Hardcore Husky and the Beginning of the Chris Petersen Era

The hiring of a new head coach for your favorite college football team is always an event filled with a display of multiple reactions amongst fans and media. At Hardcore Husky, we have kept track throughout the years of these reactions whenever a head coach is named for the football team at the University of Washington. Also, our own reactions as a staff to these hires has always based on a head coach’s measurable statistics and facts because we feel this is the best way to predict future performance.

Let’s go back to the very first head coach the University of Washington hired in the internet era – Rick Neuheisel. A head coach at the University of Colorado for four seasons, Neuheisel compiled a record of 33-14 including three bowl victories. Fans and media noted the first two seasons at Colorado were highly successful given that each were 10-win seasons but followed up by a third year record of 5-6. In his fourth year, Neuheisel bounced back with a solid 8-4 record. Fans from Colorado ripped Neuheisel after he decided to leave and warned UW fans that despite initial success, Neuheisel’s team became soft as the years went by.

During the hiring process it looked as if one of two former UW assistants – Chris Tormey or Gary Pinkel - was going to get the head job at Montlake. When Barbara Hedges swooped in with an annual $1 million salary offer to Neuheisel, UW fans and the media were stunned by the sudden turn of events. Most fans applauded the hire of a young head coach who had already tasted a modicum of success. The thoughts of the Colorado fans were noted, but largely dismissed by UW fans as sour grapes. It was truly amazing then as UW fans watched the Neuheisel era unfold with an eery similarity to his Colorado days.

After losing his first two games of the 1999 season, Neuheisel’s first UW team rebounded to finish 7-5 and was only one heartbreaking loss away to UCLA from going to the Rose Bowl. In 2000, he led the Huskies to an 11-1 record and a Rose Bowl championship. Then, Husky fans started to see what Colorado fans were talking about. The defense and running game took steps back, and an air attack with Cody Pickett and Reggie Williams leading the offense took off. Husky fans groused about the passing defense and the inability to run the football especially in short yardage situations. Toughness with the 2001 and 2002 teams was being questioned and the word “soft” was being used to describe those teams.

After Neuheisel was fired in June of 2003 for lying and gambling, Husky offensive coordinator and former California head coach Keith Gilbertson was hired to take over. All Husky fans wanted to see a former assistant of legendary Husky coach Don James succeed, but the metrics from the past indicated otherwise. Despite being 28-9 as a head coach at Idaho, his first foray into the Pac-10 as a head coach was a disaster. Taking over at California after Bruce Snyder’s successful stint, Gilbertson went 20-26 with only one winning season out of four. Cal fans despised him and his two-year tenure at UW wasn’t any different. He was snippy with the media and his team in 2004 quit on him resulting in an unbelievably horrible 1-10 record.

The next three hires became ripe with internet fodder for Husky fans and resulted in a fracturing of the UW fanbase that still has not healed and probably never will. Tyrone Willingham and his 65-51-1 record was hired by UW president Mark Emmert to turn things around at Montlake. Fan and media reaction was varied. Three different, major opinions came out of the hire. First, pie-in-the-sky fans saw a coach similar in demeanor with James and were convinced of the impending success Willingham would have at UW. Second, other fans remembered much of the weird, inconsistent, poorly coached, and poorly strategized teams that Willingham had at Stanford and predicted a football-style apocalypse. Third, and most interesting was the thought that Willingham was going to be a .500 coach at UW, some good years, some bad years – but he would clean up a program that had the perception of being dirty and a new head coach would take over once Willingham solidified the base of the program.

As it has been well documented, the football-style apocalypse came to fruition. Willingham had an 11-37 record at UW and his 0-12 season in 2008 has been a scarlet letter the program will never be able to wash away. Those who defended and thought highly of Willingham throughout his tenure were rightfully mocked, ridiculed, and forever marginalized. But most interesting today is the faction of fans and media that were critical of Willingham. There were those who were critical mainly because of the team’s poor record and performance. But there were others who were critical mainly because of the lack of access Willingham allowed certain boosters and media. This is the fracture that is most prevalent in today’s Husky fanbase.

