In the four years since his beloved football program incurred Pacific-10 Conference sanctions that were unprecedented in their harshness, Washington coach Jim Lambright has rarely passed up an opportunity to grumble.
The Huskies, during that time, have undoubtedly led the conference in whines.
What is truly remarkable, however, is the fact that those same Huskies, during that same presumably devastating period, have also led the conference in wins, with 30.
Meaning Husky fans can say, “Take that, Pac-10 sanctions.” And, “What’s your excuse, USC?”
(The Trojans, it should be noted, have won a Rose Bowl during that period, while the Huskies haven’t appeared in one since losing to Michigan after the ‘92 season.)
More than anything, the punishment handed down by the Pac-10 - loss of 20 scholarships and a two-year bowl ban - has served as a powerful unifier for a program that could have unraveled.
When Don James retired in protest of the sanctions and Lambright was signed to a four-year contract, the new coach was instantly furnished with an us-against-the-world mindset his players have bought into without exception.
And while those sanctions have unquestionably reduced the program’s depth - keeping the Huskies from contending nationally, some suggest - Lambright has been rewarded for staying the course.
Now, less than two weeks before Washington’s ‘97 season-opener at BYU, the Huskies are ranked fourth nationally and are riding a wave of national exposure that has included flattering pieces in the Boston Globe, New York Times and Los Angeles Times, among others.
Lambright and his team aren’t running from the hype.
“I like being called one of the favorites,” he said. “It’s a lot better than not being mentioned.
“It certainly does do a great job of bringing us back nationally to an image you want re-established as fast as possible. This is a blessing.”
None of this would be happening had the incoming class of ‘93 taken its cue from James.
Among the players who decided to stick things out are current stars Jerome Pathon, Rashaan Shehee, Cameron Cleeland, Fred Coleman, Jason Chorak, Chris Campbell, Jerry Jensen and Tony Parrish.
When the sanctions were an nounced, each of them was free to transfer elsewhere, without sitting out a year. By staying, they agreed to be part of an uncertain future.
The gamble has paid off, and Chorak, the 1996 Pac-10 defensive player of the year, sees no danger in indulging the high expectations.
“I think it definitely helps motivate a team because you come out every day and all these eyes are upon you and you want to perform for everybody,” he said. “But regardless of how great you look on paper, it doesn’t mean a thing unless you can translate it on the field.”
The only lasting effect of the sanctions, according to Lambright, is a lack of quality depth. He’d like to have better backups at several positions, most notably quarterback, tailback, cornerback, outside linebacker and free safety.
By comparison, the Huskies of 1991 had no such worries, going undefeated and earning a share of the national championship with one of the nation’s deepest teams.
That year, quarterback Billy Joe Hobert was backed by Mark Brunell.
Tailback Beno Bryant was backed by Jay Barry and Napoleon Kaufman.
Cornerbacks Dana Hall and William Doctor were backed up by Russell Hairston and Walter Bailey.
At outside linebacker, there was no drop-off when starter Jaime Fields was replaced by Brett Collins.
And at free safety, Shane Pahukoa was backed up by Lamar Lyons.
Of those seven backups, four went on to play in the NFL - Brunell, Kaufman, Collins and Lyons.
Lambright looks forward to the day when such depth, not to mention the frequent Rose Bowl appearances that come with it, is again a trademark of UW football. In the meantime, he seems content with his program’s rediscovered status.
“It’s a real honor for your players, for your big-play players in particular,” Lambright said. “I think you point out that Jason Chorak is comping back, the Rashaan Shehees, your number of starters returning.
“What it doesn’t reflect is your depth. We have to go out and stay very healthy to come close to what people are saying we can do.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
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