Not all bowl games are created equal, and we’re not talking the difference between the Rose and the Orange, or the difference between a $5 million payout and a $1 million payout. We’re talking about the impact a bowl can have — win or lose.
As amazing as Thursday night’s Holiday Bowl win over Nebraska was, its long-range impact has yet to be determined. So, for now, in our view, the 1978 UW Rose Bowl victory over Michigan remains the most significant played by the Huskies for reasons listed below.
The 1986 Sun Bowl loss to Alabama was nearly as important because it led to a philosophy change that resulted in a national championship. The five most impactful bowls played by Washington.
1960 Rose: Winning the 1960 Rose Bowl did more to enhance the reputation of West Coast football than it impacted the UW program. Many of the players who were key to the 1960 Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin also were main operatives ini the 1961 Rose Bowl triumph over Minnesota. Washington got enough recruiting perks from those wins to return to the Rose Bowl in 1964, but there the music stopped. UW didn’t return to Pasadena until 1978.
1991 Rose: It might seem that a game that made Washington a co-national champion (with Miami) should have had more impact. But the Huskies didn’t get the bang they could have because Washington went on Pac-10 probation in 1993, forcing UW to miss the 1993 and 1994 bowl seasons, a recruiting killer. No telling how dominant Washington might have remained without that bowl ban, and without the resignation of Don James.
1981 Rose: Although the Huskies lost to Michigan 23-6, UW’s coaching staff spent extra time in California talking up the preps. Many of those recruits, including a precocious running back named Jacque Robinson. formed the core of the 1984 UW team that went 11-1 and won the 1985 Orange Bowl. Robinson, in fact, paid immediate dividends, winning the Rose Bowl MVP trophy in 1982 as a freshman and, later, the MVP award in the 1985 Orange Bowl as a senior.
1986 Sun: The game itself amounted to one of the worst bowl defeats of the Don James era, a 28-6 drubbing administered by an Alabama team that had so much team speed the Huskies could not compete. As a result of the loss, James changed his recruiting style, with a primary emphasis on speed (think Napoleon Kaufman). Without that change, UW would not have won a share of the co-national championship in 1991.
1978 Rose: The Don James era launched as a result of Washington’s 27-20 victory over Michigan. Because of the Warren Moon-inspired win, the Huskies enjoyed an immense uptick in recruiting in the Los Angeles area, acquiring many of the players who would send UW back to Pasadena in 1981 and 1982 and to a myriad of minor bowls well beyond. More than a win, this game became a program-changing reputation enhancer.