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Don James, Steve Sarkisian and "the Blueprint"

The most draining weekend in the recent history of Husky athletics is starting to get further and further in the rear view mirror. Let's take a moment to reflect on the gravity of it all and what it means going forward.

To achieve great things, we must not only act but also dream; not only plan but also believe.
-- Anatole France

On the heels of the most demoralizing road loss since the last time Steve Sarkisian and his team visited the state of Arizona, Husky fans everywhere are having their patience and the their belief in the direction of the Washington program challenged.

In the aftermath of the passing of the greatest Dawg, the icon of modern day Washington football, Husky fans are also sensitized to the memories of past glories and those days when excellence was less an idealistic end-state then it was the de facto standard. Maybe the toughest ever.

As I imagine he would have preferred, the death of Don James affords us all an opportunity to reflect less on what has happened to the program since the injustices of the Pac 10 and NCAA penalties of 1993, but more on what the program had become after the patient and deliberate construction job that James had orchestrated starting in 1975 - two years after I was born. After all, the Huskies were an average football team in the six years prior to his arrival - three of those seasons had the Huskies with losing records, including seasons of just one and two wins. It was a team with no specific identity and an average talent base. While I wouldn't necessarily call that team rudderless, they certainly were not on any kind of trajectory. Enter the Dawgfather.

For James, the son of a blue collar father, building the Huskies back up was a project that involved guts, grit and, most importantly, a blueprint. James did not aspire to install a quick fix and get rich off a few flashy seasons. To him, Washington wasn't some stopover on his career arc where his focus was to get some cheap wins and then move on. His focus was to build something that would endure and stand the test of time. To build something that the community would not only embrace, but would incorporate into their daily lives such that it would become part of their very identity. His blueprint was a process that consisted of the following components:

  • Start with the character of his players he inherited: take boys and develop them into accountable and mature men. Make them leaders and examples for future players to follow.

  • Next, develop the identity of the the team as a whole: the cornerstones would be toughness, fundamentals, defense, and attention to details.

  • Third, develop a personal network: take your branded product combined with your emerging credibility and parlay that into a network of high school coaches and parents who would want to send their young men into your care.

That was it, in a nutshell. No extreme offensive philosophies. No promises to players of NFL riches. No fancy uniforms. No snazzy shoe companies. Just an enduring identity shepherded by a credible leader and a decent human being. It was a great formula, but it took years to implement.

In his first four seasons, Don James averaged 6.25 wins against 4.75 losses. That's a 57% winning rate. He went to one bowl game (though, it was a Rose Bowl in a what was otherwise a down year in the Pac). It wasn't until his 5th season that UW exploded onto the scene with a 10 win campaign and a win in the Sun Bowl. That season would kick off a string of 13 bowl seasons in 14 years and a stretch of excellence that would become the glory years of Husky football. The pinnacle of this stretch, of course, was the undefeated national championship season of 1991 - James's 17th season at the helm.

Things haven't been the same since Don James resigned in protest of the Pac 12 and UW President William Gerberding in the summer of 1993. Coaches have come and gone. The foundational elements of Don James's blueprint have faded: the focus on character development has waned, the identity of the program's brand has gotten muddled times over, and the relationships with those who man the pipelines to the talent that Don James took so many years to cultivate have been nuked and nuked again. For the better part of the last two decades, the program has been alternating between states of erosion and fits of total disarray. The blueprint that Don James provided us was shelved, then forgotten and finally lost altogether.

The hiring of Steve Sarkisian five years ago, one season removed from the greatest cluster in the history of our storied university and football program, came with a pledge from the young coach to restore that blueprint and to build things the right way. Many times over, Sark cited the influence of Don James on what he would do as the caretaker of our program. He talked openly about the character of players, about an identity built on toughness and commitment, and the importance of restoring recruiting pipelines. He focused on the process more than the immediate results, though he made the misstep of stating that "it won't take very long".

The results, in fact, have not come as quickly as he thought. In this era of EA Sports and PS3, an inability to take a middling program and get them to national championship contender status within two recruiting cycles is seen as a sign of weakness. The embarrassment of last weekend's ASU game is one that is hard to swallow, especially since every game up to this point felt like one that that the Huskies legitimately competed in. But, is that game, or the events of this three-game skid, emblematic of a failure of the process or are they necessary developmental experiences that must be endured so that they can be internalized and built upon? The truth is, we won't really know until the season is complete and can be evaluated in its totality.

Still, it is hard to not look at the blueprint that Sarkisian has adopted from Don James and say he hasn't followed the plan. The character of our players has unquestionably improved from where it was even a decade ago. One doesn't have to look much further than leaders such as Keith Price, Sean Parker, Kasen Williams, John Timu and Deontae Cooper to see that. The identity of the team has evolved to one that is built on tough running and relentless effort on Defense - even if the talent hasn't yet caught up to the point where our will can be asserted against the competition every single week. Finally, the pipelines to talent have firmed up. Insiders will tell you that Sarkisian and his staff have taken the credibility of the Huskies football program to new heights with both high school coaches and with parents. Combined with our stellar university, UW is a destination school once again - something that hasn't been true since, at best, the Neuheisel years and, at worst, since Don James last roamed the sidelines.

Obviously, this is a results business. But results without a commitment to an enduring plan are usually nothing more than dumb luck. When the process is well-implemented, the results should follow. If the results don't follow, then the plan - and the man who devised it - is fair game for criticism and, if need be, change. But, are we really there right now?

To me, this team is right on the cusp. The results so far this season have been different then years past. The talent levels are increased. The depth is more visible. The toughness on D, at QB and at RB is palpable. The ASU debacle reminds us that it isn't a finished product. But, as the quote that I opened with alludes to, the final step is not just to execute the blueprint, but to believe in it. Only then will the results that we all hope to see- that we all expect to see - materialize.