Twenty-five years ago, Washington stood on top of college football as co-national champions in the midst of a three-year run as Pac-10 Conference champions.
What happened in the two and a half decades since that 1991 season for Washington was a roller coaster of momentary highs and pitiful lows, providing a cautionary tale of how quickly the foundation for being on top can crumble due to a series of missteps.
When Washington takes the field for Saturday’s Peach Bowl against top-ranked Alabama it will mark a return to the national stage for the Huskies. They were there briefly during the 2000 season when the Huskies won the Pac-10 and Rose Bowl, finishing the year ranked No. 3 in the AP Top 25. But this season marks the Huskies’ first shot at a national title since that shared title with Miami in 1991.
So, what happened? A carousel of coaching changes; growing apathy of a once-rabid fan base; and the rise of programs Washington once dominated all added up to lead to the Huskies’ demise.
“I think it was those combinations of things that the Northwest got way more competitive and the Huskies ship was lost at sea for a little bit,” said ESPN analyst and former Washington captain Ed Cunningham. “It’s pretty easy.”
Washington walked off the field on Jan. 1, 1992, after thumping Michigan 34-14 in the Rose Bowl, assuring itself a share of the national title. A year later, Washington was back in the Rose Bowl, this time falling to Tyrone Wheatley and Michigan in what proved to be the start of the Huskies’ fall.
Before the start of the 1993 season, coach Don James resigned in protest of sanctions handed down by the Pac-10 for NCAA rules violations. Jim Lambright took over as head coach and while the Huskies went to bowl games in each of Lambright’s four seasons after Washington’s bowl game ban was lifted, it wasn’t good enough in a place where the expectations were to compete for conference titles.
“I think there was just destined to be some serious fallout when Don left,” longtime Washington broadcaster Bob Rondeau said.
Rick Neuheisel was lured away from Colorado to take on the task of getting Washington back to elite status. For a short time, it worked. Led by Marques Tuiasosopo and a roster of future NFL players, Washington won the Pac-10 and Rose Bowl in 2000, Neuheisel’s second season.
“That team was great,” Cunningham said. “They weren’t good. They were great.”
But issues started to surface. Recruiting suffered. Washington went from 11 wins in 2000 to eight wins, then seven.
Then, the capper: Neuheisel was fired in June 2003 for taking part in a neighborhood NCAA basketball tournament pool. For the second time in 10 years, Washington was dealing with a coaching change just before the season started.
“Overall I would just say (it was) mismanagement during chaos and trying to find your way through,” Cunningham said.
Washington’s collapse was beginning before Neuheisel was fired. Keith Gilbertson took over and won six games in his first season, but the Huskies tumbled to 1-10 in 2004. Recruiting missteps finally caught up to the program and the talent was gone. Washington’s nightmare was only just starting.
Enter Tyrone Willingham, who was the wrong coach at the wrong time. Washington went 11-37 under Willingham , capped by a 2008 season when the Huskies endured the indignity of an 0-12 record that made the school the laughingstock of college football.
Washington had found its bottom.
“I guess it had to hit rock bottom for you to look up and see what it was going to take to start bringing it back,” Rondeau said.
For as much as coach Steve Sarkisian is derided in Seattle for never getting Washington over the seven-win hump until his final season, he deserves acknowledgement for rebuilding the credibility of Washington and restocking the talent. He started to get top prospects to again consider the Huskies and was able to lift Washington from the bottom of the Pac-12 to at least the middle.
It was Chris Petersen who has been able to find the ingredients to make the leap back into prominence that Sarkisian could not. Much of Washington’s rise this year was rooted in last year’s challenge to reach bowl eligibility by winning its last two regular-season games before a bowl victory over Southern Mississippi.
The success this season was likely a year ahead of schedule. Most pointed to 2017 as the potential breakout for Petersen’s crew. But now that they’re here, the Huskies are intent not to let the missteps of the past keep them from being in the national discussion.
“Whether we’re playing in this type of game, I don’t really think like that,” Petersen said. “I just think about getting really good people here and creating this environment where everyone can have a chance to get to their potential and they feel it and they’re growing — from coaches to players to everybody. And when it’s like that, you know really good things are going to happen.”