Before we get started on this, I'll fess up right off the bat that, while I have a lot of Husky football related books, I don't have all of them, so my survey is incomplete. Secondly, this is an extremely subjective assessment, both in my criteria for consideration as well as my determination of what constitutes the "best". As much as anything, this article - and really the whole series - is meant as the beginning of a discussion with all of you.
With that out of the way, let's dive in. When considering the best book about Husky football, I decided to narrow the field a bit and focus on those books that were specifically about the program rather than related subjects such as the stadium. I also decided to rule out biographies - a tough choice, since that rules out the excellent James, an autobiography of Don James as told to Virgil Parker. Also ruled out were any books I considered "downers", regardless of the quality; that rules out the well-written (if painful to absorb) Bitter Roses by Sam Farmer, an in-depth account of the troubles that led to the major sanctions levied against the program in 1993 and resulted in the resignation of James just weeks ahead of the 1993 season, as well as the more recent Bow Down to Willingham by - a painful account of the turbulent Ty Willingham years. And obviously any books I haven't read are ruled out, so I'm unable to consider ones such as Go Huskies: Celebrating the Washington Football Tradition by W. Thomas Porter; A Football Band of Brothers (also by W. Thomas Porter), an account of the 1960 Washington team that claimed a National Championship; or Sonny Sixkiller's Tales from the Huskies Sideline by Sonny Sixkiller and Bob Condotta.
(I will work on rectifying these omissions)
So with those parameters, here are my submissions for the best books about Husky football:
Option #1 - Bow Down to Washington by Dick Rockne
So far as I can tell, this was the first book to attempt to chronicle the history of Husky football. Written by longtime beat writer Dick Rockne in 1974 and published the following year, it's an account of the entire history of Husky football to that point, from its inception in 1889 all the way up through Jim Owens' final season. Rockne did his homework: combing through old newspapers and interviewing former players, coaches, administrators and boosters. It covers every era and provides details about what legendary coaches like Gil Dobie, Enoch Bagshaw and Jim Phelan were like; why a Chicago surgeon named Dr. Alfred Strauss was so important to the program; the impact of the first super-booster "Torchy" Torrance; it talks about why the legendary backfield of Hugh McElhenny, Don Heinrich and Roland Kirkby fell short of a Rose Bowl; it discusses the messy firing of John Cherberg and how that led to the first major probation for Washington football; it talks about the search and hiring of Darrell Royal and why he left after just one year; it provides a great account of how Jim Owens built up the first two Washington Rose Bowl champion teams, the 2nd of which laid claim to Washington's first National Championship; it covers the social unrest and race issues that doomed the 1969 season, and then the positive uplift the Sonny Sixkiller years provided.
If you are a die-hard Husky, it's hard to beat this book for providing a significant history lesson in Washington football.
Reasons For: No book I've come across does a better job of providing a well-rounded historical account of Husky football from the start up through 1974
Reasons Against: Published in 1975, it misses the entirety of the Don James era and beyond; while a broad history, it skims over certain years; it has fewer personal accounts from players than others on the list
Option #2 - What It Means to be a Husky by
A terrific collection of personal remembrances from former Husky players going all the way back to Jimmie Cain (RB from 1932-1936) and all the way up to Isaiah Stanback (the book was published in 2007). These are personal histories directly from the mouths of the players talking about coaches, fellow players, memorable games, etc. With 92 such accounts in all, it's a broad collection of personalities and stories and helps fill in what it was really like for players across every era from the 1930's on up through just before Sark was hired.
And while it doesn't go out of its way to present stories to stir the mud, it also doesn't sugar-coat the less savory stories players had to tell. One of the more interesting recollections comes from George Fleming, a star halfback on the 1959 & 1960 teams that won back-to-back Rose Bowls as he discusses the racial quotas the coaches employed that limited how many blacks could see the field at a time. There's also discussion by Jim Houston of the booster payment scandal that was revealed when John Cherberg was fired in 1955 and retaliated by blowing the whistle on the slush fund. Other interesting observations of note are Dave Kopay talking about his difficulties as a closeted player, Michael Jackson revealing if he had to do it over again he wouldn't have played football and Mac Bledsoe revealing the surprising reason his son Drew ruled out attending the UW.
There are plenty of uplifting stories too, as well as funny ones and triumphant ones, and you get a much better sense of the personalities that make up the legion of outstanding Husky football players over the years. Even for folks that had a tough time at the UW or have experience long-term chronic pain as a result of playing football, to a man everyone in the book expresses their appreciation of their time in Montlake and their pride in being a Husky.
Reasons For: Stories right from the mouths of the players themselves from the '30's up through the middle of the 2000's
Reasons Against: Lacks stories from coaches, administrators or others close to the program; doesn't provide a strictly linear history of the program; written in 2006-7, it necessarily is missing stories from the earliest eras of players, including all-time greats like Wee Coyle, George Wilson, Chuck Carroll, Paul Schwegler & Vic Markov
Option #3 - Husky Football in the Don James Era by Derek Johnson
As a long-time Husky fan and aspiring writer, Johnson launched his career with Dawgman.com writing "Where are they now?" type pieces about former players - usually those from the Don James era. Those connections he made helped form the basis for his first book about Husky football, Husky Football in the Don James Era. As a younger writer with a gift for getting players to open up to him and give him the real dirt, he is able to tease out some terrific stories from the players that formed the greatest era in Husky history - those that played under James.
For those like me that grew up with this era of Husky football, this is reading nirvana, to be able to hear in their own words the stories of the players we saw in person and idolized.
The book alternates between stories about key games or events in the tenure of James as head football coach at Washington and interviews with former players under James. Some of the stories are ones you might have heard, such as James arriving at Husky Stadium after being hired to find the readerboard above the West Entrance displaying "Welcome Coach Jones", or James firing a bus driver on the way to Eugene in 1977; many are stories you may not have heard before. The most notable story is Johnson presenting for the first time in print the allegation that school President William Gerberding and Athletic Director Barbara Hedges reneged on promises made to James about how they would appeal the penalties leveled by the Pac-10 against the program in 1993, thus leading to James feeling compelled to resign in protest. Johnson also presents a letter from Gerberding providing his account of what happened - he presents a different explanation, one that puts the blame squarely on the conference.
Reasons For: Focuses on the greatest era of Husky football history; the personal stories from players are earthier and less guarded than in other books
Reasons Against: The book is necessarily limited in scope; Johnson is not the most technically gifted of writers, and his own personal biases are on display in multiple areas; his historical account of the program under James covers much of the same ground as can be found in James' own autobiography
The Verdict: Bow Down to Washington
The real answer here is "all of the above", but I figure that's too much of a cop-out. While you can't go wrong with any of the ones I listed (and any Husky fan should also make sure to read the James autobiography as well), if I'm forced to pick one from the bunch I'm going to go with Rockne's history lesson. And really, this is for my own highly subjective reasoning - I saw Husky football with my own eyes from the 1978 Rose Bowl onwards, so a history book that tells the stories to flesh out all the names in my old media guides was exactly what I needed as a Husky fan to feel like I'd really done my homework on Husky tradition. It's an easy, fairly quick read that goes a long way towards making any Washington football fan feel like they are a Husky historian.
How about you - what books do you feel are essential reading for any hardcore Husky fan?