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The Brotherhood is Philosophical

Where does the Husky program stand? What should our expectations be? Beats our pair of jacks.

Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports
Darin is not happy

Football teams fluctuate from year to year.  They have a good year, they have a bad year.  The quarterback gets hurt, they upset two teams and play in the Rose Bowl.  Whatever.  But underlying those fluctuations is a fundamental constant of goodness.  Stanford is fundamentally a .500 team, and they will return to that level once the residue of Jim Harbaugh wears off.  Cal is also a .500 team, and we've already seen them come down and even over-shoot their long-run level.  USC is an eight-and-a-half-win team, and although they may have ups and downs they'll tend to that level.  You get the idea.

Sometimes teams change their fundamental constant.  Oregon does not seem likely to return to their previous level of ineptitude any time soon.  Structural and permanent changes have happened to their program.

The Huskies apparently changed their fundamental constant at least once: in the mid-1970s.  And because memory goes back only so far, we tend to operate on the assumption that the Dawgs are a good team that's fallen on hard times lately.  There are reasons to believe that: we have good boosters who can come up with money; we have a good fan-base that turns out to watch the team; there's pressure on coaches and ADs to win.

But there are reasons to suspect that's not true, as well.  Those boosters and that fan base were not enough to overcome the influence from upper campus at key moments (the firing of Mike Lude, the hiring of Barbara Hedges, Todd Turner, and Tyrone Willingham); and it's been well over a decade since the Huskies were meaningful players in the Pac-12, let alone the top 10, and longer since we did it twice in a row.

The question I have for you is: what have we got on our hands, here?

Have the Huskies returned to their level -- was the Don James era simply a blip on the radar of an otherwise mediocre program?

Or were the last two decades or whatever an aberration that we're taking a long time to climb out?

I know lots of people don't like Steve Sarkisian, but I think it's fair to argue the Huskies are now on their sixth consecutive season of perfectly credible, Pac-12-level coaching.  Maybe that's not enough time to recruit for a title run (maybe), but shouldn't things be better than they are?  Why are there such huge and glaring gaps on the roster and on the field?  One, depressing possibility is that the program is not very good and we shouldn't expect it to do better.  We may have a good year when a Cory Dillan or a Marcus Tuiasosopo shows up, but otherwise we'll oscillate between four and five Pac-12 wins.

If you, as a Husky, offered to trade football futures with a Sun Devil, do you think he'd take it?  A Bruin?  A Wildcat?  I won't even ask about Oregon, and that sucks.

Convince me I'm wrong.  Or at least come over and take the sharp stuff out of my place.

Brad is not real happy either

I generally agree with your first point.  Like water, teams are going to find their own level.  I'm not entirely sure that Stanford hasn't had at least a minor fundamental shift that's going to last for, say, a generation.  And I agree that Oregon might be the best example of a team that, in the modern era, has entirely flipped their place in the college football landscape.  It's painful to admit it, but it's true.  They aren't going to stay at their current pace as the new norm, but they appear to be a .700 win program  (at worst) for the next half-century at least.  But there are questions with the Ducks that remain to be answered.  Did they win because of their slick marketing campaigns, or were there slick marketing campaigns that much easier since the team was winning?  The Ducks, right now, have a recruiting reach that far exceeds anything that Washington ever had.  If they aren't perennially nationally relevant, how much and how quickly does that shrink, and will they remain strong enough in the Pac 12 footprint to stay at or near their current level of success?  Like Washington, they don't have much of a local recruiting base.

What is Washington?  It's a fair question.  I've wondered that too.  I agree, they hit a new fundamental high under James.  As mediocre as things were under Lambright, that perception is mostly true because he followed the coach who took the program to its zenith, and couldn't come close to maintaining it.  Neuheisel was, well, Neuheisel.  It's not worth getting into that right now.  But if you look at the decade following James, it really wasn't as bad as it appears; it was better than sheer mediocrity.  Just not that great, and not what we'd have hoped to see following James.

