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Unleashed: Can UWs New Palace Produce A Title?
Release: 08/21/2013
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From hundreds of 42-inch, flat-screen televisions through an underwater treadmill with an aquatic camera, an “off the charts” locker room and giant scoreboard that is Xbox capable, the new Husky Stadium is wowing. Can it lead to championships?

By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing

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SEATTLE – A massive locker room in the shape of a W, with huge lockers for each player. Flat-screen televisions galore. Even gold, beanbag-like pillows for the Huskies to lounge on, spread across the exquisitely carpeted floor.

“The locker room is off the charts, man. It’s huge. It’s HUGE!” quarterback Keith Price told me upon the Huskies moving into Husky Stadium and all its $261 million of wonder this week. “All the flat screens around; I don’t even think we need all those flat screens. They are everywhere. Everywhere you turn there’s another flat screen.”

As middle linebacker John Timu said: “Oh god, the locker room! It’s so big. Like, I don’t even know where to go to lay down. You walk in and drop.”

Next to it is a gigantic weight room, complete with all new weight plates inscribed with purple, block W’s and hardwood floors with the same W’s as squatting decks.

Glass walls separate the weight room from a fancy nutrition room on one side and a cutting-edge training room on the other. The latter includes the latest the world produces in cold and hot tubs – plus a wowing hydrotherapy pool with an underwater treadmill. That has an underwater camera so trainers and rehabilitating players can observe their strides in real time.

Wide receiver Jaydon Mickens loves the “SwimEx.”

“That is awwwwesome!” he told me Monday, the day the Huskies moved into their mind-blowing, 83,000-square-foot football operations center inside freshly renovated Husky Stadium.

Mickens and his teammates had been in their new digs for fewer than 24 hours when I asked the ebullient sophomore if he had been on the underwater treadmill yet.

“Four times!” he said. “For no reason; I’m not hurt.

“Just to be on it.”

There is even a barbershop, complete with a red-white-and-blue barber’s pole, immediately to the left of the locker room. And we haven’t even gotten upstairs yet, to the recruiting lounge and coaches’ offenses, fireplaces and such.

All this doesn’t even include the exquisitely redesigned stadium itself. It doesn’t include the new field that has the graphics sewn into the latest model of FieldTurf. Or the Husky Hi Def video board above the new east stands and “Touchdown Terrace” field suites.

That giant video board, the same model used on Bank of America’s display board in New York’s Times Square, includes – get this – Xbox capability. Yep, Huskies players, recruits and coaches can be on the patio of the football operations center beyond the opposite end zone of Husky Stadium, point an Xbox controller across the field at the giant Husky Hi-Def board on days in between games, and battle each other in video games.

“When we come back into it from practice it’s like we get the shakes. We are all like, ‘Wow! This is crazy!’” Mickens said of the team’s palatial new pad.

“We’ve said it in every aspect of this Drive for Husky Stadium: Our student-athletes deserve the finest facilities in the country."

 “If they had beds we would sleep here -- if the NCAA allowed it.”

That thought is what UW director of athletics Scott Woodward had in mind while he was leading this 21-month renovation.

“We’ve said it in every aspect of this Drive for Husky Stadium: Our student-athletes deserve the finest facilities in the country,” Woodward said.


WHAT WILL ALL THIS YIELD?

So now what? The team is moved in. The first game to “Retake Montlake” against Boise State – with a sellout of about 70,000 almost assured – is just 10 days away.

What will all these off-the-hook amenities yield?

More to the point, is there a correlation between the Huskies now having elite, championship-level facilities and UW performing like an elite, championship-caliber team in its crazy-nice stadium beginning Aug. 31?

That is the unveiling Husky fans REALLY want.

I mean, it’s not just mere coincidence that coach Steve Sarkisian has proclaimed this is his best of five teams at Washington, one that he believes can “take that next step, and do it consistently. I don't see why we wouldn't be in position to compete for a division championship.”

UW is returning 18 starters from last season. That includes Price, the fifth-year quarterback on the verge of owning multiple school career passing records, a 1,400-yard running back in Bishop Sankey, a preseason All-America tight end in Austin Seferian-Jenkins and eight offensive linemen who have started before as Huskies. Plus, the defense continues to refine more aggressive schemes under second-year, turnaround coordinator Justin Wilcox.

