With two Pac-12 titles in three years, Washington is reestablished as a West Coast power
SANTA CLARA, California — JoJo McIntosh and Levi Onwuzurike broke into a dance routine on the Levi's Stadium turf following Washington's 10-3, Pac-12 Championship Game defeat of Utah. Myles Gaskin carried a rose between his teeth. A long road not without trials culminated in celebration almost two decades in the making for the Huskies.
Happy days are here again for Washington football. And the program has the infrastructure in place to keep the good times rolling.
A Rose Bowl appearance is not a berth in the College Football Playoff, which Washington earned following its last win at Levi's Stadium in 2016. But because the debate inherent with one of those final four spots begets some politicking, the absence of playoff implications on Friday seemed to make for a more relaxed postgame atmosphere.
"Life isn't easy," said Washington head coach Chris Petersen. "A Pac-12 championship is not going to be easy.
"If it happens [without struggle]," he added, "Go buy lottery tickets, because ... that's just luck."
One couldn't deem Washington's run to the Roses lucky by any stretch. Although a near-unanimous choice to win the Pac-12 in the preseason media poll, and an en vogue choice to make the playoff, misfortune befell the Huskies before ever kicking off.
Tight end Hunter Bryant sustained a knee injury in the summer and missed the first two months of the season. Since returning, he's been one of quarterback Jake Browning's favorite big-play targets. Preseason All-American left tackle Trey Adams (back) was sidelined just days prior to a high-profile showdown with Auburn — the first of three games Washington lost by a grand total of 10 points.
One could obsess on the what-ifs of a 2018 ushered in with only the highest of outside expectations.
With its Pac-12 title win this season, the 105th Rose Bowl marks the first for Washington in 18 years. Those who followed the sport in the 1980s and '90s know Washington as a perennial power. The late Don James coached the Huskies to six Rose Bowl Games from 1977-92, a space of just 15 years.
Longtime college football followers may know Washington as a regular contender for the Granddady of 'Em All; for a younger generation, the Huskies earning their first trip there since the 2000 season and second Pac-12 Conference title in three years leaves a fresh, and new, impression.
Consider that the 18-year-old signees in the recruiting class of 2019 were born in 2000 and '01 — the same time Washington last played in the Rose Bowl Game — and the significance of the program's recent successes under Petersen add some significance.
Petersen began laying the groundwork for restoring Washington as a perennial fixture on the Western landscape from the outset, his initial signing classes leading the way. Friday's win was the last in Pac-12 competition for a group of seniors who rewrote Huskies record books.
Browning and Gaskin will leave the program its all-time leaders in both passing and rushing yards, as well as passing and rushing touchdowns. Linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven led the nation in tackles through this regular season, and looks like a shoo-in to be a consensus All-American. Cornerback Jordan Miller intercepted a pass near the goal line in the Pac-12 Championship Game. Tevis Bartlett made 1.5 tackles for a loss in the title tilt.
"It's kind of hard to take four years and put it into one sentence on what this program is now," Browning said. "But I think there is definitely more of an expectation to win. ... People have come to work every day, trying to get better for four years, and we're reaping the benefits of it now."
The Granddaddy of 'Em All ranks among the bigger benefits, and comes at a fascinating point in the timeline. Washington's first Rose Bowl bid in almost two decades comes five years from the hiring of Petersen — which was five years removed from the program's lowest point.
In 2008, the one-time standard bearer for the Pac completed a winless campaign in a loss to Washington State. The 10-year anniversary of the Rotten Apple Cup could not have been any more different, determining the Pac-12 North championship.
Washington's slide from Pac-10 champion in 2000 to winless in '08 marked the bottoming-out on a steady decline. Rick Neuheisel was forced out under rumors of an NCAA-mandated show-cause penalty, which ultimately resulted in the coach winning a $4.5 million lawsuit against both Washington and the NCAA.
The last of Neuheisel's teams in 2002 competed in the Huskies' final bowl game until the '10 season. Over that eight-season stretch, Washington finished .500 just once — 2003 — and never above that mark. A smattering of scandals precipitated Washington's decline from national powerhouse to Pac also-ran.
In the same manner it took years for the program to descend, the reemergence came gradually. Steve Sarkisian came in before the 2009 season, reached a bowl game in his second year, and began scoring major victories on the recruiting trail.
An embarrassment in the 2011 Alamo Bowl begat the hiring of coordinator Justin Wilcox, a defensive dynamo now seeing success as head coach of Washington's North-division counterpart, Cal. Wilcox began making hay with an NFL-talent defense, just as USC came calling for Sarkisian and his staff.
Enter Chris Petersen.
The longtime Boise State coach, who made his name first as offensive coordinator under Dan Hawkins and then with a spotlight-stealing debut season at the helm, was introduced at Washington in December 2013, widely considered the best hire of the coaching carousel.
His first season at Boise State, Petersen went 13-0 with a Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma that holds a special place in college football lore. Attaining similar success at Washington was a longer process.
Results out in the forefront were two seasons with six losses each, and a 15-12 overall record. Behind the scenes, however, Petersen and his staff shaped what then-Washington and current Green Bay Packers cornerback Kevin King called "the system of excellence."
"You could definitely see that divide: Sark guys vs. Petersen guys," King said in 2016, ahead of the Huskies' breakout, conference championship season. "We're the last Sark class, but at the same time, we've all bought into coach Pete's message. We know that Pete knows what it takes to win."
That process relied heavily on implementing expectations away from the field. King detailed a plan called "Commitment Time," in which players failing to live up to off-field obligations have to meet at Husky Stadium on weekend nights for 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. study sessions.
For the groups who came into Washington after Petersen's arrival, such has been the standard from Day 1. The success of the 2015 signing class — which arrived ranked just sixth among all Pac-12 classes that year, but was key in winning two conference championships — represents the end result of the system Washington now has in place.
"It seems like it was yesterday when they came in," Petersen said of the 2015 group. "We knew they were good players and we felt the type of people they were, but you don't know until they go through all these hard things.
"Couple them with these other guys that are difference-makers," Petersen continued, "And we've just been able to do that."
Those difference-makers are the Huskies who will be back after the Rose Bowl to ensure the standard reestablished in Petersen's tenure continue. One is cornerback Byron Murphy, the Most Valuable Player of the Pac-12 Championship Game and a star of Washington's conference-leading defense.
Murphy scored the title game's only touchdown on an interception return that took a wild bounce. He grabbed another interception to thwart a Utah drive in the fourth quarter.
The emergence of a playmakers like Murphy — or running back Sean McGrew, who showed flashes of brilliance in 2018; or the tight end Bryant, with his game-changing, pass-catching ability — have Washington poised to compete for more conference titles in the years to come.
In the meantime, reaching the Rose Bowl this season is a chance for those instrumental in bringing the resurgence of Washington football to celebrate.
"It's a special feeling. I don't think it's totally set in yet," Browning said, a rose laid out on the table before him. "I grew up in California, and watched a lot of Rose Bowls and to be able to play in one now, it's a special game, and this is a special team."