It's the last decade.  As bad as Husky fans think Barbara Hedges was for the football program, I don't actually believe she had disdain for it.  The backstabbing of James was reprehensible, there's no doubt.  I'm not sure how much of that was her, and how much of it was Gerberding.  Maybe it doesn't actually matter.  Firing Lambright wasn't universally popular because of his history with the program, but it had to be done, and she did it.  Neuheisel's star was burning fairly bright when she hired him, and that hire was the first shot fired in what became quickly escalating coaching salaries.  It wasn't a total lack of effort on her part as much as it was incompetence; mostly with ignoring the escalating arms race in the conference specific to football at a critical time.  When Neuheisel was fired, there was a portion of the fan base that objected to hiring Gilbertson on anything but an interim basis, but it's much easier to bleat loudly about that now with the benefit of hindsight.  It was obviously a mistake.  Really, there was a certain amount of instability university-wide with the situation at president that lead to Turner, who lead to Willingham, who quashed any sense of momentum, or even inertia, the program had.  There's been about a five-year run of mostly stability with Scott Woodward and Michael Young at president that's seemed to settle things a fair amount.  The Huskies made a huge financial investment in their facilities (that still trail behind the biggest of the big boys), and in a new head coach.  That's not nothing.  I don't think there are forces actively working against football.  At least right now.

No, the Huskies don't seem to have a booster base that "demands" winning the same way some programs do.  They also don't have some of the same issues with boosters meddling that have hurt some programs.  The Huskies trail the richest of athletic departments, but they were still 30th in total revenues in 2012.  With the influx of TV money, they're probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 15th now.  Other than the ability to build bright and shiny toys on a whim, do you think money (via booster support) is a problem?

Let's look at a true college blue blood, because I think they are one of the strongest cases for a point you've made several times:  Alabama.  They've rolled all throughout time, right?  Well, from 1997 until Nick Saban was hired in 2007, the Crimson Tide were 51-64.  And they had 3 head coaches (and a one-game interim) during that time.  Hell, they even had one resign to take the same position at a struggling Texas A&M program.  Point?  It's about the coach, more than anything.  And luck.  Oregon was able to promote from within the last three hires.  Mike Belloti was better than Rich Brooks.  Chip Kelly was better than Belloti.  That's not the norm.  The Huskies made two consecutive bad hires that I don't think would've occurred today.  I think they got reasonably lucky with Sarkisian, and then made a very strong one with Petersen.  And I think the lag between stability in the athletic department and success in the things that eventually lead to success on the field is just about what we've watched unfold.

I don't think Husky football success is a birthright the way some fans might, but there are more of the primary building blocks in place (money, facilities, a success-neutral-at-worst administration, stability) than there have been since Mike Lude and Don James built the Huskies into what became the standard.  Now, it's time to hit the coaching lottery, the same way lots of major programs - even some blue bloods - are trying to do (see:  Longhorns, Texas; Nittany Lions, Penn State; Gators, Florida; Hurricanes, Miami; Wolverines, Michigan; Trojans, USC).

Trade futures with ASU, Arizona, or UCLA?  After pumping myself up writing this missive about the future of Husky football?  Nah, no way.

Darin is relieved, but not really

Okay, well, I feel a little better.  Thanks for that, I guess.

In my view, the under-appreciated factor in football success is "other."  USC misses their first three coaching options and hires Pete Carroll.  Was Pete Carroll a great college coach?  Probably, but the main reason anybody thinks he is a great coach is because he won.  So maybe he was just a lucky coach.  Maybe USC was just happened to be really good at the same time he was there.  Can you tell the difference?  That's not to say coaching doesn't matter -- it obviously does, just like players matter.  But it's harder to predict what mix of factors make for wins than we all like to pretend.

There's a book out there somewhere called Human Accomplishment, which tracks excellence in art, music, and science across time and countries.  What it finds time after time is that success is dominated by a very, very small number of individuals -- Shakespeare; Newton and Galileo; Aristotle and Plato; Beethoven and Mozart.  When Tiger Woods took a nose-dive a few years ago, and people were asking, "When will Tiger be back?," the author of that book said, Never.  The reason is that success is extremely unpredictable, and there's a delicate combination of unknown factors that cause it.  Whatever they are for golfers, it's unlikely that Woods will ever stumble on them again now that he's lost them once.  And Sure enough: Woods hasn't won a major since 2008, despite playing good golf.

