SEATTLE – It’s not just coaches who have five-year plans.
Players have plans, too.
They enroll in the college of their choice planning on bowl games, national rankings and a ladder to the National Football League just as much as they count on a good education and a happy social life. And if the football program they join happens to be scuffling, then they’re going to be the ones to change that.
That’s the plan, anyway.
Results may vary, as they have for Cameron Elisara.
In fact, three years after making the jump from Ferris High School to the University of Washington, the results infuriate him. Five games into the 2008 season, the Huskies are one of two winless major college teams – the other is North Texas – and the buzzards are already picking the carcass clean. Being 14-point underdogs at home this weekend against the Oregon State Beavers, whose decades of regional haplessness are not yet a distant memory, would be indignity enough – except that they’ve owned UW the last four years and have managed to knock out the Huskies’ quarterback each of the past two.
They have had an extra week to think about this, given a rare second bye in the schedule, which Elisara said “came at an interesting time.
“It’s just kind of a point where you consider what your situation is,” said the sophomore defensive tackle, “and think about what you’re going to do. A lot of guys took this time to ask themselves that, to consider how much they hate this and try to put an end to this.”
And yet it’s not as if they haven’t been trying. They just can’t win.
But sometimes your only defense is denial. Tyrone Willingham, the head coach, carries on as if he’s not going to be fired, which is what he’s supposed to do. On the bye week, he sent seven assistants out to recruit players he won’t coach.
So why, exactly, would those players listen?
“Well, it depends on what you’re looking for as a player,” Elisara said. “Setting aside the other factors – school, environment – and looking at it straight as a football choice, it’s not that much different from when I came here. It wasn’t a winning program then, either.”
True enough – the Huskies were 2-9 when Elisara was a senior at Ferris, and 1-10 the year before.
“My thought was to come in and say, ‘You know what? We can turn this program around and I can be a part of that change – put it back on top of the Pac-10,’ ” he said. “That’s still a goal in my mind. I still have two years after this to do that. Recruits can still look at Washington and see it’s a good place to go.”
You’ll recall that when Elisara made his choice, the gnashing of teeth on the East Side was loud, though not deafening. His father, Matt, played with distinction at Washington State, and the fact that the Cougars’ staff didn’t put on the full-court press was startling. Even if they didn’t consider Elisara a priority talent, traditionally the Cougars’ Spokane recruits have been solid, program recruits – valued as leaders as much as players.
Elisara, a year after the process, was matter-of-fact about the experience.
“They didn’t recruit me as hard as you’d expect them to recruit an alum’s son,” he said last fall. “But I have no bitter feelings. Some schools have different strategies. I can’t hold it against them. And I was pretty confident in this decision anyway. I knew what I was doing.”
How has it played out? Well, the Cougars obviously have their own problems – and especially at defensive tackle, easily their weakest position. But Elisara’s own progress has been fitful – though listed as a starter, he has played huge chunks in some games and little in others, with varying effectiveness.
“I need to step it up,” he insisted. “I’ve made some tackles here and there, and some mistakes here and there. But I need to start making more of an impact. That’s something I’ve always expected of myself. I don’t want to be one of those guys who is just there. I want to be a guy who gets noticed by making plays – because that’s going to help my team in the long run.”
And the Huskies need help. Incremental improvements are no longer satisfactory, if they ever were.
They’re not likely to play badly and win, but at this point it’s more important to win a game than to play well.
“It’s been hard for a lot of guys,” Elisara admitted. “My entire class – the guys who graduated in 2006 – were used to winning and came from winning programs in high school. Cody (Habben) and Tony (Chidiac), the guys from Skyline. Jake (Locker) from Ferndale. In my career, we only lost three or four games in two years.
“That’s a good thing. Guys from losing programs might think at this point, ‘Well, we’re used to this, it’s fine.’ But to the guys from winning programs, this isn’t fine. It’s a sick feeling in your stomach to be 0-5. It’s not right to be losing like this – and it’s never going to be OK.”
It’s certainly never the plan.