BY Art Thiel 02:23PM 12/26/2013

Thiel: Bowl game is confusion time for Huskies

Sarkisian’s departure, the Tosh Lupoi investigation and uncertainties about the coaching staff leave the Huskies players only one choice — play for themselves Friday.

Washington’s Bishop Sankey did well in the Huskies bowl game in Las Vegas a year ago, but with an option to turn pro, playing in a meaningless game this time carries risk. / Drew McKenzie, Sportspress Northwest

The bowl-season mythology says that the tradition, custom and prestige of participation is a grand and glorious experience for student-athletes that is more than worth the effort. Then there’s a lot of the Washington Huskies, who, except for the $500 swag bags of gear and trinkets, probably would just as soon hang out at home.

Nothing against the Fight Hunger Bowl or San Francisco, site of the game Friday night against Brigham Young. Not a bad week’s gig at all. But after what the Huskies are going through in December, much still unknown, the feeling grows that, rather than being feted for their specialness, they are merely lumps of coal shoveled into the college-football furnace.

The abrupt departure of coach Steve Sarkisian for USC, followed by an investigation into the claim that assistant coach Tosh Lupoi tried to pay for a recruit’s tutoring the past spring by leaving cash in coffee cups and restaurant-seat cushions, has taken a big edge off a largely successful 8-4 season — even if the Huskies did lose to Oregon for the 10th time in a row.

It’s easy for outsiders to tell players to suck it up and play. After all, being jerked around in college prepares one for life in the real world. The difference is that the college football industry, in lieu of money, engages its workers with noble terms such as family, commitment, sacrifice and one-for-all — until the coach espousing the platitudes and bromides bolts for a sweeter gig elsewhere that betrays everything he was asking of them.

Yes, a scholarship is provided, too. But the relative handful of players who are putting the academic opportunity to good use, such as DT Danny Shelton and DE Hau’oli Kikaha, named to the Pac-12 Conference All-Academic first team in November, probably would just as soon put time in December to preparing for final exams. They’ll never say that, of course, because it’s sacrilege to the bowl-game mythology.

Instead, because there have been no playoffs in FBS and all its predecessor labels, the Huskies are asked to play an extra game that has no seasonal meaning,

When it comes deriving meaning for the exercise, benefits go largely to three groups:

  • Coaches, who not only get bonuses for bowl appearances but an 15 extra practices to improve the team for next year, so the coach can springboard to a better job, as Sarkisian did;
  • Boosters, who get their loyalty card punched for throwing money at the program by being hosted at various parties and events that provide food, drink and backslaps;
  • The host city/bowl sponsor, which get to market themselves for four hours on ESPN, which actually owns 31 of the 35 bowl games.

The players occupy the bottom rung of the benefits ladder. Those returning next year get extra practices where they can improve their standing on the depth chart. But players looking to be drafted by the NFL take some risk to their future with an unnecessary game, and some others simply would prefer to do something else with their holiday time.

And yes, some will enjoy raising hell in the hotel or the streets.

In the case of these particular Huskies, they have been abandoned by the coach who recruited them, plus several assistants that followed Sarkisian to USC. They are being coached by holdovers, including Lupoi, who proclaims innocence. Could be true, and it can also be true that episode chronicled in the Los Angeles Times was not isolated. More uncertainty about potential punishments.

The most uncertainty is the holdover coaches, who are subject both to poaching and to firing. Apprently none of them has assured UW employment beyond Friday, including interim head coach Marques Tuiasosopo. And the new coach, Chris Petersen, will not attend the game, because he rightly feels his presence might be disruptive because so much remains unsettled.

So it’s clear that the college football machine that allows this to happen doesn’t much care about the bowl outcome, either. Why should the players?

Naturally, Tuiasosopo holds to the belief that all is relatively well, and the coaching change is merely another thing to manage. He speaks with some authority, having been a Huskies quarterback after the coach who recruited him, Jim Lambright, was fired following the 1998 season and bowl game, and Rick Neuheisel had yet to bring his guitar and his betting pool to Montlake.

“When you’ve gone through something (like a coaching change), you have a little credibility to talk them through it,” Tuiasosopo told reporters Monday in San Francisco. “I just say, ‘Hey, I know what it feels like to have what you thought was going to be four years.’ It’s gone now.

“But that doesn’t mean it’s all going downhill. We had some uncertainty, our new coach (Neuheisel) came in and we went to the Holiday Bowl and the Rose Bowl. So there can be a huge positive here. My message to them early on was, ‘Come together as a team. Take control. New coach comes in here and you guys are policing yourselves, let them deal with football, come together and create something special here.’I think they bought into that.

“The seniors have a lot to play for this last game. They’ve done a nice job. I know it’s been talked about a lot, but I really believe they want it.”

Maybe so. Players may turn the feeling of betrayal into some self-promotion, to which they are certainly entitled. And they may play well. Certainly that’s what happened at USC, where the Trojans are on their fourth head  coach of the season (Lane Kiffin, Ed Orgeron, Clay Helton and now Sarkisian) yet managed to play for themselves when they clobbered Fresno State 45-20 in the Las Vegas Bowl.