What's the point?  I think the same thing applies to college football.  Nobody actually knows what makes Alabama Alabama.  There's a confusing mess of factors -- money, recruiting, tradition, etc. -- all of which could be causes, or, as you point out, could be effects.  The best anyone can do is hire a coach who does the things great coaches do, spend money in the ways great programs do, and then cross their fingers.  Cargo cult football.

This is why I say, like a broken record, that changing coaches is costly.  It could be that the next coach you hire will be the magic missing piece that pushes your program over the edge.  Or it could be that all you do is screw up whatever progress you'd made to that point.  Is Chris Petersen really going to do things so differently from Steve Sarkisian?  Probably not.  We're all hoping he'll do some small things better and that will be enough to push the Huskies from middle-of-the-Pac to champions, but when you really stop to think about it that's absurd.  If all it took was hiring the right coach, and if you could really predict who was going to be a great coach and who wasn't, then there'd be no reason for Texas, Michigan, Alabama, Ohio State to ever have a down period.  They don't know either.

I know you wouldn't trade futures with ASU or UCLA.  That wasn't the question.  There was a time when they would have been happy to trade futures with us.  It's not so clear that's the case anymore.

The line for ASU is 3.5.  I have to admit, I'm surprised.  I figured we'd be underdogs by a touchdown.  It would be nice to steal one from ASU or UCLA.  We've go them both in Husky Stadium, so that should be do-able.

Go Dawgs!

Brad puts a nice bow on it

Well, it is the question you asked.  And the one you ask is the only one I can answer.  But as to your new question, no, they wouldn't.  UCLA, even with an athletic department that is loathe to pay market value (especially for assistants) and some of the worst facilities in the conference, has the built-in Los Angeles recruiting base.  That's never going away.  I doubt that, even when the Huskies were the top dogs in the conference, that UCLA would trade futures.  As for Arizona and ASU, it'd be tough for a fan of either of those programs to answer objectively.  Both are on better (or at least equal) trajectories right now, and both still have the new car smell with their coaching staffs.  Arizona especially has some pretty big warts.  And trajectory has a way of changing pretty quickly.  Ask Bruin fans.  If you asked an outsider, someone with no vested interest in any of these programs, my bet is that UCLA's recruiting grounds edge out Washington, but Washington edges out both of the Arizona schools.

I don't think we're actually disagreeing on any of the rest.  I doubt either of us think the Huskies have any chance of being a college football one percenter.  And they never have been.  The question is, Can they be the Huskies of the Don James era?  The answer, at least my answer, is that there isn't a reason it can't happen.  I don't think I would've given the same answer 8 or 10 years ago.  The program was fatally flawed.  I don't think that's true anymore.  And as I think we agree, it's largely a factor of luck.  Chris Petersen may or may not be the guy.  But there's a will to at least find the guy (though I agree - there isn't an actual way to do that).  When Gilbertson was hired, it was solely out of convenience.  When Turner was hired, it was because he had a "vision" of student athletics that would probably never work with a single division one football program, regardless of how bad it actually wanted to win.  When Willingham was hired, it was done to bolster Turner's vision.  When Sarkisian was hired, whether it was a good choice or not, it was a gamble predicated on winning.  The same is true for Petersen.

I've no idea if the Huskies will ever get back to the Standard of Don James.  The fan in me undoubtedly clouds my objectivity.  It's possible, though.  Not a given, and a lot of things have to break right, but it's possible.

Yeah, I would've guessed at least a TD as well.  ASU's 5-1 and ranked 14th.  I'm not sure if it's respect for Washington or what.  Tough to get a read on the Sun Devils.  I'd rather being playing them with a QB that's missed the last few games, though.  Let's hope for some wind and rain.