“The biggest thing I think everyone notices – the players, the coaches, the staff, training staff, weight-room staff, everyone notices is how efficient the set up is,” said Sarkisian, whose fingerprints are on the designs for nearly every room and wall in his new football operations center. “There’s just not wasted time. There’s not wasted space. Everything was utilized the right way. And I think we are all, everybody included, are very humbled to have this facility for us.

“Now,” the coach said, “we’ve got to put a great product on the field.”

The players think their fancy new house can be the boost that gets UW over its hump of three consecutive 7-6 seasons to its goal of the Pac-12 championship game -- and thus a chance at the Huskies’ first Rose Bowl since quarterbacks coach Marques Tuiasosopo was the MVP of that game for Washington in 2001.

“Definitely (this) makes us feel like we gotta get past and send a message,” linebacker Travis Feeney says. “We gotta get more than seven wins. We gotta get the 9-win, 10-win season.

“Now it makes it feel like we’re one of the top schools, yeah. We got a fresh new stadium. What more can you ask for?”

Safety Will Shamburger, who with Price are the only remaining members of Sarkisian’s first UW recruiting class in 2009, calls being in the new facilities “amazing” and “overwhelming.” He thinks the new building alone provides a prime opportunity to win more, right away.

“I mean, we always had a champion’s mind in us. We’ve always had that competitive nature in us. This isn’t going to change us in that way,” Shamburger said. (But) it is going to make us more of a team, with more of a collective nature, because we are in this great locker room together, all of us. And the weight room, it’s just us. No distractions.

“It’s a great opportunity for us to become a better team.”

Sankey ran for the third-most yards by a Husky in any season last year as an out-of-nowhere fill-in after Jesse Callier blew out his knee in early in the 2012 opener. He thinks he may be able to rush for more than that this season now that he has this so-cool-it’s-cold training home.

“It does feel good to see new equipment, new facilities. It’s also kind of a motivational too, I guess,” Sankey says. “You come in and you’re like, ‘Wow, we have nice stuff. Let’s use this to our advantage and get all that we can out of our facilities’ -- which will in return help us on game day.”

Mickens feels almost an obligation to win now.

“Certainly it gives us a boost,” he said of the new building. “With the equipment we have, and the fantastic people that are around us – trainers, coaches – it gives us more of a boost to want to work hard, because they are working hard for us.”

We’ll see whether these Huskies become champions. For now, they are sure beating treated like ones.

That’s exactly the intent. If you walk like a champion, live like a champion, you will become, well, a …

“I’d like to think the care that we give our players now is better than ever,” Sarkisian said. “It’s a world-class facility in that aspect, from a nutrition standpoint, from the weight-room standpoint, from a rehab standpoint when you are talking about start-of-the-art cold tubs, hot tubs, treadmills under water. All of those things that should make you perform better is now accessible to us,” Sarkisian said.

“I’d like to think over the long haul that it can have an impact on how we play the game.”


“THIS IS HUSKY FOOTBALL”

Sarkisian’s favorite part of the football operations building isn’t the two-sided fireplace in his office upstairs. It’s not his prime views of the stadium, the field, Lake Washington and the Cascade Mountains. It’s not the 42-inch flat-screen television in his private bathroom, either.

“When you come down to the bottom floor where the weight room is, the training room is, the locker room, that’s a workplace, you know? And it feels like a workplace,” Sarkisian said. “Coming out of the elevator there is almost a chain-link, a steel chain-like (fence) that says, ‘This Is Husky Football.’

“I think that shot is symbolic of what this program was built on: Tough, hard-nosed football. It gives you that really good feel right as you get off the elevator.”

Sarkisian designed that elevator exit. He designed the team and position meeting rooms across the hall from the locker room, too. Each room has a wall mural with photographs of Husky legends of each position from when they were starring at UW. The quarterbacks room has Mark Brunell, Cody Pickett, Jake Locker and Marques Tuiasosopo in purple and gold staring over the current QBs as Tuiasosopo tutors them each day in film breakdowns.

