Washington's "Death Row Defense" was a favorite topic last year on the Hardcore Husky message boards. After the porous defenses of the Willingham and Sarkisian eras, hard-hitting young bucks like Azeem Victor and Keishawn Bierrria took the first steps in restoring UW's damaged reputation.
But when it comes to festooning defenses with nicknames, none can top Washington's "Purple Reign" squad from the 1984 season. That was the year the Huskies went 11-1, beat the Oklahoma Sooners in the Orange Bowl, and finished the year ranked #2.
A bruising safety from that team was Jimmy Rogers. He and his teammates felt they could win the national championship going into that season. They believed a trip to Michigan in mid-September was the biggest barrier.
"Michigan had just beat Bernie Kosar and Miami the week before," Rodgers said.
"In the third quarter we were in the huddle and looking over at them, and we knew we were physically kicking their ass. We went off from there."
The Huskies won 20-11. But the best memory for Rodgers involved the Michigan quarterback, a guy named Jim Harbaugh.
"I hit Harbaugh late one time," Rodgers said. "I wasn't trying to cheap shot, I was just trying so hard to get there... I hit Harbaugh about ten yards out of bounds over by the Gatorade. I was lying on my back, and I looked up and saw Bo Schembechler looking down at me. And he yelled `You dirty rotten son of a bitch mother******!'
"He called me every word in the book," Rodgers said. "And I was so happy. I was like `Wow, Bo Schembechler just called me a mother******.'
As September turned to October, the Huskies found themselves ranked #1 in the nation. On a trip to Corvallis, the Husky offense was meager but the Purple Reign defense proved mighty. One of the game's biggest plays came on special teams, when Rodgers roared in to a block a punt with his throat.
"After the game, I had the [imprint] of the threads of the ball on my throat," Rodgers said. "You would think it hurts but it doesn't. It hurts afterward. But you've got to attack the ball. The kicker bobbled the ball and I went for the foot. I went for it and got it."
It was around this time that the moniker "Purple Reign" came into being.
"I believe USA Today came up with it," Rodgers said. "They were the first newspaper with colored photos. They had us on the cover of the sports page with purple jerseys and Don James. Purple Reign, and the whole soundtrack with Prince was going on around then. It was a magical time."
The Huskies remained unbeaten into November and ran their record 8-0 with a 28-12 win over Arizona. But that was an ugly game, with a combined 14 turnovers between the two teams.
"There was anger toward the offense and specifically toward our quarterback Hugh Millen," Rodgers said. "He went completely south on us. I think Huey himself turned the ball over like four times. They made the quarterback switch and went to Dr. Paul Sicuro.
"We were actually begging Coach James to put in [pure freshman] Chris Chandler," Rodgers said. "We had begged [offensive coordinator] Gary Pinkel to put in Chandler. But Chandler couldn't throw a spiral to save his life in practice. But we didn't give a f**k because Chandler was a winner."
Washington's last home game of the year came against the California Golden Bears. The Huskies ran out of the tunnel to thunderous cheering. Then the opening series was a curious sight to see.
"Cal never cared about winning," Rodgers said. "They always wanted to fight, but never cared about the game. The first play of the game, the receiver comes out to block me, and you either run them over or get rid of them. I got by him quickly, and then he hit me in the back of the knees. That's how guys can see their careers end with those kind of cheap shots. I got up and saw a flag and thought `Oh okay'. But then the refs called a flag on our defense.
"I went crazy in the huddle," Rodgers said. "I said `Forget about the whistle you guys! Let's just beat the hell of out them right now, okay?'
"The next play went for two yards, the whistles blew," he said. "I looked up, and if I were in Vietnam, this is what it would have probably looked like. Joe Kelly was throwing punches on a guy who didn't know what time of day it was. Freddie Small, Reggie Rogers, Timmy Peoples, Ronnie Holmes, we were literally beating the hell out of these guys. We got a 15-yard penalty.
"I was still irate and Don [James] was over there yelling at us. He tried calling us all over. He's turning purple and red. I told the guys `Don't look at him guys, let's go one more time. One more time.'
"So the same thing happens again," Rodgers said. "We stop them, and the fists were flying. Uppercuts, we're ripping their helmets off, taking the fight to them. Another 15-yard penalty. Don is screaming at us to come to the sideline. I yelled at Reggie not to look at him.
"We did it a third time, it all happened again," Rodgers said. "Got another penalty, but now the game was over. We had 45 yards in penalties, but Cal was so intimidated. They couldn't even get a snap off the rest of the game. It was over."
Washington won the game 44-14 to improve their season record to 9-0.
The following week Washington lost a heartbreaker at USC, before rallying to beat WSU and then Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. The 11-1 record was good enough to propel the Dawgs to the #2 national ranking, behind a BYU team that went 13-0 but didn't play any ranked teams all season.
A local poll in 1990 ranked that '84 squad as the best team in Husky football history. These days, Rodgers wonders aloud, "Why in the heck aren’t we in the Husky Hall of Fame?"
According to Rodgers, one person who remembers that Purple Reign Defense is current UW coach Chris Petersen.
"He emailed one of my teammates and said he had been a fan of the Purple Reign Defense," Rodgers said. "He said, `Anytime you guys can come in please say hello. We need some of the toughness from the Purple Reign Defense to rub off on our defense.'"
With the recent departure of athletic director Scott Woodward to Texas A&M, Rodgers gave his thoughts.
"I met him but I never felt like he was a real Husky," Rodgers said. "I'm pushing for Jen Cohen [UW's current senior associate athletic director for advancement]. The Orange Bowl reunion was done properly because of Jen Cohen. She was a huge Don James fan from when she was a little kid. He was her hero, actually. She bleeds purple and gold and loves football. I saw how she interacts with the players and how she interacts with Petersen.
"I see the same chemistry between her and Chris Petersen that I saw between Mike Lude and Don James. And Mike Lude and Don James had magic. I want to see her as the new AD."