Washington Football Culture Change—"Death March" Style

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Washington Football Culture Change—

You really have to look back to the mid 1950s to find a low ebb that compares to the Washington Husky football program in 2008. Washington was on the verge of becoming a football powerhouse in the early 1950s when they made the mistake of hiring a popular local high school football coach by the name of Johnny Cherberg.

Cherberg had become a local legend at Queen Anne HS but he was way over his head when he assumed the reigns at Washington. Almost immediately he lost the control and faith of his team. By his second year the program descended into a state of anarchy and he was fired. On the way out the door he named names and let it be known that there was a slush fund at Washington they used to buy players.

It wasn't a big secret back then because every program in the country operated in the same manner. However when it became public Washington was slapped with a program wide probation and the old Pacific Coast Conference was dissolved in it's wake because most of the teams in the conference were guilty of the same thing.

The powers that be at Washington decided to hire a big national name to heal the program and went after Alabama's Bear Bryant and Oklahoma's Bud Wilkinson. Both coaches had no interest but suggested the Huskies go after Mississippi State's Darryl Royal who responded with a 5-5 record during his first and only season before taking his dream job at Texas en route the the hall of fame.

UW went back to the same coaching well again the next season and came up with a 29 year old assistant coach named Jim Owens who had cut his teeth as an All American end for Wilkinson at Oklahoma and as a young assistant under Bear Bryant at Kentucky and Texas A&M.

When Owens arrived nobody had a lot of confidence in him figuring he would be here only a few years till he failed or moved on to a more lucrative position. Owens who was hired over a couple of young guys named Tom Landry and Vince Lombardi ended up going to three Rose Bowls in his first six seasons and staying on the job for 17 years.

What Owens did when he arrived in Seattle was reminiscent of his days with Bryant and the "Junction Boys" at Texas A&M. He introduced what was called the "Death March" after it became apparent that respect for the young coach was not going the way he hoped.

After one particularly bad practice, one week before the opener with the Colorado Buffaloes, Owens led his players out of Husky Stadium and onto the practice field after practice. It was obvious that Owens had seen enough.

Owens lined them up on the goal line and they began running in 15-yard bursts. They'd line up in a three-point stance, run until Owens blew the whistle, and line up in a three-point stance again; they ran from one end of the field to the other and back again. Then up and back again. 

Owens continued the drills after each practice that season breaking the will of his players just as Bryant had done previously at Texas A&M. During many of the practices, the then young Owens continued to lead his team in the sprints, running backwards with them as they navigated the field, in short bursts of sustained energy. Some of the men would fall flat on their faces, too weak and exhausted to continue. Taking the players to the point of where they think they can do no more is “when you find out what guys really want to play ball,” Owens later said.

There was a lot of attrition on that first team but what was left was a solid core of legendary men led by Bob Schloredt, Don McKeta, Ray Jackson, Roy McKasson, and many others who established the Husky tradition of toughness that lasted until the turn of the present century when Rick Neuheisel assumed command of the program.

Washington didn't win many games that first two years under Owens only finishing with a 6-13-1 record but the table was set for a run of championships starting in 1959 when Washington obliterated Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl followed by a win the next season over in season national champion Minnesota.

During his tenure, Jim Owens compiled a 99-82-6 record. He fell a step behind in the late 1960's when the game changed back to two platoon and the lack of scholarship limits allowed schools like USC to horde talent. He did have a nice finish with his Sonny Sixkiler squads but nothing could compare to his early tenure at Washington when he was completely on top of his game.

Washington football faces a similar challenge in 2008. This time we picked a little known assistant from USC which is now the top football power in the West and arguably the top program in the country. Pete Carroll is the Bear Bryant or Bud Wilkinson  of today and Steve Sarkisian is his Jim Owens.

Expect Sarkisian to be fair coming in but not very flexible. He is giving chances to everyone to compete but like Owens the players are going to have to learn to compete on Sarks terms. Like he says everything is a clean slate and even the troubled EJ Savannah has been invited back for one last hurrah. Sarkisian knows that if he fails at UW his coaching career is pretty much over. He isn't going to let bad attitudes get in the way of overall team performance. He will break the will of the team to resist change before it breaks him. You can count on that.

Sark learned how to run a football program under one of the modern day masters in Pete Carroll, and he is going to take those lessons learned, and apply it at the University of Washington. All the enthusiasm you see happening this week is soon going to be replaced by players being pushed beyond their limits in the weight room and on the practice field. The ones that don't measure up are going to be gone. You can count on attrition being a major factor during the first two years. The tough one's keep going and the weak ones will leave.

I think it will take two seasons to bring the talent level back up to where it needs to be with recruiting. It will also take two long tough years of conditioning to mold the current team into a championship contending squad. Don't expect the record to turn around overnight because it likely won't. What you need to keep an eye in is the effort put forth each week and the bruises the opponents feel after playing a game against Washington.

I was surprised when Washington hired Steve Sarkisian but everything I have seen this week indicates that they made the right choice. When Don James was in his third season and things weren't going well he moved into his office and stayed there 24 hours a day till it turned around. Expect the same type of effort from Sarkisian. He isn't here to pick up a pay check like Willingham. He is hear to win football games and continue coaching for the next thirty years.

I've seen Sarkisian do more positive things in his first week than Willingham did his first two years on the job. He seems to get it. He seems to understand what needs to be done to turn this thing around. He understands the history of college football because the eight sacks he suffered as a BYU quarterback in Husky Stadium are a poignant reminder to him of that past Husky glory.

The first thing he did after his initial press conference was head over to Bellevue and Skyline high schools to meet the head coaches who never had much of a relationship with Willingham. The next day he was talking with Monte Koehler over at O'Dea who commented that he expected a call but was impressed that it happened in only Sarks second day on the job. Make no mistake about it he is going to put a fence around the state of Washington from day one.

Sarkisian is the real deal and if he can come up with a couple of great assistant coaches like Jim Owens did he is going to do some great things at Washington. Old timers remember the names of Tom Tipps, Chesty Walker, and Bert Clark who were coaches from the Southwest that helped comprise Owens original staff.

Keep an eye on how Sarkisian develops this first staff. I expect it will have a serious USC flavor to it. That is OK by me because all the Trojans have done under Pete Carroll is win football games. I expect Steve Sarkisian to do the same thing at Washington.

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