Above the Fray: Huskies Inspire in a College Landscape in Turmoil


In a college football year when the three most talked-about figures were a flop (Colorado coach Deion Sanders), a cheat (Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh) and an aggravation (Jimbo Fisher getting $76 million to not coach Texas A&M), and the largest business story was the unanticipated financial collapse of a 108-year-old conference in a lucrative industry, it is left to the Washington Huskies to step through the sludge and win a national football championship that would qualify near and far as good news.

They will be seen as the rose atop the slag heap. Dorothy prevailing over the Wicked Witch. Ferris Bueller prevailing over his day off.

Lately scandal-free and led by a self-effacing head coach and a quarterback whose bespoke purple jacket liner for the Heisman Trophy Award ceremony in Manhattan Saturday had inscribed the names of all his teammates and coaches, the Huskies can offer gallantry over the unsavory.

True, there’s plenty of time from now until the Jan. 1 College Football Playoffs semifinal game in the New Orleans Sugar Bowl against Texas for UW to fall through an open manhole or be discovered on Hunter Biden’s laptop. Barring such calamity, Washington has merely to beat the Longhorns, then on Jan. 8 in Houston beat the winner of the Michigan-Alabama semifinal to claim the school’s first undisputed national championship as well as the Pac-12 Conference’s last one.

After surviving five close calls against lesser foes, yet twice beating the neighborhood bully Oregon Ducks, the Huskies’ narrative is rich with paradox as well as irony. The last time Washington was this good, in 1991, it produced a divided national title, back in the day when opinions of sportswriters and coaches, not a game result, determined the champion. When the Associated Press poll of scribes chose Miami, and the coaches’ poll by United Press International chose Washington, the argle bargle generated almost as much heat as what is underway these days over the exclusion of Florida State from the CFP field.

An undefeated conference champion, as were the Huskies, the 13-0 Seminoles were the fifth really good team in a tournament with only four berths. Although this time around the dispute wasn’t over a title, merely the chance to play for one. The timing was also unfortunate, occurring in a presidential campaign, making it a target for political theater.

One candidate, the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, took up the outrage of his constituents by threatening to sue the NCAA. He said he intends to ask the state legislature to set aside $1 million for legal fees. While suing the NCAA is a popular activity (I mean, who hasn’t?), it is hard to discern whether litigation is a better option than sending nasty letters (remember letters?) to sportswriters and coaches who voted the wrong way. But since DeSantis already has convinced state legislators to pass “don’t say gay” laws, it shouldn’t be hard to persuade the same group to adopt “don’t say Saban” laws regarding the hated coach of 12-1 Alabama, which received the bid FSU believed it deserved. Good luck with that nincompoopery.

Washington’s return to the sport’s championship threshold, only to witness almost identical beauty-contest bickering and remonstration, is a splendid example of the NCAA’s turtle-like response to the need for reform. The breathtaking absence of business foresight has led big-time college sports to dither until everything everywhere fell apart at once.

Yet . . . just when it seemed that futility was baked in, the industry’s governing foofs must be given a bit of credit: Next season, the CFP will expand from four teams to 12, finally rendering moot future grievances similar to those held by Washington (historic) and Florida State (current).

Another recent teensy sign of progress was the news that rookie NCAA president Charlie Baker, the former governor of Massachusetts who succeeded the dubious tenure of former UW president Mark Emmert, put forth a proposal that seems to begin the complete professionalization of these activities. It calls for a sub-division in Division I of all the big-budget schools and features a commitment to pay many athletes in all sports a $30,000 minimum per year. The purpose is to try to regain some control of the private NIL money that now goes invisibly to mostly football and men’s basketball players, some of whom have raked in more than $1 million in a single year, and has become, de facto, the No. 1 recruiting tool.

Baker’s plan was announced without consulting conference commissioners or athletics directors, which was smart because they would have harrumphed it out of play. The plan is the initial payment idea to come from within the NCAA, instead of from outside forces like boosters, TV networks and courts. Much remains to be explained, although it is plain that the immediate objectives are to diminish the renegade aspects of the NIL collectives, avoid losing antitrust lawsuits, and offer compliance with federal Title IX laws that mandate equality for female athletics.

“This is a conversation we need to have. It’s a conversation the folks in Division I and the NCAA want to have,” Baker told reporters last week. “Now we need to actually have it and get somewhere with it.”

