Boys in the Field: UW Football and a Historic Season


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.

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


  1. In my opinion, Nick Saban is the most disagreeable person in NCAA coaching…. Until i saw Jim Harbaugh. For the first time in my life, I rooted for Bama, and I graduated from Auburn. Damn!
    I look forward to the Huskies tearing up to Wolverines.

    • In the category of sports cartoon villainy, Saban had a long lead, but it is impressive to see this late burst by Harbaugh. Can’t wait for the NCAA sanctions to put him ahead.

  2. Art,

    Thanks for your view on this – indeed it was the most memorable sports weekend that a boomer like myself can ever remember. And comparing underdog nature of UW football team and ’36 crew team is spot on. As a Dubster I’m obviously biased, but (to me) the ’36 crew victory and the ’80 hockey team are the greatest moments in US Olympic history. Obviously Jesse Owens and (then) Bruce Jenner’s incredible performances were more prominent on the world stage, but nothing is more inspirational than a bunch of underdawgs and unknowns winning against great odds (sidenote: UW crew probably would have won comfortable had they been given the best lane they earned by virtue of their performance in the prelims).

    On the topic of Harbaugh – never really understood the obvious hatred. I understand the COVID recruiting and sign stealing allegations, but pretty sure their are more egregious violations in the CFB. But given they’ve been routinely emasculated in the court system (player pay, NIL etc.) I wonder if they’re simply targeting Harbaugh to exercise what little remaining control they have over the intercollegiate landscape. Comes across as petty and vindictive. The world is changing and soon they will come irrelevant….

    • Harbaugh reminds me a lot of Reggie from the “Archie” comics: Annoying when he wins, annoying when he loses. He seems to have this smugness that makes it impossible to be neutral about him, even among Wolverines fans, who are like your mother-in-law (never happy unless they’re unhappy).

      • Hilarious comparison. Archie was clueless, but I get the sense that Harbaugh KNOWS he’s annoying (and who is annoyed the most) and continues his quirky behaviour/weird comments just to ensure ensure their perpetual “annoyance”. In that sense he’ll always have the upper hand.

        • You’re right. Harbaugh knows he’s annoying, but his arrogance is even greater, blinding him to the limits of his reach, and dooming him in the college world.

      • Good point. Nearly anyone who has had substantial meaningful contact with Harbaugh finds him somewhere between insufferable and weird. Which makes him a columnist’s dream, even if he did hang up on a group phone interview thanks to someone’s impertinent question.

    • The problem in the comparisons is that nearly every coach is virtually obligated to cheat. The slow-witted NCAA catches only a few, and most of them were done in by their own carelessness (and snitches by rivals).

  3. I went to grade school in small-town Michigan, and we kids worshiped Wolverine football (that 1978 Rose Bowl was devastating for us). I even kept my Michigan allegiances when our family moved to Seattle.

    However, the horrific abuse scandals at Penn State, Baylor, Ohio State and even Michigan just turned me off of BCS college football. The NCAA’s recent missteps regarding amateurism, megaconferences and the like sealed my estrangement from the sport. I simply stopped following college football, even when UM was in title contention, and the only live college football above the FBS division is when a game’s on at a restaurant I happen to be eating at. I just follow the Wolverines’ ice and field hockey teams, baseball, soccer, etc.

    (That said, it’s a great change of pace that the champion will not be an SEC school, Ohio State or Clemson.)

    • The closer you study big-time college football, the more distasteful it gets. At least the players are finally getting compensated for their exploitation.

  4. The zenith of college football is clearly behind us. Texas A & M and Nebraska left the Big 12 they couldn’t stand Texas. Neither program has come even close to being relevant since then. The Big 10 adds Rutgers and Maryland because of their media markets. Texas and Oklahoma leave the Big 12 for a larger share of the ginourmous SEC pie, thus emasculating the Big 12 (prediction: they will both get bludgeoned into obscurity on the field). Chris Peterson laments that night games are ruining the college football experience on the west coast. The always sanctimonious Kirk Herbstreit from ESPN effectively tells him to stfu “Washington should be GRATEFUL” we’re showing their games. USC and UCLA leave for the Big10 for the bigger payout, the PAC12 commissioner and school presidents diddle around, forcing UDub and Oregon to join Big10 as well (at a reduced rate). Soon both schools will slowly slide into the lower echelon of the BIG10 and travel almost 2500 miles for the privilege of getting manhandled by Michigan and Ohio State. Stanford and Cal will now travel cross country each week to play football in the ACC – might just as well travel to the moon.

    ESPN and Fox control college football. Their carnival barkers think this all great!. Meanwhile, disillusioned alumni and students will lose interest. It would be poetic justice if my alma mater beats Michigan for the national championship as a final, defiant act before the PAC-12 vanished into the wind forever. My interest in CFB ends late Monday evening. I would take a great satisfaction if ESPN and Fox collapse financially when people like myself break the habit of CFB – given their systematic destruction the sport we all used to love. Remember what they say about karma….

    • Try watching some BCS/Divison I-A ball; the Big Sky (Eastern WA, Idaho, the Montanas), Patriot League, etc. It’s good football that produces a number of pro players (Jerry Rice, Carson Wentz), and they have loyal followings and student sections, but it’s not carried to ridiculous extents by them or the media. That way, it’s a purer form of the sport. Plus, they’ve had a “real” playoff system long before the D-I playoffs. The only problem is that the championship game tends to be North Dakota St. beating James Madison, and that gets old after a while.

  5. All true. Except the resentment you express is in the minority. Younger generations principally seek gambling thrills among big-brand schools that are now embraced by college programs as a side-door income stream for the commish . . . er, networks that own the sport. I hate to say it, but college football will bid you a dry-eyed farewell.

    • Yes it will.

      I was plowing through my laundry the other day and found an old PAC-12 I purchased a few years back at the PAC-12 women’s BB tournament Had the thought “this REALLY was a conference that had their priorities straight”. The PAC12 commish and school presidents have been blamed for PAC12’s collapse – as they clearly didn’t understand the media market, but in reality the conference was doomed to fail when the Supremes (many years back) ruled against the NCAA policy of controlling TV rights and sharing all television revenue equally. And then the networks took over. Given the PAC12 was never really were a national brand like the Big 10 and SEC their fate was sealed. Hard to compete when in the Southeast football is a religion, in the Midwest it is an obsession, and on the left coast it is simply another entertainment option. I suppose nostalgia can be a dangerous thing – dwelling on the past means nothing in present will never be satisfying.

      Regarding gambling – I was totally out of touch on this. I was watching an ESPN channel the other day and they had some guy talking about this and that for player and team A and B. First thought he was just another fantasy football nerd bucket. Then I saw that this was for ESPNBet. Never even knew they existed. Wise business decision – the margins must be GREAT – unlike college football games, no massive infrastructure needed to cover the actual game itself. Can bet the over/under on everything from total score to # of toilets flushed at the stadium. And targeting to and preying on college students – those with little life experience, understanding of consequences, too much time on their hands, and no appreciation for how lives can be ruined so quickly is diabolical/genius. In 10 years we’ll have created will the gambling equivalent of the opioid crisis. But don’t worry – I’m sure ESPN has the requisite disclaimer/warning regarding gambling addiction posted prominently – because they care so much.

  6. Some have mentioned Harbaugh coaching the Seahawks. Seahawk fans did not love Pete Carroll until he began his coaching career with the team, but loving Harbaugh, who would be hired under similar circumstances, would be a stretch, perhaps like stretching dry concrete.


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