Immediately outside the locker room is a wall mural of all the Huskies who have been All-Americans, plus those who have gone on to play in the NFL. The weight room’s 42-inch, flat-screen televisions include monitors that will list UW football’s all-time lifting records, in addition to the high marks from the current team.

“We wanted to make sure we respected the great and rich history and tradition that this university has,” Sarkisian said. “You see a lot of images that are really symbolic of the past. Obviously the helmets – there are a lot of helmet shots. There are a lot of shots of past great players, some All-Americans, a wall of our great players that have gone on to play in the NFL. That should inspire our team, to motivate our guys.

“I don’t know if all they all recognize now what that is for. But hopefully over a four-year span they can recognize that.”

Sarkisian also designed the lobby of the football office on the main, concourse level of the stadium’s west end, facing Montlake Boulevard. The lobby includes a case of monitors that tell the history of Husky football. Its floor has a bronze inlay of the block W logo. The 1991 national championship trophy is featured there in a down-lit display.

Upstairs, on the third floor of the football operations center, the coach has designed a spacious recruiting lounge – because, let’s face it, recruiting is a mammoth factor behind the new Husky Stadium and football operations center. In the lounge, Sarkisian has had a large wall inscribed with the words “Life, Athletics, Academics” – his three pillars for every recruiting experience.

There are couches in the large, open room that leads out to the patio overlooking the field and Lake Washington. The room’s walls include photos of Husky student-athletes off the field, in the classroom and in the community. The team’s academic achievements are also displayed in the recruiting lounge, including the top-ten football players ranked by current and overall grade-point average. Sarkisian used to have that list hanging outside his former office in the Graves Annex building.

“We wanted to give that recruiting lounge a feel of home, a feel of comfort, a feel of this feels right to me when a kid comes into our home and onto our campus. So it’s got somewhat of a living-room feel to it,” the former quarterback at Brigham Young and USC offensive coordinator said Tuesday. “I think it allows us to speak to really the three phases of life that our kids deal with while they are here at the University of Washington.

“Obviously they have their football and athletics side. Obviously they have their academic side. Then there’s their personal and social side. And those three aspects are so intertwined that we want to have a sense that this is a place that they can go on a personal level and feel really comfortable in the environment that we are in.”

Shamburger is a product of Sarkisian’s recruiting principles. And he’s forever indebted to the coach for them.

When the fifth-year senior safety from Compton, Calif., hard on Los Angeles’ south side, was in the January of his senior year at St. John Bosco High School – one month before the 2009 national football signing day -- he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee playing basketball. Washington, reportedly along with Oregon, Arizona State, Boise State, Washington State and Utah, had all been recruiting him.

The only offer he got after the knee injury? It was from Sarkisian, assistant coach and southern California recruiter Johnny Nansen and the Huskies.

They honored their original commitment, even though they knew Shamburger would not be able to play for at least 18 months, after a redshirt season.

“Thing about when Coach Sarkisian and Coach Nansen first came to my house, since the first day, I’ve always trusted them. I tore my ACL my senior year – and they still offered me a scholarship,” Shamburger said. “They have my full trust. They trusted me. They had full trust in me coming back, 100 percent, playing for their team. So they have my full trust, 100 percent – forever – the coaches.

So when they told him four years ago a new Husky Stadium would be grand, he believed.

“I saw the posters about two years ago in Coach Nansen’s office of what it might look like,” Shamburger said. “Now, seeing it, it looks waaaaay better than the posters.”


THE BOTTOM LINE

I hear you. This is all well and good, but will this great, new home spawn more wins and another championship era for the Huskies?

If anyone knows this is a bottom-line world these Dawgs are living and playing in, it’s the quarterback, who was living and playing under a microscope even before he moved into the new digs. So leave it to Price to cut to the essence of how all that is new and grand for UW football can relate to a title run in 2013.

“We know we’ve got to perform well,” he said, shaking his head knowingly.

“The stadium doesn’t mean anything if we are losing in here.”


Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director or Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for the Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000. 

Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.

Click here to visit Bell's Twitter page. 

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