The likelihood is that the proposal is too little and too late to avoid being steamrollered by events. But something had to be done to demonstrate to Congress and the sports world that the NCAA finally desires to end its spine-cracking embrace of inertia.

As the business saga plays out nationally, the major local outpost for the NCAA industrial complex seems to be gliding to the forefront athletically. As Huskies teams leave the Pac-12 carcass to play next fall in the Big 10 Conference, their $30 million share in annual TV revenues will be a bump up (though only half of what incumbent schools will receive). The football team has reached the final four with a shot to win it all. The women’s basketball team is 10-0, its fastest start in 25 years, and Saturday the men’s hoops outfit (6-3) finally beat national power Gonzaga for what seems like the first time since Lewis and Clark began their dribble drive across the continent.

All of this is happening under the supervision of a new, business-savvy athletics director, Troy Dannen, succeeding Jen Cohen, whose new job as USC’s AD is going less well (looking at you, football coach Lincoln Riley). The sports serendipity even continues off-campus. The much-anticipated Christmas debut of George Clooney’s feature film, Boys in the Boat, based on Redmond author Dan Brown’s best-selling book about the triumph of the UW men’s crew at the 1936 Berlin Olympics under the nose of Adolph Hitler, figures to bring national attention. The original crew house still survives on a corner of the Lake Washington campus. Some pop culture mavens suggest the film could generate a national social bounce similar to the one that came with Sleepless in Seattle and its famed Lake Union houseboat.

UW president Ana Mari Cauce, who has seen the film, holds to the notion that it can help improve the battered image of a college degree.

“I do think it’ll be a good movie for all of us,” Cauce told the Seattle Times. “And I do hope that it really does make people think about where a college education can take you.”
There’s no getting around the negative consequences emanating from the warped priorities of the business of big-time college sports. But once in a while, a moment comes along when inspiration transcends overall. Happened in 1936. Might happen in the first week of 2024.

Art Thiel
Art Thiel
Art Thiel is a longtime sports columnist in Seattle, for many years at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and now as founding editor at SportsPressNW.com.


  1. Mr. Art:

    My new most favorite word in any language: “nincompoopery.”

    Many thanks, kind sir.

    Archangelo Spumoni, aka Jim

  2. Some fans forget that the Huskies beat Texas in the Alamo Bowl last year. Maybe that’s why oddsmakers are predicting the Longhorns by four. That makes Texas the new Oregon Ducks. The Huskies don’t l8ke being the underdawg.

    • Recently I had to get some new tires. I was wearing a Huskies sweatshirt and my 2016 CFP cap with the UW logo on it. I figured I get to get some mileage out of it again. The technician helping me commented that I must be reliving the Huskies victory over UO and I said “You betcha.” He replied that he went to Oregon and I said I was sorry for him and would say a prayer for him. We had a good laugh! But we also both lamented that this is the end of the PAC-12 ( but want the PAC-12 to win it all.) and because of its demise, the NIL era and the transfer portal college sports just isn’t as fun anymore.

  3. Mr. Thiel, one shouldn’t forget the ‘transfer portal’ includes the head coach. I suspect Mr. DeBoer’s popularity has recently increased. Rather stunningly.

    • His pay will increase too. UW is working on a contract extension that it hopes will keep the poachers at bay. Regarding the transfer portal, it’s always been open to coaches. But players seeking transfers typically were denied or discouraged, and at minimum had to sit out a year. A few years ago, the rules were belatedly changed.

      • His pay will increase too, but in all likelihood at another entity. My faith or belief that the UW has the competitive juice’s and financial resources to keep Mr. DeBoer at the UW are slim to none. Once he is gone, I expect the Husky football program will promptly return to national, middle-of-the-road mediocrity as an underpaid member of the Big 10.

  4. Another great article, and I got the movie reference. But if possible, could you explain about the Bagel Universe ? And how it might relate to the chaos in collegiate sports?

  5. Yeah, what about all those athletes, not only in football and basketball, not recruited with the assistance of NIL bucks? There are likely to be plenty of uncompensated offensive linemen thinking twice about taking one for the team when the quarterback is raking in six figures. As Joe Hill’s last words resonate, “Don’t mourn. Organize.” And hey, they have plenty of leverage. One missed block, “Sorry, man!”.
    Talk about a game-changer. Of course, no teammate would ever think of such a thing.
    Would he?


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