Oct. 12, 2006
by Justin Chartrey
The Huskies won a grand total of two games at home the last two seasons, in which they went 3-19. Needless to say, the normally loyal and passionate fans started to lose interest.
For the longest time, the stadium sold out on a regular basis and its crowd was fiercely territorial. Before this season, though, those conditions changed for the worse. Regular season-ticket holders declined their renewals and for the first time since the stadium expansion, the numbers dropped dramatically.
In a shocking development of the battle for supremacy in Washington, rival Washington State raised more money than the Huskies before the last Apple Cup, and were rewarded with the top of the Space Needle painted crimson.
It was just one more ding in the armor that used to symbolize indomitable Husky pride from the fan base.
The weak showing by the UW faithful continued into this season with two straight attendances in the low 50,000s.
In the game against Fresno State, though, everyone came alive. Washington did the unthinkable and won a game. And the team did it in such a dramatic way that for the first time since the '03 Apple Cup, Husky Stadium was rocking.
It was as if someone had flipped a switch in the stadium. Instead of mild interest with a smattering of applause when Washington did something right, there came a thunderous roar that caused the Bulldogs to false start twice on their last-chance drive.
"The fan base has always been very loyal and passionate," coach Tyrone Willingham said. "But they needed a spark. And the success our football team has provided them that spark, or reconnection with that passion."
Willingham has seen the Husky fans at their best before, but it was from the other sideline during his time as Stanford's coach. Back then he considered the Washington following to be the best in the West, comparing them to several of the big-time programs of the East Coast, the way football is meant to be.
"It was as you envision big-time college football being," he said. "The home-team fans were extremely proud of the team and that makes a difference."
For him, the best it can be is when opposing teams know who they are playing because of the fans.
"There was nothing ambiguous about the fans going in," he said. "It was Huskies and Husky pride, and as I've always said, they must check colors at the door, because if you aren't wearing purple then you aren't getting in."
Empty rows and sections have been packed with rabid, screaming fans, all hoping that with enough noise they can be that 12th man on the field while the defense is trying to make its last stand.
"You have to love the fans at Washington," defensive end Greyson Gunheim said. "They get us riled up. We try to make plays so they get loud and rattle the offense. The fans play a big part in any game."
At least they have in the past two home games. At critical moments, players have felt that the people who pay admission have helped to both elevate their play and shake the confidence of their opponents.
Both Fresno State's Tom Brandstater and UCLA's Ben Olson faltered mightily under the pressure of close to 60,000 screaming voices.
Brandstater could not get his team under center while precious seconds ticked off the clock and two false-start penalties had the Bulldogs backed up inside the five-yard line.
Olson became so flustered by the sound of the fans and the Husky pass rush that he threw the game-clinching pick to UW's Dan Howell.
In both cases, players like junior Roy Lewis and Gunheim said that they could feel the fans. Lewis was especially glad to see the fans come back to Husky Stadium. "It was exciting to hear the crowd make a difference," he said.
In Lewis' first season on Montlake, the Huskies were just 1-10 and there was not much for the fan base to cheer about even with the one win coming at home. He remembers how listless even the student section was in his redshirt year during Washington's win against San Jose State.
That is in the past now. The here and now is that fans are psyched for Husky football for the first time in a long, long while. Once again fans are wearing purple and gold and are showing the Husky pride that they had buried for the past few years.
It is once again a great place for both fans and the team. "Husky Stadium is one of those places that is fun to play in if you're the home team," Willingham said. "It gets so loud you can't hear yourself think."
The fans are coming through the gates once again, but the team needs to keep up its quick start. Against Oregon State this weekend the team has the perfect opportunity to lock up the fans for at least the rest of the season. If the UW can rack up four straight home wins, opponents will again fear the purple and gold.