Oct. 17, 2008
by Brian Tom
Today, the University of Washington will recognize the 1977 football team that capped its season with a 27-20 Rose Bowl win over a heavily favored Michigan squad. The fact that members of the 1978 Rose Bowl winners are even standing before the Husky crowd to be honored is a minor upset itself. The Dawgs had to scratch and claw their way to the top of the Pac-8 Conference that season, an accomplishment that would set flight to a run of unprecedented success for years to come.
The season marked the first of eight-straight years the Huskies would finish first or second in the conference race. Most importantly, the run put into motion the Don James era, giving the Dawgfather credibility with the Husky fan base and earning respect from all opponents.
Washington started the season woefully, trotting out of the gate with a 1-3 record. The Huskies lost their season-opener to 16th-ranked Mississippi State and dropped back-to-back road games to Minnesota and Syracuse -- both contests determined by last second field goals.
Despite the early setbacks, the Huskies remained focused. The three losses came at the hands of non-conference foes and did not put an end to the possibility of a successful season. Nonetheless, the natives were restless in Seattle.
"If you were to ask [fans] after four games, they would have had me fired," remembered James, who coached the Huskies from 1975-1992. "I was in the third year of a four-year contract. There were probably 10,000 alums that, if they could have afforded to buy me out, they would have liked to have."
Luckily for the Husky nation, patience was shown and James was able to right the ship. Washington bounced back with a 54-0 romp at Oregon and would also win its next two conference games against Stanford and Oregon State.
"We went down and played Oregon and put up a very lopsided score and that kind of got things on track," said starting center and team captain Blair Bush. "People gained a little confidence and the conference, to be completely honest, was a lot softer then, so we went on a pretty good roll through the rest of the season."
Washington would lose just one more time during the season, nestling a loss at UCLA in between two three-game conference win streaks. With a 6-1 record in the Pac-8 (7-4 overall), the Huskies were on to the Rose Bowl to face the Big Ten Champion, Michigan, which sported a 10-1 record and No. 4 national ranking.
The Huskies were decided underdogs in the game against the Wolverines. Most pundits picked a lopsided victory for Michigan. Evidently, word of the Huskies' slim chances drifted down to both teams.
"I had the feeling after we traded all the game film that we were lacking a little bit of confidence," said Coach James. "We just kind of changed the objective. I told the team `just forget about the score, get ready to play, play as hard as you can and don't worry about the outcome.'"
All-Conference cornerback Nesby Glasgow, a junior on the squad, also sensed that the Huskies' opponent was buying into the hype.
"Michigan probably took us lightly," he said. "I'm sure if you look back on both rosters, undoubtedly you'd say that Michigan overall had more talent. But, there is no question that we, by far, had more determination."
The Huskies parlayed their superior determination into a stellar first -half performance. Through the arm and legs of quarterback and Co-Pac-8 Player of the Year, Warren Moon, Washington headed into the locker room at halftime with a 17-0 lead. The stunned Wolverines were outgained 246 total yards to 111 in the first half.
"Once we stepped out on the field, we showed them that you have to come out and play," said Glasgow. "As they say, that is why you play the game."
Washington conveyed thoughts of a rout when Moon threw a 28-yard strike to his favorite target, Spider Gaines, early in the third quarter to extend the lead to 24-0. But, Michigan showed it was far from ready to roll over.
Michigan quarterback Rick Leach fired a 76-yard touchdown bomb to Curt Stephenson, two plays after the Huskies had built their 24-point lead. After a Husky field goal from Steve Robbins, Michigan mounted a furious fourth-quarter comeback.
"That was what made that game so darn exciting," said Bush. "They came back so strong in the fourth quarter. They shut down our running game and were moving it pretty well on our defense, so it was in doubt the whole doggone time."
The Wolverines scored on their first possession of the final quarter and held the Husky offense to the first of four consecutive three-and-outs. With momentum in hand, Michigan scored again to make the game 27-20 with 3:44 on the clock.
The Huskies needed back-to-back interceptions - a pick by Michael Jackson on the Husky one-yard line and a last-minute interception from Glasgow - to put Michigan away and seal James' first of four Rose Bowl victories.
"As the old adage goes, it's not how you start, it is how you finish," said Glasgow, an appropriate cliché for both the season and the Rose Bowl game. "I think the group of guys just came together. We were determined to prove everyone wrong. We just had a group of guys that came together with the same mindset."
Little did they know that mindset would lay the foundation of success for James over the next 15 years.
"The big thing is [that year] kicked off our new program," said James. "It gave us the credibility that you need to sustain and continue to recruit and get good players. It really helped us."
And helped propel Husky fans through one of the most exciting times in UW football history.