For 1991 National-Champion Huskies, `Everything Just Fell Into Place'
Nov. 1, 2011
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - What a week for the 1991 Huskies to return home for a celebration.
Remembering 92 seasons inside Husky Stadium. The current Dawgs, off to their best start since 2001, hosting a Northwest rival. National television. Legendary coach Don James, the "Dawgfather," coming back for the ceremonial coin toss.
Now all coach Steve Sarkisian has to do is keep his current Huskies from getting stars struck so they can focus on kicking off Saturday at 7:40 p.m. against sixth-ranked Oregon in the final game in Husky Stadium before 20 months of renovations begin next week.
"Whether Lincoln Kennedy is in town or Steve Emtman is in town or it's Senior Night and how many tickets are being given out to this person, or Coach James is there ... there is so much other stuff involved for us to enjoy that experience Saturday night," Sarkisian said.
Has it really been 20 years since Emtman was swallowing ball carriers like overdue dinner?
Has it been two decades since Mario Bailey was striking the Heisman pose at the Rose Bowl?
Since confident sophomore Billy Joe Hobert was walking into Husky huddles like he owned them - and then owning opposing defenses? Since the fill-in quarterback was enjoying the fortress-like protection of an offensive line led by All-Pac-10 center Ed Cunningham plus Kennedy, who was then still a guard and not yet an NFL All-Pro tackle?
Perhaps the most thrilling, enduring image from the Huskies' `91 national championship season came at the end. It exemplified the skill and the swagger that made Washington 12-0 for the only time in its 121-season history and the spilt national champion with Miami.
Bailey struck his Heisman Trophy pose inside the brilliantly painted Rose Bowl end zone as Huskies fans roared in Pasadena, Calif., on New Year's Day 1992. The unforgettable stunt came after the All-American wide receiver's tumbling catch for UW's final score in its 34-14 manhandling of fourth-ranked Michigan.
A perfect end to a perfect season.
Turns out, it was far from a spur-of-the-moment lark.
"I'd been thinking about doing that for a while," Bailey, now 40 and a social worker in the Seattle suburb of Renton, told GoHuskies.com. "It had been brought up to me, by friends, from fans sending letters. Then all before the game, Desmond Howard had been acting like he was better than everybody, at Disneyland, at all these pregame functions. His attitude was over the top.
"Then there was the pride in me. To this day, I know my numbers were better or comparable to his. The only thing he had me in was special teams."
Bailey set a school-record for a wide receiver with 18 touchdowns in the 1991 season, three behind Howard. Yet the Huskies' star from Seattle's Franklin High School didn't even break the top 10 in national voting for the Heisman Trophy.
But Emtman did. His fourth-place finish remains tied with Orlando Pace (1996) and Ndamukong Suh (2009) for the highest Heisman vote count for a lineman in the last four decades.
"We wanted to show (Howard)," Bailey said of UW in that `92 Rose Bowl.
Bailey caught six passes for 126 yards and that touchdown against Michigan. Howard? The actual Heisman winner that season had a mere one catch for 35 yards against Washington's swarming, hellacious D.
These days, Bailey can't get through a week without someone imitating him posing like the Heisman, pantomiming a ball under one arm with the other extended in a stiff arm.
"Never in a million years, I never thought that thing would still be brought up," he said, laughing through the telephone from work. "I can be 90 years old and still someone is going to see me and be striking the pose. That's what I'm known for."
And that was only part of UW's wondrous 1991.
`I HAVE NEVER SEEN A DEFENSE QUITE THAT GOOD' - BO SCHEMBECHLER
Hall of Fame coach James had his defense attacking and his offense as explosive as it's ever been, a couple of seasons after moving from his traditional two-back formations into three wide-receiver, one-back sets.
The '91 Huskies outscored opponents 461-101. The 461 points were a school record, as were UW's 41.9 points per game, 63 total touchdowns, 34 touchdowns rushing, 5,191 total yards, and 471.9 yards of offense per game.
"Everything just fell into place. We had size, speed and tremendous ability at just about every position," said James, who finished his next-to-last season as the Huskies' iconic coach in 1991.
The key was sheer domination along the line of scrimmage. Kennedy was the Pac-10's offensive lineman of the year as a junior. Emtman was the Outland and Lombardi Award winner in the most dominant season a Husky defensive front man has ever had. He was also the Pac-10 defensive lineman of the year, making `91 the only time UW has had the Pac-10 offense and defensive linemen of year in same season.
