Unleashed: Remembering the Dawgfather's House
Nov. 2, 2011
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
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SEATTLE - The other day I asked Don James for a list of his favorite Husky Stadium moments.
I might as well have asked Washington's legend for a list of all the great Huskies he coached over the 18 years that became the Huskies' heyday.
There are so, SO many:
*The 1975 Apple Cup, at the end of his first UW season.
*A truly authentic Northwest practice week earlier that fall, which truly welcomed the native Ohioan to Seattle.
*The night in 1992, James' final season leading the Huskies, when the stadium got so raucous meters measured the noise at ear-damage levels.
After a 153-57-2 record, 15 bowls, six Rose Bowls and the school's only national championship in 1991, "The Dawgfather" takes particular pride in the fans and their fevered support through his Huskies career.
"Oh, yeah. That's one thing you have to have, and we had it," James said of the fans and their loud, game-changing support on the eve of Saturday night's final game in Husky Stadium against Oregon before renovations begin Monday.
"If you don't get that, if you don't get fans out to cheer, you probably aren't going to have your job long as a head coach."
The 78-year-old James, who had a defibrillator placed in his heart this summer, will be at Husky Stadium Saturday reuniting with the players from the `91 national championship team that UW will honor during the game. He will be at midfield to preside over the coin toss just before kickoff.
Heck, for all he's seen and done inside Husky Stadium, they should let him kick the ball off to start the game, too.
He had the 91-year-old place beside Lake Washington rockin' like no other stadium in the country during his glorious tenure at Washington.
He turned it into such the place to be during Seattle's autumns that on Nov. 13, 1982, fans tore down the goal posts at Husky Stadium to celebrate a Washington win - that took place 1,470 miles away.
With both seventh-ranked UW and No. 3 Arizona State in contention for the Pac-10 title, the game was broadcast back to neighboring Hec Edmundson Pavilion on closed-circuit television. The crowd got so huge a second screen was set up in the stadium. After the Huskies won 17-13, the viewers stormed the field to tear both goal posts from the turf.
Yet there are two common themes that link James' favorite Husky Stadium moments: USC, the longtime king of the conference that his Huskies eventually toppled; and the weather.
Ask James what made Husky Stadium a huge advantage for Washington and he doesn't mention the powerful teams he built. He doesn't talk of his many great players, or the ear-splitting noise pushed back onto the field from the stadium's unique pair of cantilever roofs.
"I think it was the weather," James says.
"The beauty of the stadium isn't just that it sits on Lake Washington or it had views of Mount Rainier. It was the weather that was in it. The winds. The rain."
BUCKETS, BRIDGE CLOSURES - AND BIG WINS
The winds particularly mattered to James. No wonder. He often had a personal, fundamental stake in them.
He liked to watch the Huskies practice from a purple coach's tower above the field, a symbolic structure of that era that Bear Bryant made famous at Alabama. High winds sometimes made James' perch over Husky Stadium's field a precarious one.
"The biggest factor was the wind," he said of the gusts that blow off Union Bay and swirl inside the stadium. "Teams would come in for games, they would come out of the tunnel and look right at that flag. And that thing, it's blowing east, west, north and south. No matter what you thought the wind was, it was the opposite to opponents. They couldn't figure that thing out."
James remembers Husky Stadium for a particular week at the start of November, in his initial '75 season at UW. Not for a game. For a series of practices.
"It rained every minute of every practice that week," James said. "I mean, it RAINED. We had buckets out there."
Even though the Huskies got soaked at 18th-ranked Cal that weekend, losing 27-24, they came home to upset 13th-ranked USC at Husky Stadium the following week.
Husky Stadium's AstroTurf was drenched and pooling water during one of James' other favorite stadium moments, the 1975 Apple Cup.
With Washington State poised for the clinching score late in the fourth quarter, Alvin Burleson stepped in front of a pass and ran untouched down the drenched field for a 93-yard interception return and touchdown. That started UW's rally from being down 27-14. Spider Gaines then caught a tipped pass from Warren Moon that WSU should have intercepted with less than 2 minutes remaining. Gaines ran the rest of the way for a 78-yard touchdown to give James his first of 13 Apple Cup wins - and a sense he belonged at Washington.
