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Sports >  NCAA

Larry Stone: Washington’s decision to end football season after team-wide COVID-19 spread a tough but correct call

UPDATED: Sun., Dec. 20, 2020

Washington coach Jimmy Lake, left, stands on the sideline during the first half of the team’s NCAA college football game against Utah, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020, in Seattle.  (Associated Press)
Washington coach Jimmy Lake, left, stands on the sideline during the first half of the team’s NCAA college football game against Utah, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020, in Seattle. (Associated Press)
By Larry Stone Seattle Times

SEATTLE – And thus concludes the weirdest, bumpiest, most disjointed football season the Washington Huskies have ever endured. Or at least since the last World War 75 years ago, or the last worldwide pandemic a century ago.

It ended not with a bang or a whimper but, as so much has this year, with a virus.

The Huskies announced the inevitable Friday: Because of the team-wide spread of COVID-19 that had already knocked them out of a showdown with Oregon for the Pac-12 North title last Saturday, and caused them to pull out of the Pac-12 championship game that was played Friday, the Huskies said they were also abandoning their plans to participate in a bowl game.

Though there were isolated moments to savor, it was a deeply unsatisfying season. But in an entirely different way than, say, the 0-12 monstrosity of 2008.

This particular campaign rings so hollow not because of putrid performance but rather the opposite: the potential for achievement by the Huskies that will now forever lie dormant, its fulfillment never known. Only imagined.

And yet such is life in a pandemic. Once the decision was made to forge ahead with the 2020 college football season – which was reached with great trepidation and numerous false starts and dubious calls by the Pac-12, more than any other conference – the potential for an unhappy and premature ending was always looming.

The Huskies played four games and won three. They’ll look back and believe they could have won all four if they had just cleaned up some mistakes in the five-point loss to Stanford on Dec. 5. No one imagined that night it would turn out to be their final game.

By the explicit standards set forth by first-year coach Jimmy Lake, the Huskies did not achieve either of their primary goals: Win the Pac-12 title and win their bowl game.

Again, these failures were not determined on the field, which would have made them easier for the team to digest, in a way. Because that’s what athletes and teams are wired to do: They work, they prepare, they compete and then they live with the results. The results can be brutally heartbreaking, or they can cause life-affirming elation. But the rules of engagement are clear, and accepted by all.

This year, however, it was not the competition, but rather the realm of virus testing that did the Huskies in. They didn’t have enough healthy players, including zero offensive linemen, to face Oregon – a cancellation that perversely clinched the North title for Washington.

That situation hadn’t changed enough by Monday to keep the Huskies on target to face USC in the title game, so Oregon was named to replace them. And though Lake was resolute Monday about the team’s desire to still play in a bowl game, it seemed to be a pipe dream from the start. Considering that “our whole team is in isolation as we speak,” as Lake said Monday, it was hard to envision a scenario that would put them in, say, the Alamo Bowl in two weeks.

The decision Friday to end that quest was no doubt painful but undeniably the right call. Lake used the term “completely crushed” to describe the team’s reaction to canceling against Oregon. And he said the Huskies were “devastated” to not play USC on Friday. We don’t yet know their reaction to the bowl news, but judging by the progression of dismay it was no doubt powerful and hard to digest. You can’t play without healthy players, however.

There has been a lot of sound and fury in the 10 months since the sports world began to grapple with the realization that the upcoming football season was going to be problematic to the extreme.

I wouldn’t say it all “signifies nothing,” to complete the Macbeth quote. Players no doubt prefer getting in four games to bagging the season entirely, as it once appeared the conference was headed. And fans still had a couple months of fairly traditional rooting opportunities, albeit without in-person attendance and with weekly high anxiety over whether the games would actually be played.

No doubt, there will be some highly revealing retrospective articles written in 10 or 20 years, once the highly charged environment existing today settles down, through the passage of time. Maybe we’ll find out then all the behind-the-scenes machinations that took place over these crazy months, which have been hidden behind a veil of secrecy.

During Lake’s news conference Monday, when he was announcing the title-game cancellation, I asked him if this season was worth it, considering all the bumps and disappointments along the way. His answer came without hesitation.

“I do. I really do. You know what? I wouldn’t take back any of those four games we played and all the preparation that we had. Our exhilarating comeback win against Utah, I know our players and our staff will remember that for the rest of their lives. The execution we had in the first two games. All the young guys we were able to put in against Arizona. Then even our Stanford game, we know we made a bunch of mistakes, but we were still able to fight back and we were a possession away from being able to go down and win that football game.

“Then to also be able to say we’re the Pac-12 North champions and we were getting ready to represent the Pac-12 North when I’m sure nobody felt we were going to be in this position at all … with the potential of winning the Pac-12 championship trophy.

“So this is what we do. We coach, and our players play, and that’s what we want to do. And we want to do it safely. We feel we tried to do everything to make sure we stayed safe and were on track to play football. Unfortunately, right here toward the end that virus crept in this building and it’s put us to a halt.”

“I look back on it, and I wouldn’t change a thing. We want to play. We don’t want to just sit on the sidelines. We want to play.”

But the Huskies had already run out of players. On Friday they ran out of time.

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