SEATTLE – Three decades later, Walter Bailey still sees the sky.
James Clifford hears the hum inside Husky Stadium, a roar so unrelenting it barely seems real.
Dave Hoffmann feels his organs shake inside his skin, dancing at a party with 73,333 friends.
On Sept. 19, 1992, No. 2 Washington hosted No. 12 Nebraska in Husky Stadium’s first night game since 1985. The year before, a red-clad crowd in Lincoln, Nebraska, had watched Washington score 27 unanswered points in the second half of a 36-21 win, then saluted the Huskies with a standing ovation upon their exit.
Now, the stage was set at a sold-out Husky Stadium, as the reigning national champions stormed out of the northwest tunnel – embarking on perhaps the loudest college football game played.
“Welcome to Husky Stadium in Seattle, Washington,” bellowed play-by-play broadcaster Ron Franklin on ESPN. “They are standing and chanting and cheering. They’ve been doing that for a couple of hours now, Mike Gottfried.”
“Both these teams are really fired up,” responded Gottfried, his color commentator. “The crowd is just unbelievable, with the noise here in the stadium.”
On the north and south sides, purple and red stretched to the sky.
And the sky followed suit, a Montlake mirror.
“When the sun started to set, I swear to you, it was like a purple haze over the stadium,” recalled Bailey, then UW’s senior cornerback who snared an interception in the second quarter. “It had this little reddish-purple sky. It was just kind of freaky-eerie beautiful, ready for Husky football to fully display a special moment in time for us as a team.
“I wouldn’t say I was star gazing. I just remember that, the way the sun set and the way it looked. Before we really got going, there was just this beautiful ambience across the stadium. It was beautiful, and it was exciting, man. It was electric.”
There’s evidence. Midway through the first quarter of Washington’s 29-14 win, Franklin introduced reporter Adrian Karsten – who was wearing headphones and holding a black “Realistic Sound Level Meter” along the sideline.
“Forget about jet engines,” Karsten said. “We’re getting up close to 120 decibels. That’s in the danger-of-impairment area.”
The meter topped out at 133.6 decibels – the highest number recorded at a college football game.
It was an environment that nearly defies description.
“ ‘Deafening’ is not the word. It was almost so loud that there was this ominous feel,” said Clifford, UW’s former linebacker and current Mariners director of strength and conditioning who contributed 13 tackles and two tackles for loss that day. “There was a play – I’ll never forget it – I stripped the ball and the ball came out, and I dove on it and recovered the fumble. But nobody even knew there was a fumble.
“Normally everybody’s yelling, ‘Ball out! Ball out!’ Thank goodness one of the officials saw it, because nobody could hear anything at all.”
That goes for fellow Huskies linebacker Dave Hoffmann, who developed hand signals the previous season “because there was no way (teammates) could hear me do audibles with the crowd that loud.” It also goes for Nebraska quarterback Mike Grant, who was sacked by Tommie Smith in the end zone for a safety and the game’s first points.
That play mercilessly followed an illegal-procedure penalty, a delay-of-game penalty and a Cornhuskers timeout.
“Where do you start explaining Washington’s victory? The crowd,” wrote The Seattle Times’ Blaine Newnham. “As tough as the Huskies were a year ago in Lincoln, they were easily as tough – if not spectacular – in the din of Husky Stadium, where Nebraska quarterback Mike Grant looked as if he were directing traffic on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier Nimitz instead of his team.”
Likewise, Gene Wojciechowski of the Los Angeles Times called Washington’s crowd noise “something of a novelty here. So flustered was Cornhusker quarterback Mike Grant by the noise, that he used two timeouts in the first four minutes of the second half. He couldn’t hear a thing.”
It’s unsurprising, then, that Grant surrendered two interceptions, a fumble and a safety in a crowd-coaxed implosion inside Husky Stadium. His Huskers, who averaged 558 yards of offense in their first two wins, were held to 309 yards by a defense that honored its coordinator’s request.
“Some of the guys would go out for kickoff and raise their hands to get the crowd going, and (defensive coordinator Jim Lambright) said, ‘No. Give them a reason. Go light your hair on fire and do something special.’
“We were just on fire, man – great players, great coaches. Everybody cared about each other, and were really taking care of business and having fun. The fans saw that and felt it. It just went through everybody. I remember that game in particular, my organs were shaking inside my body, you know what I mean?”
In all, Washington won 18 consecutive games inside Husky Stadium, from 1990-93. The Huskies reached three consecutive Rose Bowls (1990-92) and averaged near-sellouts along the way (70,986 in 1990, 72,284 in 1991, and 72,071 in 1992). In his 18 seasons in Seattle, coach Don James compiled a 99-23-1 (.805) record at home and a 52-34-1 (.598) tally away from Husky Stadium.
According to Hoffmann, the Huskies considered Saturdays “a big party.”
And after the party, came the after-party.
“After our home games were over, we walked out to where we parked at the 75-cent lot at the time,” Clifford said. “All the RVs were parked out there. They’d invite us in, give us hot dogs or barbecue and we’d hang with them for a bit and say, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ We’d hang out with the fans.
“I will never forget it. It was some of the best days. It was really cool, and it wasn’t by design. It was so much fun talking to people you’d never even met before.”
On Saturday – two days before the 30-year anniversary of the Nebraska game – Washington (2-0) will host No. 11 Michigan State (2-0) inside Husky Stadium. After averaging 56,815 fans in their first two games, UW coach Kalen DeBoer hopes the party returns to capacity.
“We need Husky Nation out here in a big way on Saturday,” DeBoer said this week. “We’ve been trying to prove that we’re going to be fun to watch and fun to be there at the stadium for and to support, and we appreciate everyone that’s been to our games. It’s been a fun environment, but I know there’s still a lot more that we can have.
“ ‘No Limits’ is our motto for this season for our team. I guess the limit (for fans) would be the capacity, right? I would just challenge the fan base, ‘Husky Nation: let’s not have any limits to what this could be this season. Let’s not sit and wait around to see what could happen. Let’s put the pedal down, and let’s go get this.’ ”
Three decades ago, the sky was the limit; Bailey could see it.
But what will we see Saturday?
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