"That '75 Cougar game might be the one," James said from his home in suburban Kirkland. "Al Burleson's interception brought us back. I know Washington State felt like it was a game they should have won by three scores, at least by two scores and a field goal. But they threw a pass that we got, and then we get the deflection for another touchdown. What a game."
James has other memories, of course.
"In '77, against USC. We got them on a great Northwest day," James said, wryly.
Washington led USC and the nation's leading rusher, Charles White, 7-3 on Nov. 12, 1977. Then torrential rains and gales stormed in off Lake Washington and stunned the Trojans. Moon threw through the storm to Gaines for a touchdown. Mike Rohrbach blocked a punt to set up a touchdown run by Joe Steele. As suddenly and definitively as the rain and wind arrived, UW led 21-3.
Moon then ran for a 71-yard score, still the longest run for a touchdown by a Huskies quarterback, and the unranked Huskies beat No. 14 USC 28-10. UW allowed White and USC just 28 yards rushing in the Trojans' worst conference loss in 30 years.
The Dawgfather got his first conference title and his first trip to the Rose Bowl that season - eventually. The following week they throttled Washington State 35-15 in the '77 Apple Cup. But then they had to wait six days and root for USC to beat UCLA. The Trojans did, on a field goal with 2 seconds left. Moon then led UW to an upset of fourth-ranked Michigan, 27-20, in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day, 1978.
On Nov. 14, 1981, Seattle's weather made Husky Stadium the best place for a Dawg to be. Rain and howling winds forced the closure of the nearby Evergreen Point floating bridge. But that couldn't stop UW's Fred Small from recovering a misplayed kickoff by third-ranked USC for the game's only touchdown. The Huskies beat the Trojans 13-3.
They won the Apple Cup a week later over No. 14 WSU at Husky Stadium behind Ron "Cookie" Jackson, Jacque Robinson and 302 yards rushing. Then they shut out Iowa in James' third Rose Bowl.
James and Ed Cunningham, the Huskies All-Pac-10 center who played at UW from 1988-'91 and went on the play in the NFL, both share the 31-0 shutout of fifth-ranked USC on Sept. 22, 1990 as another favorite Husky Stadium day.
After the whipping, Trojans quarterback Todd Marinovich famously said of the swarming Dawgs' defense: "I just saw purple. That's all. No numbers. Just purple."
The Huskies gained 410 yards and held USC to just 163.
"We just dominated them, which was unusual," James said.
It was unforeseen, given UW had squeaked by San Jose State and Purdue to begin that `90 season.
Washington went from 21 to 12 in the Associated Press poll with the win, and eventually got to No. 2 that season. Many on the '91 team feel that was the start of the momentum that propelled the Huskies to their shared national title with Miami the following season.
James was so powerful at UW he could bring his own conditions to Husky Stadium.
He used to have stadium's artificial turf hosed down before each practice. Even that fact about the stadium took on an aura of its own.
"I thought it was because of the turf burn," Cunningham said. "Especially when the sun was out on it, if you fell it burned every part of skin that was exposed. I remember once in spring practice I was running down field on a play and fell at the end of it on my forearm. It ripped off all the skin on my forearm -- all of it.
"I loved playing on turf. It felt like I was faster. But when I got to the NFL I had tendinitis so bad in one of my knees I had to miss one of my first preseason games. Yeah, that stuff was HARD."
When James even did wet the turf on cold, late-season days, some of his players thought he was way, WAY hard core.
"The cold. The wind. Even the field," 1980s Huskies tight end Rod Jones said in listing why Husky Stadium held such a home-field advantage for UW. "Coach James used to have us out there on that field for Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday practices when he'd wet down the field. Then he'd say, `OK, on your backs!'
"We thought, `Is this guy crazy?'" Nope. Turns out, James was protecting them for potentially career-ending injuries. "When I coached at Colorado (as an assistant from 1968-70), we had 19 knee surgeries on our team," James said, referring to the Buffaloes playing on unforgiving AstroTurf as one of the first teams to adopt the surface after Washington introduced it at Husky Stadium in 1968. "That's why when I got to Washington we started doing leg extensions and leg curls before practice.