Emtman, who is now president of a real-estate construction company in his native Spokane area, was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1996. James went in a year later.
The Huskies' offense committed 20 turnovers that season, but UW opponents scored just 10 points all regular season off those. Five of the defenders that season were drafted into the NFL (Emtman, Dana Hall, Donald Jones, Brett Collins, Chico Fraley). Emtman went first overall in 1992, to the Indianapolis Colts. He remains the only Husky taken with the first overall pick in an NFL draft.
"Normally, you don't have to devise a game plan around a defensive lineman," James said. "But with Emtman, offenses had to. You couldn't make a living out of single blocking him. You had to double team him, and our linebackers were left unblocked so much - and he still made plays."
Fellow All-American and linebacker Dave Hoffmann, All-Pac-10 linebackers Fraley and Jones, plus all-conference cornerback Dana Hall joined Emtman in allowing just 231.9 total yards per game rushing in 1991. No Husky team has allowed so few since.
Coordinator Jim Lambright used his defenders' supreme athleticism and speed to relentlessly attack and overwhelm offenses. The '91 Dawgs surrendered the fewest touchdowns (12) in 30 seasons, the fewest points (101) in 30 years and just 237 yards per game, the lowest average allowed since 1959.
"I have never seen a defense quite that good," former Michigan coach and icon Bo Schembechler announced during ABC's Rose Bowl broadcast.
Schembechler then proclaimed the Huskies his national champions as Washington registered six sacks and dismantled his Wolverines on New Year's Day 1992 in that season's most anticipated bowl game.
Bailey, who had to try to get open against that defense every day in practice, thinks the point when the Huskies' D went from good to arguably best ever came two seasons earlier. On Nov. 4, 1989, Arizona State's Paul Justin threw for 339 yards and three touchdowns at Husky Stadium in ASU's 32-24 victory.
Bailey remembers after that game Lambright decided his defense would no longer sit back and react but would attack offenses.
"The changed us dramatically, that one game," Bailey said.
After that ASU loss, Washington finished that 8-4 season of 1989 with wins over Oregon State, Washington State plus Emmitt Smith and Florida in the Freedom Bowl by a combined 105-30. The Huskies won 33 of their next 35 games following Justin's shredding of the Dawgs and Lambright's subsequent unleashing of them.
On offense, six Huskies were drafted into the NFL in 1992: Bailey, Cunningham, Siupeli Malamala, Aaron Pierce, Orlando McKay, and Kris Rongen. In all, 28 of the 100 players on the '91 Huskies eventually played in an NFL game. Eight more played professional football somewhere. An astounding 48 players - nearly half the roster -- got an invite to a pro football training camp.
To think, 1991 started with the Huskies hugely concerned over how they would even get through the season. Quarterback Mark Brunell, the Rose Bowl MVP from UW's win over Iowa that ended the 10-2 season of 1990, sustained a major knee injury in spring practice when Emtman and Jones squashed him.
"Mark Brunell getting hurt, that got me really worried," James, who will turn 79 on Dec. 31, said. "Then I looked at the schedule and saw we started at Stanford and at Nebraska in the first two games and I thought, `Oh, boy, this is going to be tough.'"
Bailey a key to the offense's success - whether with Brunell or Hobert leading it -- was the arrival of offensive assistant Keith Gilbertson before his sophomore season. Gilbertson, who went on to become UW's head coach in 2003 and '04 and now is a senior assistant with the Cleveland Browns, changed Washington's offense.
He altered James' old schemes based on power running with two backs and two wide receivers into base sets of three wide outs with more wide-open passing. UW began featuring Bailey in the slot while also moving him outside to get the best matchups against secondaries.
"That changed the dynamics dramatically. Practices were more intense," Bailey said. "Then the summer going into my junior season, everyone starting staying in Seattle and working out together. You could just see people getting closer."
The two losses in Bailey's final 28 games at Washington still gall him.
"The year before, my junior year (of 1990), we should have won the national title. We were that good," he said. "We lost to Colorado at the end of the game, and against UCLA we lost because of overconfidence. We should have blown them out.
"Then my senior year, we were even better. We knew we would blow everyone out in the Pac-10 - which we did."
THE PERFECT SEASON
The fourth-ranked Huskies began 1991 by beating Stanford 42-7, a relieving opening win that James remembers was closer than the score suggests. UW then took a bye week to prepare for a huge test at No. 9 Nebraska on Sept. 21.