And it showed prominently with the hiring of Steve Sarkisian. When USC offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian was tapped to become the new head coach at UW, the reaction was split among these two sets of fans and media. All were disappointed that UW didn’t hire an experienced head coach with a record – as had been promised by UW athletic director Scott Woodward. There was a section of fans that after the initial disappointment that took a “wait and see” approach. They noted that Sarkisian didn’t have a past record and therefore could be anything from horrible to the next great head coach of his generation. The other section of fans and media highly praised Sarkisian after their initial disappointment. They said it didn’t matter that he decided to coach USC in preparation of the 2009 Rose Bowl rather than start working full time at UW for three weeks. They pointed to his inclusion of fans during practices. His ability to connect with recruits was hailed. Some even let slip that it was cool to have a coach that knew how to have a good time, talk some off-the-record trash, and drink tequila.

As the Sarkisian era moved along, one section of fans noted the consistently inconsistent ways Sarkisian racked up wins and losses. Early on, he would defeat some teams that were favored over the Huskies then lose to teams that weren’t as talented. Then later on, those types of wins and losses seemed to disappear – leading to a mediocre record and the nickname “Seven Win Steve”. As this group of fans became more and more disillusioned with the Sarkisian era, the other set of fans and media – such as the staff at Dawgman.com (Kim Grinolds, Chris Fetters, and Scott Eklund), fans and boosters like Bill Fleenor and Dave Handy who use the internet to try to influence fan opinion, and Dave “Softy” Mahler, Dick Baird, Hugh Millen, and Elise Woodward of Husky flagship station KJR-AM – defended Sark and his assistants at every opportunity possible. There was a sufficient lack of criticism from these quarters, especially of Sarkisian’s self-proclaimed “best defensive staff in the country” in 2011 led by Nick Holt, Johnny Nansen, Mike Cox, Jeff Mills, and Demetrice Martin despite the Husky defense giving up record setting yardage and points to opposing offenses. Fleenor went so far as to proclaim “Sark will never fire Holt. If you want to fire Holt, you have to fire Sark.” Great recruiting coups were predicted by Scott Eklund and never came to fruition. Grinolds had bragged about his off-the-record access to Sarkisian.

After losses very little criticism of the coaching staff came from these quarters, but high amounts of blame were directed towards players, especially Keith Price despite Price breaking many single game, season, and career UW records. It became evident that Dawgman.com, those that cover UW at KJR-AM, and pompous, egotistical boosters such as Bill Fleenor and Dave Handy craved access to the coaching staff and the athletic department and it influenced their opinions regarding Sarkisian, his coaching staff, and the UW athletic department.

That’s what led to the birth of Hardcore Husky. Here, the staff is committed to honest, unvarnished opinion – all the way from the Bored of Investors, to the moderators, and to our members. We’re not compromised by want of access to the football program. We just want to see wins. Never was this more evident than the reaction when Boise State head coach Chris Petersen decided to leave the Broncos and bring his 92-12 and 2 BCS bowl victories to the University of Washington. Petersen is widely regarded in college football circles as one of the best coaches in the game. He is also well known for keeping boosters and media at arm’s length.

At Hardcore Husky, the hire was hailed. It is arguably the greatest hire in the history of the program. At Dawgman.com – the hire was welcomed with a less than enthusiastic reaction. Kim Grinolds and Scott Eklund complained of some of Petersen’s ways with the media. Grinolds went so far to say that some of his tactics are similar to Willingham’s. And there’s no twisting going on here. Grinolds was also critical of the way Petersen handled the Demorea Stringfellow incident despite Grinolds not even being able to correctly identify Demorea Stringfellow if his love of wine, blondes, and bananas depended on it. Dollars to donuts, Kim and his crew would change their tune regarding Petersen real quick with a couple of off the record discussions regarding recruiting or Petersen playing a game of golf with Bill Fleenor.

At Hardcore Husky, we believe Petersen has more than earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to how the program now deals with players and the media. However, no matter what kind of access this website has to the program – whether it’s nothing or whether we’re granted an all-access pass by the UW athletic department and Petersen – the one thing you can guarantee from this website is honest editorial thought and opinions as the Petersen Era gets underway. No website will sing his praises more if he replicates his record at Boise St. here at Washington. And no website will be more honestly critical if the Petersen Era doesn’t result in meeting the standards that the UW football program is known for, consequences be damned.

Thank you for reading and go Dawgs.