Then again, a bowl game may have a deadening effect. Washington State’s first bowl game in 10 years ended up a debacle after the Cougars allowed Colorado State to score the game’s last 18 points in the final three minutes of what became a 48-45 defeat.

Besides the embarrassing, QB Connor Halliday was subjected to a homophobic slur by an opposing assistant coach captured on national TV. Then Halliday’s coach, Mike Leach, failed to accept any responsibility for butchering the game management that allowed as easy victory to escape. Leach blew off his flagship station’s post-game radio show, backhanded reporters’ questions and generally responded like a neurotic lout to the legitimate question of what the hell did he just do.

The New Mexico Bowl did not produce an afternoon of glory for the coaching profession.

The bowl season is already filling up with dramatic plays and performances and outlandish outcomes that make it such a successful part of the entertainment industry. If you want to maintain the emotional high, don’t look backstage at the performers.

 


YourThoughts

  • jafabian

    Tui is doing everything right so far. If anything I’m rooting for him to get his first win as a head coach. Having been in their shoes, in more ways than one, lends weight to what he says to them. I’ll be sad to see him leave assuming he isn’t retained by Peterson.

    Even though he won’t be there the team is still auditioning for Coach Pete, both players and coaches. He’ll be somewhere watching it, scouting it, taking notes. Any one who wants to return next season should keep that in mind.

    • RadioGuy

      I was just going to say the same thing about Tui. He’s saying the right things to his players, and the fact he’s gone through what they’re dealing with now gives him credibility. No matter how the game goes, he’s already clinched coming out of his bowl game waaaaay better than Leach did. Something tells me that if the UW loses because of a coaching decision, Tui’ll man up and take responsibility for it. I hope Pete DOES consider keeping him on.

      Have to admit it’s pretty difficult to get up for something called the Fight Hunger Bowl. It’s not like San Francisco is going to make any kind of a big deal over this game with the Niners playing for their postseason lives this weekend and SF in general not being much of a college football city. At least it’ll be sunny and 65 (minus the wind chill factor).

      As for ESPN “owning” 31 of the 35 bowl games, I find it interesting that ABC isn’t showing more than two others since they’re both Disney properties. I think I’ll survive having only four bowl games to watch (not having ESPN with our Dish package): I was able to watch the New Mexico Bowl at a friend’s house, the Sun Bowl could be okay and both the Capital One and Cotton Bowls should be excellent.

      • art thiel

        Tui is plenty smart enough to say the right things. But who knows if it makes a difference? And who knows if he’s a good head coach? Everyone loves him here, but being a head coach at the FBS level nearly requires being a ruthless cutthroat. Not sure he’d want that.

    • art thiel

      I think they get that, but it’s my point — play for yourselves, because the coach you’re playing for today may be done tomorrow.

  • Scott Crosser

    I have friends who competed in Bowl Games. They all seem very proud of having participated in one…..framing their Jersey from the game and ready to talk about their glory days. These guys are successful as well, learning discipline and team work. Yes they are a little beat up…. But no more than many of us who competed in sports that didn’t offer such opportunities.

    • art thiel

      Did the bowl games happen after the coaching staff ran out on them? I’m not saying the Huskies won’t have fun, but it’s not nearly as gee-whizzy for them as it is for fans.

  • Scott Crosser

    I listen to you on NPR Art. Always look forward to your take.

    • art thiel

      Pass the word, Scott. Thanks.

  • zigzags

    Great write-up. That’s why I come here for good analysis vs. the local paper. Keep it going, Art!

    • art thiel

      You da man, Zig. Pass the word.

  • ll9956

    Unlike my usual reaction to your always-excellent columns, this is a case where I have to disagree with the general tenor of this one, Art. IMO, the team members will have a good experience playing in this game and will give it their all in quest of a victory. No one who plays this game likes to lose. I can’t believe that the Dawgs ” . . . probably would just as soon hang out at home” (are you jesting here?). These kids are young and resilient. I subscribe to Tui’s statement, ” . . . I really believe they want it.” I cannot picture Danny Shelton and Hau’oli Kikaha preferring to study for finals rather than preparing with their teammates for a bowl game, regardless of the fact that it’s not one of the big ones.

    I do agree that Sark confirmed the truth that in big time sports there isn’t really any such thing as loyalty.

    Finally I strongly agree with RadioGuy in hoping that Pete keeps Tui on. The players like and respect him and this would be a big boost in fostering similar feelings toward Pete. I hope he realizes this.

    • art thiel

      You probably don’t remember the time the Huskies players voted to not go the Sun Bowl. A furious Don James told the top players they’d never see a minute in the NFL if they didn’t back down. They did.

      I’m not saying that’s at work here, just that some (many?) players have mixed feelings about meaningless bowl games. Sure, it’s fun, but I don’t think you appreciate the trudge the extra game can be when your coaches have quit on you.