Tradition helps UW thrive in NFL market
Editor's note: This is the third in a weeklong series examining the unique circumstances faced by FBS programs that reside in metropolitan markets alongside an NFL franchise.
SEATTLE -- Everything you thought you knew about urban college football programs in NFL markets does not apply to the Washington Huskies.
When the Seattle Seahawks began playing 35 years ago, they didn't shove the Huskies out of the limelight. In fact, Washington enjoyed its greatest success in the quarter century after the NFL came to the Pacific Northwest.
How the Huskies not only survived but thrived after the arrival of the NFL is a tribute to geography, demographics, tradition and winning. In the past decade, as the winning dried up, Washington has had to tweak its tradition. The athletic department is attempting to modernize its marketing and selling without alienating its old-line fans.
All that is at stake is the future of a program that, with the emotional hold it has on its large fan base, resembles a Big Ten state university more than any of its Pacific-12 Conference brethren.
That is unusual for an FBS school in an NFL market. The majority of them are smaller private institutions. Even among that small cohort of older, public schools that includes a Minnesota or a Georgia Tech, the campus in the Montlake area near downtown Seattle stands apart.
The insular nature of the Pacific Northwest has proved to be one of the Huskies' greatest assets. According to Washington senior associate athletic director O.D. Vincent, nearly 70 percent of the university's 300,000 alumni live within a 100-mile radius of the campus.
"You know what the guy who has my job at Northwestern told me?" asked Vincent, who is in charge of marketing. "I met him at the [Big City Marketing] Summit. He told me of the 12 Big Ten schools, Northwestern has the 10th-largest alumni base in Chicago. In their own town, they are 10th in their conference. That's amazing. It is unique here."
The locals turn inward and have done so even as the world has gotten smaller. Huskies football is handed down from generation to generation.
"The Huskies are the most entrenched sporting thing in Seattle, predating any pro sports, of course," said Bud Withers, an award-winning college columnist for The Seattle Times. He has covered the Pac-12 since the 1970s, when it was the Pac-8. " Washington represents the old money and the deepest roots in town."
That profile differs from that of the Seahawks ticket buyer. The heart and soul of the Seahawks lies among the workers at Boeing and Kenmore, the airplane factories that have kept the Seattle manufacturing economy vibrant.
"There's a saying up here," Vincent said. "People call it 'Northwest-sensible.' We're so isolated geographically from most of the country that you're not going to see a lot of Ferraris. You're not going to see a lot of flash. There's not a lot of valet parking in front. People appreciate nice things, but it also means it makes sense for the region. It's a little bit understated. That's really important for us, to make sure a Husky game feels different than a Seahawk game or a Mariner game or something else you're going to in town."
When the Seahawks arrived in 1976, the Huskies held their ground thanks to a new coach who revitalized the program. Washington actually hired Don James in December 1974. "The Seahawks took about 5,000 fans from us," James said. "My third year , we went to the Rose Bowl and got them back. It's been a wash since then."
James, 78, splits his life between Palm Springs and the Pacific Northwest. In 18 seasons, he led Washington to six Rose Bowls and a share of the 1991 national championship. As important as that season was, it didn't carry the emotional wallop of 1977. James said any pressure he might have felt because of the arrival of the Seahawks didn't measure up to his own powerful incentive to succeed.
"That was my third year, and I was on a four-year contract," James remembered with a laugh. "We lost three of our first four games. We lost by a field goal at Syracuse [22-20] and at Minnesota [19-17]. We went to Oregon and we took the best-prepared team I've ever had in a game."
The Huskies routed the Ducks 54-0. Behind emerging star quarterback Warren Moon, Washington went 6-1 in the last season of the Pac-8 and returned to Pasadena for the first time in 14 years. No. 14 Washington defeated No. 4 Michigan 27-20.
The Mariners came to Seattle that year. Now the marketplace includes the wildly popular Sounders and reigning WNBA champion Storm. Washington doesn't live in the shadow of those pro teams. But the Huskies have to live alongside them, which brings demands all their own.
"You have fans who might go to a Major League Baseball game on a Friday, and then they're in your building for a football game on a Saturday or they're in a NFL stadium on a Sunday," Vincent said. "A lot of college towns, when you don't have that competition so direct, I'm not saying the standards are lower, but we have a pretty high standard. The Mariners do such a nice job. The Seahawks do such a nice job. That's what people expect when they come to Husky Stadium."
Washington's rise to national prominence and the Huskies' perennial dominance of the Pacific Northwest fueled the program's ability to hold its ground in the market. Since James' retirement, Washington has returned to Pasadena only once, in the 2000 season. The downward spiral that followed, bottoming out with the 0-12 record in 2008, would have depleted programs without the deep roots of the Huskies.
"There's always been a fairly large base of support -- nothing like a wholesale abandoning of ship," Withers said. "Check out our most-read stories on any given day, and Washington-related stories [football and basketball] are always on the list -- sometimes two or three stories of the top 10."
Still, the pressure to compete ate away at the Huskies. The rise of the Oregon Ducks galled a fan base unaccustomed to losing to its regional rivals. Add to that the realization that the university had to renovate Husky Stadium, a grande dame whom time had passed by, and the program arrived at a crossroads.
The athletic department has embarked on a $250 million face-lift of the stadium. It will transition from the old way of seating ticket-buyers -- whoever has been there the longest gets the best seats -- to a point system based on longevity and donations to the Tyee Club, the athletic fundraiser.
Washington also has modernized the way it solicits sponsors. For decades, the athletic department merely responded to need; i.e., make a deal with car dealers and get cars for the coaches. Vincent said the university has adopted the pro model of determining what the value of its "multimedia rights" is and going after it. That is, with one important exception. The value won't be realized at the expense of tradition.
As an example, Washington recognizes a "Husky Legend" on the field between the third and fourth quarter of home football games. "That's time we could sell to a sponsor," Vincent said, "and it's pretty valuable time on the field. But we said there's no way. We're always going to protect that Husky Legend as something that all the Husky fans are so used to seeing."
Head coach Steve Sarkisian, who took over that 0-12 team, improved Washington to 7-6 in 2010, his second season. He is rebuilding, modernizing the Huskies to compete in a changing marketplace while calling on the tradition that has made Washington football an anchor of the Pac-12.
As the building cranes that tower over Husky Stadium illustrate, there's a lot of that going on in Montlake.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.
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