College football, it has been said, goes in cycles.
Well, I don’t know whether anybody actually has said that. So allow me to be the first to offer such profound insight.
Every college football program goes through good cycles and bad cycles; it’s just that each school has a different paradigm through which it defines “good” and “bad.” A poor season at Alabama is the same as one that would have them figuring out the parade route at Kentucky.
This much is obvious to anybody who follows the sport. I’m not writing a Master’s thesis here. But what makes it fascinating is when a school manages to change its paradigm.
And who better to ask about that than Don James?
“When I came in, the Southern schools were trying to get rid of Oregon, Oregon State and Washington State because they weren’t competitive,” recalled the 79-year-old Dawgfather, who coached Washington from 1975-92.
Yes, several times during the 1970s and 1980s, there were questions about whether the small-market teams of the Northwest could ever compete on a grand scale. There was talk that the then-Pac-10 would be better off without them.
But, oh, how times have changed. While James was at Washington, Oregon had a streak of bowl-less seasons that eventually reached 25; now the Ducks rule the Pac-12. Oregon State had a stretch of losing seasons that eventually reached 28; now the Beavers are ranked in the Top 10 — in the nation, not the conference.
That is, they were until they ran into Washington on Saturday at CenturyLink Field. The Huskies revived their season and made a statement about the pecking order among the Northwest teams. And they made you ponder how a program goes about shifting its paradigm.
That’s where James comes in, and one of the first things he mentions is the presence of a stable coaching staff, a group that is talented but also consistent.
That is one of the underrated facets of Chip Kelly’s 42-6 record at Oregon. Five of the assistants on Kelly’s staff have been at Oregon for more than 20 years — an average of 25 seasons between them.
Everybody knows the importance of attracting talented recruits — “We wanted to get six kids each freshman class who would eventually be draftable,” James said. And everybody knows the importance of having lavish, shiny facilities to draw those recruits.
All of which is especially pertinent for Washington, which ended a three-game losing streak by beating the Beavers.
“I lost three games in a row at one point in my career, and it was like dying,” James said.
So as the Huskies ponder if their program is progressing — let alone whether it can challenge Oregon in the foreseeable future — a conversation with the Dawgfather reveals a couple truisms.
One is that Washington will not begin to make real progress until several years after the renovation of Husky Stadium is complete. UW waited about a decade too long to begin revamping the dilapidated stadium, and it will take a while for the new Husky Stadium to attract recruits and for those recruits to pay dividends.
But the second and more important lesson is that the world was much different when James was taking Washington to six Rose Bowls in his 18 seasons.
Oregon, Oregon State, and Washington State were non-factors for most of James’ reign in Seattle, leaving him to have his pick of Northwest recruits and then battle the California schools to fill out the roster.
James’ success was built upon the struggles of his rivals as much as it was his own excellence.
With Saturday’s victory and a favorable schedule the rest of the way, this could wind up being a good season for the Huskies. But the definition of that is different than it used to be.