Answering the question from a well-meaning person regarding your experience with the holidays is often a fraught experience. Do you tell the truth and say they were brutal encounters with renegade consumerism and dyspeptic relatives? Or do you avert your eyes, clear your throat and say they were great, suspecting the well-meaner has tagged you as a fraud?
These responses likely were not the choice of Seattle sports followers this year, particularly those who wear purple. On Christmas Day, I joined some of the purples at the national premiere of Boys In the Boat, director George Clooney’s long-awaited interpretation of Daniel James Brown’s best-selling book about the University of Washington crew’s triumph over Hitler’s team at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. On New Year’s Day, I joined 22 million TV viewers to watch the UW’s boys on the field, the football team. In a howler, the Huskies defeated Texas 37-31 at the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, advancing to the College Football Playoffs championship game Monday in Houston against Michigan’s equally undefeated Wolverines.
So I had two highly entertaining holidays, thanks for asking.
Not to be overlooked in Seattle Monday was the coolness of the National Hockey League’s annual outdoor match, the Winter Classic, staged splendidly at a sold-out T-ball Park. Not only was it a celebration of the game’s roots from its days on Canada’s frozen ponds from Moose Jaw to Salmon Arm, the Kraken beat defending Stanley Cup champion Las Vegas 3-0, and undoubtedly paid a hefty rental fee for the ballpark to the Mariners, the sick man of Seattle sports. Perhaps it will be enough to cover the utility bills so the 54 percenters can keep the lights on through April. Everybody wins.
Back to UW sports. The 88-year gap between feats suggests too much time has passed to connect beyond geography. But there was a style about the episodes that sent a thread through the Lake Washington fog to Berlin and New Orleans.
The crew was composed of underdogs up against established powers, and they won gold by a margin so narrow the outcome was decided by photographic evidence. The footballers also were underdogs to the Longhorns, the program with the largest athletics budget in the NCAA, and won by harrowing circumstance — set up by the adding back of a lone second to the game clock after a failed pass attempt on third down — of a final throw batted away in the end zone after the Superdome clock read 00:00. Hairs have never been split so finely.
Unlike the crew, the football team is still a win away from a gold medal. But given how the team rolls under coach Kalen DeBoer — 21 wins in a row and 25-2 in his two-year tenure, plus winning the past 10 in a row by 10 points or less, an NCAA record — the expectation is that the Huskies late Monday will be trailing by two points with one second left. Then the NCAA penalizes Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh for being an all-around scoundrel. The five-yard advance allows kicker Grady Gross to attempt a 60-yard field goal that bounces once, then again, on the crossbar before falling past the uprights for the win.
Tell me I’m wrong. I dare you.
Prior to that scenario, the heavy lift again will have been done by quarterback Michael Penix Jr., who used the national platform in New Orleans to disabuse any remaining dimwits of the notion that he isn’t the college nation’s best player. You may have read that Penix completed 29 of 38 passes for 430 yards against a Texas defense rated among the nation’s finest. Further, the national leader in passing yardage was 16 for 17 for 305 yards to his three premier receivers, Rome Odunze, Jalen McMillan and Ja’Lynn Polk, a preposterous football weapon.
More subtle but just as impressive were two other feats: 31 yards on three designed rushes, and no sacks. Not only was the yardage valuable, it established the asset against Texas — as well as for Michigan — because the pro and college scouting reports say that Penix is run-shy due to leg and shoulder injuries that cut short his first four seasons at Indiana. The avoidance of sacks and hits was not only because of his fearlessness and lateral nimbleness, but a team effort led by an O-line that won the annual national award for best unit in the nation.
Among the Longhorns, there was nothing but admiration.
“He had a good day,” said UT cornerback Jahdae Barron. “When our D-line got him out of the box, he even ran a little bit. That was a plus for him . . . hats off to Penix.”
Plotting against Penix Monday is Harbaugh. Longtime Seattle sports fans could not pick a better cartoon villain if they spent all day at the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame.
After serving two suspensions of three games each at the beginning and end of Michigan’s regular season for NCAA infractions, including sending an assistant to spy on future opponents, Harbaugh has supplanted Alabama’s coach, Nick Saban, as the national boogeyman. Given the crowded field of contenders, the achievement is even more impressive than beating Saban’s Crimson Tide 27-20 in overtime in the other semifinal game, played earlier Monday at the Rose Bowl.
Harbaugh’s history against Seattle’s teams doesn’t go back to 1936. But it could be argued that no figure over the past 40 years has had a more enduring argument with Seattle sports.
In 1984 he played quarterback for the third-ranked Wolverines team that lost — in front of 103,000 fans in Ann Arbor — 20-11 to a Huskies squad led by coach Don James, QB Hugh Millen and RB Jacque Robinson. Harbaugh completed 17 of 37 passes for 183 yards and was intercepted three times. UW finished the season 11-1, including a win at the Orange Bowl over Oklahoma, but was voted second nationally in the final AP poll of sportswriters to undefeated BYU and its soft schedule. The aggravation lives on to this day among the purples who now are gray.
In his 14-year playing career in the NFL with the Bears (seven seasons), Colts (four), Ravens (one) and Chargers (two), Harbaugh encountered the Seahawks four times, losing three. When he turned to college coaching, his tenure from 2007-10 at Stanford produced a 3-1 record over Washington. The period also began his acid rivalry with Pete Carroll, then the coach at USC. After a 55-21 blowout over the Trojans in 2009, when the Wolverines ran up the score (55 was the most points scored against USC in its history), Carroll confronted Harbaugh on the field post-game. He shouted, “What’s your deal?!” Ironically, it is the same question being asked these days by the NCAA of Harbaugh, who remains under investigation.
When both moved on to the NFL, the Seahawks had a 5-4 record against the San Francisco 49ers under Harbaugh from 2011-14. That included the NFC championship game in Seattle after the 2013 season. Harbaugh was the first coach in NFL history to reach a conference championship game in each of his first three seasons. But in what may have been the most intense, game-long sports tension I’ve experienced in person, spiced by the contempt between the coaches, the Seahawks prevailed 23-17 and went on to win the Super Bowl. It was Harbaugh’s final NFL game before moving on to Michigan, where he is 143-52 in nine seasons, including a 3-7 bowl record after beating Alabama.
None of this history matters to today’s coaches and players. But for longtime Seattle fans, there’s really no more amusing character to see on the opposing sidelines under pressure than the khaki-clad Harbaugh, whose square jaw, in almost perpetual clench, can crack diamonds.
And since Harbaugh is only 60 and could be run out of college ball this season, speculation is heavy that he will return to the NFL. From a Seattle perspective, additional sweetness would attend a Huskies victory in the national championship: The Dawgs would be the last foe to kick Harbaugh out of college ball, in a fashion similar to what the Seahawks did to him in the pros.
Let the sporting gods supply a Harbaugh-impaled serendipity to complete a rare Seattle sports holiday season. And then draw the Seahawks in the season opener at his new job.