Wilbur Hooks on Coaching Changes and The Husky Way

Football coaches come and go, as the recent departure of Sark and arrival of Petersen demonstrate. Wilbur Hooks,  a Senior Special Agent for the Department of Homeland Security, remembers a coaching change from his own playing days.

Hooks played at Washington from 1998-2002, and was on hand when Jim Lambright's firing cleared the way for Rick Neuheisel to come to Washington from Colorado.

"I remember going into the team room when we were supposed to first meet him," Hooks said. "For those that don't know, when Lambright walked into the room, you became completely quiet and sat straight in your chair and waited for him to speak. But Neuheisel shows up, and he's wearing a long black trench coat, an umbrella in one hand and a gold helmet in the other.

The first thing he says is `Hey, why are you guys so quiet? It's like a funeral in here!'"

Hooks looked on alongside others from that 1998 class, including the likes of Willie Hurst, Braxton Cleman, Hakim Akbar, Todd Elstrom, Chris Juergens and Mathias Wilson out of Ferndale.

"I have nothing but love and respect for coach Neuheisel, because he will always be my coach and I will always respect him as that," Hooks said. "But in my true opinion, it took Neuheisel a couple years to realize how we did things at the UW. We had a group of folks that did things the way we were supposed to do them. What I mean by that is The Husky Way, if you will. The old school way of doing things. The way it was handed down from the Don James and Jim Lambright days. That shaped and molded you on how to be a true Husky. You couldn't just come in and be one."

One of the funny and telling stories from those early years came when superstar recruit Reggie Williams got hazed.  

"I'll tell this story and I hope my fellow Huskies won't get too mad at me for divulging stuff from the locker room," Hooks said. "But when we ate at dinner time, we'd have the freshmen get up and make them stand on a table and ask them questions. What was your SAT score? Who recruited you? Questions like that. But one of the questions asked of Reggie was `Who is the best player in the room?' And Reggie said that HE was the best player in the room... And that was all she wrote!

"Reggie got taped up, his eyebrows got shaved off, his dreads cut," Hooks said. "It wasn't evident in the media guide, but that year when Reggie's picture would show up on the stadium big screen, it would show his [shaved] eyebrows. We always laughed all the time at that.

"If Johnny Manziel came to UW back in the day and did the things he was doing at A&M, he would have been thrown into the moat or Lake Washington, and he would have had his eyebrows shaved off...  Those kinds of things help build camaraderie and bring a team closer. But what was hard though was that Neuheisel didn't like it to the degree that we would take it. Once he found out what happened to Reggie, those didn't happen anymore. And we were going to get Charles Frederick, Isaiah Stanback and those guys too."

In Neuheisel's first season of 1999, the Huskies lost its first two games to BYU and Air Force. Neuheisel's former team, the Colorado Buffalos, were coming to town next.

"We were pissed off as a team," Hooks said. "We could sense frustration from the coaching staff. Coach Dorrell, he was our coordinator and my favorite coach of all time, but he was speaking to us wide receivers, and telling us how great the Colorado defensive backs were, saying we were going to get killed unless we did this or that. And Coach Hauck got a call from so-and-so, and he said he was going to return a kick for a touchdown against us. It was like our coaching staff doubted us and was down on us.

"We had a players only meeting that week," Hooks said. "We only did that if things were bad. Guys like Marques Tuiasosopo, Lester Towns and Jeremiah Pharms led the meeting. We were like `Look, we have a chance to win the 600th game in UW history and shut our own coaches up.' It just seemed like the coaching staff was down on all of us."

The Huskies went on to beat Colorado 31-24 and finish the season at 7-5.

Hooks was asked if that team meeting had anything to do with what he called the Husky Way.  

"Yeah, we were tapping into the Husky Way," he said. "I've been interviewed about this before and it's hard to explain.  I just think it's an attitude and mindset about how we go about our work and do things. Being proud of the tradition that came before us.

"Coach [Keith] Gilbertson summed it up perfectly. When we had our [19 game] winning streak against Cal, Gilby said that it's not because we're the most talented team, and it's not that we dominate them. It is because it means more to us than them. And that is the perfect phrase for defining The Husky Way."

Many UW players from that era have stated that the 2000 team had the right balance for success. Half the team was Lambright guys with the requisite toughness. Half the team was the Neuheisel fun-and-gun guys with greater athleticism.

That 2000 team went on to win the Rose Bowl and finish the season 11-1 and ranked #3 in the nation. One of the high points of Husky Football history, and something that's been written about extensively by Hardcore Husky.  

But according to Hooks, as more Lambright guys matriculated out of the program and the influx of Neuheisel recruits increased, UW culture changed dramatically. He cites the 2001 game at the Orange Bowl against the eventual national champion Miami Hurricanes.

Miami destroyed Washington 65-7.

"The worst loss I ever went through," Hooks said. "It was all kinds of bad. We were not geared to win that game. We got into town and Neuheisel had us at a resort on the beach. We walk in and there are salsa dancers. When it was time for bed check it was hellacious. I roomed with Reggie, and we opened the window looking out on the beach, and we saw some of our guys out on the beach. I was like man `We are not ready for this game.' Neuheisel should have had us at a Motel 6!"

Miami was hungry for revenge on the Huskies, who had defeated them the year before in Seattle and cost them the national title. Some Hurricane fans threatened UW receiver Todd Elstrom's parents in the restroom. And fans were drinking in the stadium, as evidenced by the Jack Daniels bottle hurtled toward the Husky bench.

"It was a different atmosphere than what we were used to," Hooks said. "At halftime we were down 35-6, and Neuheisel was like `It's okay fellas, we've still got next week.' And Jerramy Stevens stood up and said `F**k that! We've still got this game!'

"It was almost like Neuheisel was saying we're okay and fine, just keep your heads up. And maybe Neuheisel did that because he saw a team that was defeated and down— and we'd heard that the network had turned us off on national TV and switched to a different game.

"I think Neuheisel meant well and was trying to encourage us," Hooks said. "But we were never a team that was supposed to give up and fold, even if we were getting our asses whipped on national television.

"There was doubt there. And maybe he didn't mean for it to leak out, but it did and it showed."

Two years later, Hooks took a seat on the bench in the final moments of his last game as a Husky. Washington had blown a 17-0 lead and was about to lose to Purdue.

"I sat there with Braxton at the Sun Bowl, and we said to each other this program is going to go downhill. It's not the same. We sensed it. It wasn't the same. It wasn't the Husky Way. The foundation that was set for so many years had begun to crumble. It wasn't just one moment, it was a series of moments over many years."

In subsequent years, the Huskies would go through a 1-10 season in 2004 under Keith Gilbertson. It would go 11-37 under Tyrone Willingham from 2005-2008. And through the Sarkisian era, the team improved to mediocre, but blowout losses and the 10-year losing streak to Oregon remained burrs under the saddle.

"All the players there now are used to Sark's pace and how he did things, the fast pace, things are fun," Hooks said. "and there's nothing wrong with it, as each coach has their own way of doing things. Petersen just doesn't do things that way. And this new class that thought they would be with Sark for 4-5 years, will they buy in with how Petersen does things as opposed to how Sark did things? That's the key to whole thing.

"I would prefer Husky Football to be thought of as being hard-hitting and tough like we used to be," Hooks said. "I don't want to see us getting blown out once every three games. That Husky mentality has been lost. It's something you don't see much anymore at Washington.

"The 0-12 season was unacceptable and it's sad to see where it was," he said. "But I think those days are long gone. But is it back to Husky Football and the way we used to do things? No, it's not. It might need somebody who knows what it's about to do that."