For the Washington Huskies, the 2012 football season was herky-jerky
and bipolar. Benchmark victories over Stanford and Oregon State sent Husky fans
pouring onto the field in wild celebration. But soul-crushing defeats to the
likes of Arizona and Washington State left observers wondering about the mental
toughness of the team.
"Our team has talent," says former Husky tailback Beno Bryant. "But you have to be willing to put your foot on the other team's neck and cut off the circulation. We don't have that yet. Sark (current UW coach Steve Sarkisian) is doing everything he can to put guys in position to be successful. But if the players aren't going to take heed and be responsible to each other, I think they might be at the wrong institution. I really do."
Beno Bryant, shown here exploding for a 65-yard touchdown during the 1991 National Championship season, has kept close tabs on his alma mater in the years since he played. He feels optimistic about the team's prospects under coach Steve Sarkisian, but sees deficiencies that must be remedied before the Dawgs can return to elite status.
"Sark is doing a great job and he's turning things around up there," Bryant says. "There is passion there. I've sat down with the gentleman and looked into the whites of his eyes. He gave a totally different perspective of where he's coming from when he talked. The majority of what came out of his mouth was about the team concept. That's what I enjoy hearing coaches talk about. I've always been taught One Heartbeat, One Mind. If it doesn't resonate through you like that, there's going to be issues."
From his current home in Los Angeles, Bryant says Washington's reputation in Southern California has improved since Sarkisian took over. But he thinks Husky History isn't being hyped like it could be, for recruiting purposes.
"With regards to recruiting, we're in a situation that is pretty tough," Bryant says. "There are individuals that go to Oregon because they like the uniforms. There are those who go to USC because they will win right away. There are those who go to Oregon State because they feel they can play (right away).
"But I would like to see (Washington) change the philosophy and mentality of the players and make them understand that it's a privilege to wear the purple and gold because of the players that came through there. I think they'll play harder if they know the history. When I was at Washington, I watched the tapes of Hugh McElhenny, Jacque Robinson, Joe Steele, Aaron Jenkins, Greg Lewis... I could go on and on. I wanted to see how they ran. I wanted to have an understanding of what they contributed to the program. I watched them because they were the guys that laid the foundation. If I was going to go out there I had to represent not just for myself but for those guys that went before me and passed the torch. I don't think the current Huskies understand that. I think when they go out there it's more about them. And that's not a bad thing. However, we can't get stagnant and get complacent, because I don't see moral victories in just getting to a bowl game. That's fine if you've only done it once or twice. But as a player, you've got to want to maximize your potential. If you feel a regular bowl game each year is sufficient for you then you're at the wrong program. Because we lived in the Rose Bowl (Bryant played in three of them). We desired a National Championship."
It's been two decades since Washington won the National Championship. So much has happened to Husky Football in the intervening years. But Bryant speaks with reverence for those days, and the inherent lessons those times can teach the current Huskies. He cites expressions taught to him by Don James, Jim Lambright and the other assistant coaches. One after another, they trip off his tongue: "It's not your ability, but your dependability"... "All things of importance take time"... "Leadership is by influence, not by your position or wealth."
Bryant also emphasizes his team's ability to maintain high intensity in practices came from the players more than the coaches. The players, said Bryant, policed themselves so well they didn't need Don James to do so.
To illustrate the point, Bryant shares a story. One day at practice, when Bryant was a brash freshman, he was swaggering a bit during a scrimmage. Bern Brostek, the glowering massive All-Pac-10 center, turned toward him and yelled instruction.
"Beno! Turn around and get in the huddle."
"Hold on, man," said Bryant.
"GET IN THE HUDDLE," barked Brostek.
"Hey, I said hold on, man," said Bryant.
Brostek took a step toward the skinny running back. "YOU WANNA GET KNOCKED OUT, BRO?"
Bryant became indignant. "You ain't knocking' nobody out!"
Brostek lunged forward and smashed Bryant in the head, sending him sprawling. "My head was ringing!" says Beno. "For the rest of practice, he was saying BENO, GET IN THE HUDDLE! After practice, I had a headache and was walking to the Crew House. Brostek and (offensive lineman) Siupeli Malamala had a little bitty VW bug. They pulled up and said, HEY BEANS! YOU WANT A RIDE, MAN? I told them I was good, didn't need a ride. Honestly, I was a bit terrified to get inside the vehicle for fear of what they would do to me!
"But what Brostek was really telling me was that it was business when we're out there. It's a business. Certain things are expected. He was saying we love one another, but out there if push comes to shove, he would mess me up. That was the message."
