also alerted current players that things would be different, and not everyone was happy about it.
Owens walked among his team during practices. His routines allowed players to have free time and an offseason away from football.
James lorded over practice from a tower, cutting a distant and intimidating figure, much like Paul "Bear" Bryant. James also demanded a commitment to football most hadn't experienced before. Offseason? What's that?
Competition for playing time was wide open, with no allowances made for returning starters. Players were expected to memorize the names and tendencies of the entire opposing unit -- and they were tested on it. He posted a "Hustle Board" that quantified players' efforts for everyone to see.
"I didn't really understand what was going on -- Jim Owens was just different," All-Conference center Ray Pinney said, referring to James. "No one felt secure in their positions. It didn't matter who you were, everybody was being scrutinized, even returning starters. It took some getting used to."
Lloyd said Jim Lambright was a go-with-the-flow assistant coach under Owens.
"He changed to aggressive with Coach James," Lloyd said. "It was interesting to see. ... You could feel the progress with the team just with the enthusiasm of the coaching staff."
The Huskies lost at Arizona State 35-12 in James' debut, and Pinney recalled a rumor that James stayed up all night glowering at the film.
"We were all anxious about the consequences and how we were going to be dealt with," he said. "There was an edge to things that year we weren't used to."
Said James, "There's always a little bit of that. We had a very intense staff. Maybe you can loosen up a bit after you've won a couple of Rose Bowls."
Things to come
James was organized and intense, but that didn't prevent a fairly talented 1975 squad from playing inconsistently and finishing 6-5. The UW dropped three-point decisions to Stanford and California, losses that knocked the Huskies out of the Rose Bowl race, while managing to beat 13th-ranked USC, 8-7.
There were revealing moments along the way, though.
Pinney remembers quarterbacks coach Ray Dorr delivering a highly detailed scouting report on every member of Washington State's defense before the Apple Cup without the benefit of any notes.
"It was amazing," he said (and his recollection was echoed by James, who recalled the late Dorr's effort as "a classic.").
Coming off the upset of USC, the Huskies beat the Cougars 28-27, memorably overcoming a 24-0 deficit, with the winning touchdown coming on a horrible pass from Moon that miraculously bounced off a WSU defender and into the waiting hands of Spider Gaines.
Momentum for the following season? Not really.
Competing for ticket buyers with the Seahawks during their inaugural season in 1976, the Huskies turned in their worst attendance numbers since 1959, lost four of five heading into the Apple Cup, and beat the Cougars for a 5-6 finish. They never played in front of a home crowd of more than 47,187.
As noted, it would be nearly three decades before the program again posted a losing season, but such a run didn't appear forthcoming during a 1-3 start in 1977.
In an effort to reverse sagging attendance, the "Husky Fever" promotion started that year, but just 36,489 showed up for Game 2 against San Jose State, the smallest home crowd since 1960. Wrote Rudman: "It should be Husky Panic."
"I heard doubts; word got back to me," said James, who apparently punched out a door in front of reporters after the sloppy loss at Syracuse. "It really got ugly."
Moon had been hounded by fans for three seasons but he was about the only Husky playing well. Linebacker Michael Jackson suggested in a P-I story that the team lacked motivation. Attention to detail? Special teams had been abysmal.
Moon said there was a players-only meeting before the fifth game in which differences were hashed out, and he and his fellow captains demanded a complete commitment to the season. No more missing curfew, as a couple of players did before the Syracuse game.
The following weekend, the Huskies pounded Oregon 54-0. They then won five of their final six games and rolled to the program's first Rose Bowl since the 1963 season, a 27-20 upset over No. 4 Michigan.
And the James Era took off.
A higher standard
Why the stroll down memory lane?
It's not just the symmetry of "30 years ago this month." Moon, for one, understood the parallels.
Willingham was an NFL assistant when Moon was with the Minnesota Vikings, so he's in an exclusive club of players coached by both men.
"There's a lot of similarities (between James and Willingham)," he said. "(Willingham) was one of the most detail-oriented coaches on the Vikings staff."
Just like James, Willingham is taking over a beleaguered program that has fallen from its glory years. Of course, Willingham must contend with the hopes and expectations of a fan base still pining for the dominance of James' tenure.
James didn't have the glorious Dawgfather Legacy hanging over him.
"The goal back then was to build back to being the best in the Northwest and beat Washington State, Oregon and Oregon State and maybe split with California teams," Lude said. "We thought (James) would have it made if he did that. He'd be a hero. But (later on), it got to the point that if we went to any bowl other than the Rose Bowl -- like the Sun Bowl -- that it wasn't good enough."
Clearly, Willingham is presently aimed at the Point A of that statement, not the Point B.
The former Huskies who were recruited by Owens can empathize with the current players who have suffered through the upheaval of the past few seasons. Change isn't easy. But they have some advice for the current Huskies, many of whom are trying on their third head coach.
"They need to be coachable," Lloyd said. "Don't think about what went on in the past. Think about what's going to go on in the future. They need to get on board and not fight who's there."
Pinney confessed that he had no inkling in 1975 of greatness in James. When he visited campus over the next few seasons during his career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, however, he began to recognize the method in the madness.
When Willingham was introduced at a UW basketball game this winter, Pinney said he felt a positive vibe, perhaps one suggesting another sort of déjà vu.
"Remember when he barked for the crowd? He was perfect," he said. "He connected to the students at their level. It was a great introduction."
The expectations for the Huskies this year are historically low. Maybe there's some solace in remembering the program has been here before and found its way out, transforming into a national power under a diminutive control freak who became a legend.
"It's not magic," James said. "It's hard work. Tyrone knows that more than anybody."
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