"Then the doctors at Colorado did a study and found that wetting the AstroTurf made it safer to practice on. So that's why I had the field watered."
Asked if he ever wet it for games, James said, "No, no. I never did that. I was accused of that at times, though."
James describes another peculiarity to Husky Stadium, one many people don't think of when listing why Washington enjoys such a distinct home-field advantage.
"Even the tunnel had a reputation," James said.
Husky Stadium does not have team locker rooms beneath it. UW's runs most of the south side of neighboring Hec Edmundson Pavilion. The visiting team locker room is a few dozen yards beyond, in the southwest corner of Hec Ed.
Both teams walk down a long, purple-carpeted tunnel that slopes from the arena to the playing level of Husky Stadium, in the northwest corner. They pass posters on the wall to their left in the tunnel commemorating every one of the 32 bowls the Huskies have played in over the 120 years of UW football.
"Teams that came in, those players not only saw the stadium, and the weather, and the noise. They had to pass all those bowl posters just to get to the field," James said. "I think that helped us."
The tunnel will remain in new Husky Stadium, lowered to connect to the field when the running track is removed. But visiting teams will no longer share the tunnel to reach the field. They will have a new locker room in the opposite, southeast corner of the renovated stadium.
The new Husky Stadium will have a capacity of around 70,000, compared to 72,500 now. But engineers think the new place will be even louder. The fans will be closer to the field, and the new stadium will retain the two cantilever roofs over the north and south decks.
Those redirect the noise back onto the players unlike in any other stadium in the country.
Cunningham now spends his falls calling college football games across the country as an analyst for ESPN and ABC.
"It's amazing. You go into bigger stadiums like at Michigan and at Texas, sure they hold 100,000 people, but because of the structure of the stadiums they aren't very loud," Cunningham said.
"Obviously the people inside it make Husky Stadium loud. But those roofs, they actually push the sound not just onto the field but onto the sidelines. I think that's what often freaks people out about the place when they come in as a visiting team. You try to talk to your coaches or to teammates to make adjustments at the bench and you can't hear the guy next to you. I think it shocks people how loud it is in Husky Stadium."
While Washington won its 17th consecutive game in 1992 against 12th-ranked Nebraska n a rollicking night game, an ESPN sideline crew measured the noise at 130 decibels. That is the recognized threshold of ear pain, the noise equivalent of being 100 feet away from an accelerating jet.
Yet James must have worn really thick coach's headsets.
"I didn't really pay much attention to that," he said of the noise.
"But now that I am a guest at games and sit in the seats in front of the Don James Center, I do notice it is a lot louder down below, closer to the field. I have friends who sit upstairs in the upper deck who said it is not as loud up there. The sound pushes down."
Cunningham joins Huskies fans in hoping the new stadium keeps one other feature from the current Husky Stadium.
"The siren is awesome," James' center on that '91 national championship team said of the air-raid beacon that wails when the Huskies take the field and after they score. "I don't know what it is about it. It has such a unique sound and unique feel to it.
"Please tell me that's part of the new stadium."
Yes, Ed, it will be.
`I CAN'T BELIEVE HUSKY STADIUM IS COMING DOWN'
The present leader of the Dawgs, the man who is rebuilding UW football back toward where James left it in 1992, says the stadium is why he's here.
"Part of the reason I took this job was really because of Husky Stadium," said coach Steve Sarkisian, a former record-setting quarterback at Brigham Young and top assistant at USC who welcomes James to his preseason practices each summer.
"My experience coming here as a player and just getting my brains beat in from BYU. Coming here as a coach in my experience with SC and coaching in Husky Stadium. Just the intimidation factor it brought, the crowd noise, the experience of the fans," Sarkisian said. "I've always admired the stadium.
"Now having the opportunity to have coached in it for three years and have some really cool, special moments that I will never forget and will be with me for a lifetime, as I view it, the stadium means so much to this football program. But I can't even imagine in 18 months from now when the new Husky Stadium (is completed) how much more it's really going to mean to this program and university. I'm excited for the sledge hammer to come, for the process to start. Eighteen months can't come fast enough.
"It will be tremendous for recruiting. But I'm just sitting back thinking, `I can't believe come Monday, Husky Stadium is coming down.'"
About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of 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.