Of course, the messages to young bucks could come from Washington's ferocious defense as well.
"Let's talk about Dave Hoffmann," Bryant says of the former teammate and All-American linebacker. "It's amazing to talk about that guy. In practice, I would line up in the one-back formation, and he was at middle linebacker. (Before the snap) I would look at the defense and I would look at him. I would see his soul in his eyes. I can't really explain it in words, but there was a look in his eyes like he would do absolutely anything to get the job done. Everybody on defense had that look in their eyes.
"One day in practice I hit him while I was in red," says Bryant. "And Hoffmann told me, DON'T EVER (BLEEPING) HIT ME AGAIN LIKE THAT, OR I'LL RIP YOUR (BLEEPING) HEAD OFF!
"To hear that from a guy who would tell me as we walked up the tunnel, Hey Beans, I love you man, was something else. To hear him basically tell me that day that if I did it again, he would kill me. Telling me not to do that while I'm in red, to do it the right way. That was just the camaraderie we had."
But Bryant returns to the mantra One Heartbeat, One Mind to depict the Huskies back then and the example they set for the current team.
"One day we were about to play Arizona, who was a pretty good team (ranked #23 in the nation in November 1990). We were in a meeting. I usually liked to sit in the back because I liked to study the film without interacting with the other players. But this time I sat in the front. After the film was done they turned the lights on. I turned around and looked at the guys. Everybody's face in that room was unrecognizable. I couldn't tell who Ed Cunningham was. Or Mario Bailey. Or Pete Kaligis. Or Lincoln Kennedy. Or Kris Rongen. Just the expressions on their faces. They were in a different place (mentally). They were in a different world. And we went out a couple days later and beat Arizona pretty good (54-10). And it told me that this was a class of young men who wanted to be great. They wanted to be great and they were fully committed to doing whatever it took to get the job done."
When looking at the current Huskies, Bryant says it's that commitment that's missing. He cites the recent disastrous Apple Cup loss as evidence.
"We have a team that doesn't know how to take over a game yet," he says. "If it's there, they're happy with it. They kind of plateau. But you have to be willing to put your foot on the team's neck and cut off the circulation. We don't have that. Now, when the pressure comes, instead of shining like diamonds we bust like pipe. The guys need to remember that we have eleven battles out there. If we conquer all the battles, we win the war. Even if we win half of the battles, we will be pretty successful."
In looking toward the future, Bryant loves what he sees in running back Bishop Sankey, calling him "physical, tough, smart and with great vision." But his last thoughts were directed toward the quarterback in light of the Apple Cup loss to the Cougars.
"Let's talk about Keith Price," Bryant says. "To whom much is given, much is required. He was given a task and was required to manage the game. Nobody has asked him to go out there and be Superman. At the same time, you have dig down deeper, brother. And you smiling all the time, it may not seem this way to you, but to people observing you, they think you don't care. It's no longer cute anymore because you're no longer a pup, you're a Great Dane in this system. Therefore, you need to show some intestinal fortitude and some grit. So you smiling all the time, it started to bother me after awhile.
"Then you go out there with a beanie on (for the coin flip for overtime) and you're smiling like everything's okay. No, everything's not okay. Your team just blew an 18-point lead Wazzu, who is your rival. You should have gone out there with a mean mug and a sense of urgency and be willing to take this game."
Instead, on Washington's first play from scrimmage during the overtime, Price tried to throw the ball away and suffered a brutal interception. WSU subsequently kicked a field goal to send the Dawgs to a devastating defeat.
"You trying to throw that ball away is not a win," Bryant says. "What were you thinking about? That just makes me think back to when you went out for the coin toss seemingly without a care in the world. Were you really aware of the magnitude of this game? Or did you think you would just go through the motions and they weren't going to set some fire to your ass?
"He needs to be fully prepared to be a decision maker. I think he took it as there's nobody behind me to take my job so I can do whatever I want. Maybe it wasn't like that, but that's how it seemed to me. He's a great kid. He really is. And there's some swagger there. But when you make mistakes, show some humility. Show some humility. If he starts to do that, he'll be able to move forward. He's going to be a great talent, I just think he needs to reassess some of the things going on out there on the football field."
In assessing Washington's football future, Bryant is excited about the opening of the newly remodeled Husky Stadium in late August 2013. "It's beautiful," he says. "It really is. It's time to put the fans closer (to the field) because they're so fricking loud. But I would like the kids to understand that this is something that has been given to you. Now you should go out there and earn it. You have to go out there and earn it. You have to bring your A game. Otherwise, other teams are going to come in next year and laugh when they beat us on our new turf. So our guys must go out there and earn it!"