Mike Gastineau’s latest book is Fear No Man, which tells the story of the 1991 national championship football team at the University of Washington and the man who led that team to success, Don James. The 2021 UW team suffered through a disappointing 4–8 season that led to a coaching change. Here, Gastineau details five interesting stories involving new Husky coaches.
At any social gathering this winter attended by UW fans, the future of new Husky football coach Kalen DeBoer will be discussed. Some will predict wild success for the new boss, others will caution patience given the state of the program, and still others will offer grave predictions of doom. No matter how loud or confident anyone seems about their prediction, it’s good to remember that no one knows what’s going to happen.
Every story about the hiring of a new coach creates speculation among fans and contains at least a little drama. Some new coaches look good, and things go badly. Some look meh and subsequently become great. Some become exactly what many thought they would become. Here are five interesting stories about men hired to coach at UW.
Rick Neuheisel, 1999
This hire still generates a lot of conversation and speculation as to how things might have gone if UW had stayed within the Don James coaching family.
After the 1998 season, Athletic Director Barbara Hedges decided to dismiss Jim Lambright, who had replaced James after he abruptly resigned in 1993, upset with what he perceived as a lack of support from UW president William Gerberding during an investigation by the then PAC-10 into the program.
Former James assistants Gary Pinkel and Chris Tormey were thought to be the front-runners for the job. Both men had been part of UW’s run of success in the ’80s and early ’90s. Both were now successful head coaches, Pinkel at Toledo, and Tormey at Idaho. They interviewed with Hedges, and fans waited to see which one would get the job.
Desirous of a break from the past, Hedges shocked the college football world by grabbing Rick Neuheisel away from Colorado, making him the second highest-paid college coach in America in the process. Most fans were excited by the move, and Neuheisel’s charming personality won over many of the skeptics.
He had success early on at UW, including a Rose Bowl and near national championship team in 2000, but his stay in Seattle ended like a case of beer bottles being hurled down a stairwell. Caught in lies about his pursuit of the San Francisco 49ers job and his participation in a gambling pool, he was fired in 2003.
A messy lawsuit (eventually settled by a $4.5 million payout to Neuheisel) followed, and many Husky fans believe the fallout from the mess led to the program’s downturn over the next several seasons.
Tormey went on to a successful run at Nevada, while Pinkel built Missouri into a national powerhouse. “What if?” Husky fans wondered for years. “What if?”
Tyrone Willingham, 2005
On paper, this hire looked good. Tyrone Willingham had enjoyed modest success at both Stanford and Notre Dame. The UW program was still reeling from Neuheisel’s departure and the subsequent lawsuit (which played out over two years) and craved the stability Willingham appeared to offer.
On the field, the hire fizzled like a wet sparkler. Willingham lost seven of his first eight games and ultimately presided over the worst four-year stretch in Husky football history. His tenure engendered so much anger that security was necessary at his radio show during his final season due to threats from fans.
Chris Petersen, 2014
Here’s an example of a hire that looked good on paper and was great on the field. Chris Petersen came to Seattle after a successful run as head coach at Boise State. His UW teams posted six consecutive winning seasons, made the College Football Playoffs in 2016, and played in the 2019 Rose Bowl. Petersen surprised everyone in college football with his sudden retirement announcement after the 2019 season.
Petersen was popular among fans and boosters. At the age of fifty-five, he appeared to have several seasons left to captain the Husky ship. But he cited an inability to balance his life with the demands the job placed on him before stepping down. His fifty-five wins left him sixth all-time on the list of winningest UW coaches, and had he not left he would likely be third by now.
It was at the end of his run that he made the single second-guessable decision of his UW career when he proclaimed Jimmy Lake as being ready to step into the job as head coach. Maybe Lake would have enjoyed more success and a longer run at UW if his first season (2020) hadn’t been derailed by the COVID pandemic. But it was, and after just thirteen games he was dismissed and replaced by Kalen DeBoer.
Gil Dobie, 1908
The general feeling of fans toward this hire is not known, but it’s easy to speculate how some would have reacted if Ye Olde Sportstalk Radio had been invented.
“Here’s Clarence, in a horse and buggy on the waterfront.”
“Thanks for taking my call. I don’t mean to be taken as scurrilous, but we need an Ivy League man. THAT’S where football was invented. What does a chap from North Dakota know about the game?”
Gil Dobie came to UW after two years at North Dakota Agricultural College in Fargo. He wasn’t a Seattle guy, and he didn’t have a fancy educational background. What he did have was an ability to coach football. In eight seasons at UW, he never lost a game. His teams were 58–0–3 and the Huskies became the biggest powerhouse on the West Coast.
After the 1916 season Dobie had a falling out with UW president Henry Suzzallo and was dismissed. He went on to great success at Navy, Cornell, and Boston College, and his .781 winning percentage is among the best in college football history.
Don James, 1975
The best example ever of a hire that didn’t move the excitement needle at all but ended up being a perfect fit. Don James wasn’t the school’s first choice to replace Jim Owens. That was Dan Devine, who turned down UW when the Notre Dame job suddenly opened.
The second choice thus became the new coach, and the Ohio native was so unknown in Seattle that one of the first things he remembered seeing upon his arrival was a giant sign outside Husky Stadium welcoming new head football coach “Don Jones.”
Fans almost didn’t have to learn his actual name. His first two teams went 6–5 and 5–6, and his third team started the season 1–3, leading to calls for a change. But that 1977 team rebounded to go 7–1 down the stretch, including a Rose Bowl win over Michigan.
Kalen DeBoer is the thirtieth football coach in UW history, and speculation on how he’ll do is well underway. His first game is Labor Day weekend against Kent State, coincidentally where James worked before coming to UW. James’s career began with his name being misspelled and ended with a statue built to recognize his achievements.
You never know.