April 25, 2009
BY JEREMY COTHRAN
SEATTLE - While quarterback Jake Locker completed one crisp pass after another during Saturday's Spring Game, it was hard to tell which group was more excited - the fans at Husky Stadium, or the sizeable group of former Washington football alumni who had congregated on the sidelines.
More than a few former Huskies present were in agreement that this year's Spring Game had a palpable sense of enthusiasm that was missing in the past few seasons. They came at the behest of Coach Steve Sarkisian, who has made reaching out to football alums a priority since he took over the program four months ago. Sarkisian emphasized that he wants to create a welcoming atmosphere on campus for alums.
For some alumni, this was their first time back at Husky Stadium since playing in their final home games as seniors. Mark Bruener, who played 14 seasons in the NFL for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Houston Texans, was in awe of the atmosphere on Saturday. He had a chance to see several former teammates, make friends and exchange cell phone numbers with some other former players, but mostly Bruener just wanted to soak up the scene.
"I commend Coach Sark," Bruener said. "He's doing a lot to involve the former players and everyone is really excited."
Bruener added that he's moving back home to the Seattle area after he retired this offseason from the Texans, and wants to become a regular at Husky Stadium. He pulled aside another former player and current executive director of the Big "W" Club Elliot Silvers and told him: "You have another former Husky that wants to come aboard."
Mostly, the former players wanted a reason to be excited. That was hard for many of them with the Huskies trying to rebound off an 0-12 season. A majority of the alumni in attendance played under legendary coach Don James, and carry an immense amount of pride with them regarding Husky football.
Mike Baldassin, who was a linebacker in the 1970s, said the atmosphere at Husky Stadium is beginning to remind him of the spring games when James used to coach. Baldassin, who came to Washington from Wilson High School in Tacoma, dealt with a coaching change himself as a player. He was recruited by former coach Jim Owens, but finished his career under James after he took over in 1975. Baldassin said that when James came to Montlake, the intensity and tempo of the practices picked up, as did the competition. Those are all similar to what outsiders have noticed about the new regime Sarkisian is installing at Washington.
"As a former player, we've all felt so welcome here," Baldassin said. "We've all been talking this weekend, and said, `Finally, this is what it should be like.'"
The excitement for the on-field product has also picked up after the Purple squad, which consisted of starters on both sides of the ball, rolled to a 33-0 victory.
Most impressive might have been Locker, who looked nearly flawless as he continues to transition to a more pro-style offense. The quarterback hit 16-of-18 passes for 200 yards and a touchdown. He also ran for a score. Chris Polk, who is battling for the starting running back spot, rushed for 95 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries.
Locker's performance definitely caught the eye of one Husky great. Marques Tuiasosopo, who currently plays for the Oakland Raiders, took in the game from the sidelines with his extensive family, who were out en masse to watch senior linebacker Trenton Tuiasosopo.
Marques said it was "impressive" to see a quarterback like Locker adjust so quickly to such a difficult scheme.
"It's a lot of new terminology," Marques said. "But (Locker) has a great attitude. He's a great athlete and these coaches will get him ready."
Those are the same sentiments echoed by another former Husky quarterback, Warren Moon. The NFL Hall of Famer expressed optimism at the direction he saw the Huskies headed, and believes it will only be a matter of time before the program has a full return to prominence.
And the alumni want to feel like they're a part of the process, which is why the work Sarkisian has done to ingratiate himself with the former players has been well received.
"We're all really excited about what Sark brings to the table," said Moon, who still keeps a busy schedule with his Crescent Moon Foundation. He was also recently inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame.
During the game, Moon shook hands with well-wishers and chatted with Huskies men's basketball coach Lorenzo Romar. As the game was winding down, he described a scene from Friday night's alumni function, where Sarkisian stood up and addressed the former players. He said Sarkisian encouraged the players to start taking part in the program, and that he would always welcome them at games and events. Most importantly, the coach promised he would quickly "turn things around."
"That was encouraging to hear," Moon said. "Most coaches would say, `This is going to take some time.' But Sark was right there, laying it on the line. As a former player of this program, you want to hear that."