"Back then it was, you should never beat Nebraska. You chalk that up as a loss," James said.
Yet the Huskies knew this nationally televised night game on ABC was their chance to show the country they were as good as the players thought they were.
"Entering the season, I was telling everyone we would win the national championship. We just had to get past that one game early, at Nebraska," Bailey said.
Down 21-9 at Nebraska, Washington faced a fourth and 8 in the third quarter.
"Normally I would have punted the ball. I was usually more conservative," James said. "But we had to go for it. We were down, on the road, playing a great team.
"And I remembered a quote from one of their coaches before the game that you couldn't win big with that (one-back) offense. That was incentive."
James uncharacteristically threw on fourth down, and Hobert hit McKay on a slant pattern for the first down.
The decision and the result were the pivotal moments of the season.
The emboldened Huskies roared back from there to win 36-21, outscoring mighty Nebraska 30-7 after halftime. Washington's astounding 618 total yards was the most Nebraska had allowed in 35 years. Jay Barry punctuated the statement with an 81-yard run around right end on third and long with UW leading 29-21 late.
The Dawgs were so good that night, they got a rousing ovation from Nebraska's fans when it was over.
The roars followed them to Seattle for their first three home games. No wonder. Washington beat Kansas State, Arizona and Toledo by a combined 158-3 on consecutive Saturdays at Husky Stadium. Those three poor foes basically went backwards against the attacking Dawgs, rushing a combined 101 times for 61 yards. That's 6-1, not 1-6-1 yards.
The 54-0 rout of Arizona is the biggest UW blowout in that 28-game series. The Wildcats were such a mess that day against the Huskies' defense they surrendered on one drive by punting on third down.
Brunell returned to play in the Kansas State game Sept. 28, about half a year sooner than some estimated he would, as James rewarded him for his fiendish commitment to rehabilitating the knee. Yet the confident Hobert remained the starter mainly directing the Huskies' runaway offense.
James remembers the sixth game as the toughest of 1991, Oct. 19 at No. 7 California. His Huskies were ranked No. 3, four places ahead of Cal, entering the showdown for the eventual Pac-10 championship.
James also remembers extra motivation to beat those Golden Bears. Whether the crafty coach created it for his Huskies or Cal handed it to them remains in doubt 20 years later.
"The rumor was they had champagne on ice in the coach's locker room," James said, wryly. Cal was bubbling early, leading until Hobert found Bailey for a tying touchdown pass. The Huskies led 17-10 at halftime, and Washington reclaimed the lead on Beno Bryant's 65-yard run in the fourth quarter. On the final play from the UW 23, Cal's Mike Pawlawski threw for Brian Treggs at the goal-line, but cornerback Walter Bailey tipped the ball away to preserve Washington's perfect season. The Berkeley crowd of 74,500 gave both teams a standing ovation after the thriller. The Dawgs then blew out Oregon 29-7, yet left that one angry that the Ducks became the first of seven opponents to score in the fourth quarter. They trounced Arizona State at home 44-16 then got through a relatively sluggish, 14-3 win at USC. Then they fell behind 3-0 early Nov. 16 at Oregon State, one of only three times the Huskies trailed that season.
Big whoop. Washington won 58-6, holding Beavers to just 83 total yards. It remains UW's biggest blowout of OSU in the 115-game series, and the six first downs the Beavers scraped out are still the fewest UW has allowed in a game since 1974 - the last season before James came from Kent State to lead Washington.
Apple Cup week came next for the second-ranked Huskies. Washington State coach Mike Price spiced that up by revealing he had voted Miami No. 1 in the coaches' poll Washington ultimately topped.
Days later the Huskies showed Price what he could do with his vote. They mauled his Cougars 56-21, the most points scored by one team in the 104-game rivalry. Washington was Pac-10 champion and Rose Bowl bound for the fifth time in James' 17 seasons on Montlake.
And then Bailey went Heisman on Michigan and Howard, capping perfection that any Husky will never forget - and will get to relive some again this Saturday night in the farewell for old Husky Stadium.
Judging from the constant reminders Bailey gets of his trophy pose, and of UW's entire 1991 season, fans here have enjoyed reliving that football year for most of the last 20 years.
"I think that's because of Washington sports, in general," Bailey said. "For championships, it's the 1979 Sonics and Washington football in 1991 - other than the Storm. That's not many championships in our state.
"So people remember everything about it."
And why not?
What's not to love?