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Thursday, August 31, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Huskies looking for show of success

Seattle Times staff reporter

Since that season, when the conference expanded to 10 teams, the Huskies have averaged 66,620 fans per home game, better even than USC (64,862), Arizona State (60,699) and UCLA (59,224), all of which play in larger markets and bigger stadiums.

Suddenly, however, even that measure of unsurpassed devotion and support is being threatened as Huskies fans — as they have almost never been before — are in true "show me" mode.

With just less than two weeks to go until the home opener against San Jose State, the Huskies had sold roughly 42,000 season tickets to the general public (another 7,500 are reserved for students).

That means the Huskies could have fewer than 50,000 for a home game since Pacific came to town to open the 1981 season and 45,134 showed up.

This year's season attendance could be the lowest since Husky Stadium was expanded in 1987 and continues a steep drop that began in 2004.

That year, Washington averaged just 64,737 fans — a decline of roughly 7,000 from the year before. Last season, the Huskies had about an 8-9 percent dip in season-ticket sales, though the average attendance was steady at 64,326 due largely to a spike for home games against Notre Dame and Washington State.

Washington athletic director Todd Turner said the school anticipated ticket sales would be sluggish this year and set the budget accordingly.

"We are about where we thought we would be," he said. "Maybe even a little better."

Some fans cite a steep hike in ticket prices and mandatory gifts since Turner arrived in 2004 — which Turner says is an effort to raise money for some sorely needed improvements in the program — as a reason for staying away. Prices were raised an average of 31 percent in 2005, though there was no increase this season.

This year's home schedule — which includes no marquee out-of-conference foes and none of UW's traditional conference rivals — also is a detriment.

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Coach Tyrone Willingham, though, says "it all comes down to the same old thing — winning."

Win, and Turner, for one, is optimistic that the fans will come rushing back.

"I'm hopeful they will," he said. "From what I hear, Husky loyalty is unmatched. We're not taking that for granted. But we do think if we give them something, they will come back."

They'd better, for the sake of everyone on Montlake, as football remains the sparkplug of UW's athletic engine despite the success of other programs such as volleyball and men's basketball. The football team generally accounts for about three-quarters of the athletic department's revenue, and any renovation of Husky Stadium isn't likely to happen until the football program gets righted and it becomes easier to hit up boosters for substantial checks.

It also seems like a critical time for the Huskies to begin showing signs of life with the Seahawks hotter than ever.

Turner and others within the UW program, however, downplay any concern about the Seahawks stealing the Huskies' thunder, saying the teams attract largely different audiences.

"Certainly, there are only so many discretionary dollars that people have to spend," Turner said. "But there is room for both of us. We are compared to them, but I don't feel like we necessarily compete with them every day for the exact same fan. In fact, we can probably feed off of each other by keeping football at a very high level in this community."

So the more pressing issue when it comes to their fan base, then, is whether the Huskies are ready, as Turner says, to "give them something."

Or, more specifically, whether Willingham is ready.

The head coach is the face of any college football program, and fan support can also be judged as a statement of faith in the direction of the team.

And as he enters his second season at UW, Willingham knows the jury is still out, while believing that most fans understand it will take some time.

"They are anxious," Willingham said. "They are, as I would label it, patiently impatient, which is one of my favorite terms. They want it right now, but they also have the history of what has taken place in this program and what it will take to get it back on its feet."

Willingham admits he thought he could begin the righting process a year ago.

"Just based on what we did last year, there was an opportunity to win six games," he said, noting that the Huskies lost four games they led or were within four points heading into the final quarter.

But the Huskies lost all four to finish 2-9 and extinguish any hope that the 1-10 season in 2004 under lame-duck coach Keith Gilbertson had been a mirage. Last season's flameout, in fact, seemed to bring with it the sobering thought that this may indeed be a longer-term project than anyone imagined.

Turner, certainly, has come to that realization since arriving at Washington in the summer of 2004.

He said the football program was "considerably worse than I anticipated. It was just confused. And not to point blame or try to analyze it, but I think it just lacked cohesiveness and focus. They had a bunch of coaches in and out, and guys weren't sure who was leading the charge. It needed stability."

Turner also said it needed some attention in the form of improved facilities. The Huskies remodeled the football team's assembly room this year, for instance, as well as the coaches' offices.

"Some of that had been neglected over time," he said. "We need to create the right environment for our kids, whether it be in the weight room or on the field."

Players appreciate the touching up, but point mostly to the coaching situation as a reason for hope.

Said senior guard Stanley Daniels: "It's hard to thrive as a team with so much change and turmoil. The biggest thing about football is you need consistency. And when you don't have consistent coaching, consistent personnel, it's tough."

Daniels, for instance, has had four different position coaches in his five years. But finally this season, he has the same line coach from the year before — Mike Denbrock.

But how much of a difference can that stability make in the short term, and will it be enough for people to become convinced that Willingham has the program on the right track?

"What we want to see is continuous improvement," Turner said. "Like anybody [Huskies fans] want to have instant success, and a lot of people define that in different ways. Some people think that has to be a winning season. For some, it's just winning more than you did the year before. For some, it's got to be the Rose Bowl. I think most fans know this is not an overnight fix to build a program of quality in this league."

And what some fans want is simply a return to the Don James era.

Willingham, who came to UW after three years at Notre Dame, knows all about being compared to legendary coaches. Asked if it's fair to be held up to the standard set by James, Willingham said yes.

"That's not unfair," he said. "Why not [be compared]? That's what you want. As a matter of fact, wouldn't you want to do better? There is no question that [times have changed], but if that is the greatness of this university, wouldn't you want to do that or try to exceed it? That's not any disrespect to Don James. But if Don James took over this program today, that's what he would want to do."

James took over in 1975 when the Huskies were still about the only game in town. He had them in the Rose Bowl three years later, beginning Washington's generation-long run as the most consistent program in the Pac-10.

James arrived with UW two years removed from a 2-9 record in 1973. But he has often said he had a better-than-expected group of upperclassmen to build around.

Willingham evades questions of the team's current talent level, saying, "I never worry about talent. That's an issue for you [media, other observers] to say yes, no, maybe. I just know that if you play as a team, amazing things can happen."

Asked later, however, what he needs to do most to get the program back on track, he said "recruit, recruit, recruit," though elaborating that he thinks every coach in the country would say the same thing about their own program.

Willingham's results on the recruiting front appear mixed so far. He has had only one full recruiting class — the class of 2006 — which received mediocre reviews, though it's far too early to judge.

What is known is that eight of the 35 players Willingham has brought to Washington in his first two recruiting classes aren't on the current roster, due mostly to ineligibility, and that another player who transferred to UW, receiver Chancellor Young, is also academically ineligible.

That's a rate of attrition difficult for a rebuilding program to handle.

Turner, though, gives Willingham high marks for his handling of the program to date, including the academic casualties.

"I think that speaks to one of Tyrone's strengths, that he's going to hold kids accountable to a high level," Turner said. "He's not going to allow them to skirt the issues and guys need to learn to live with the consequences, and sometimes that can be painful."

Turner says Willingham has a greater commitment to academics than any coach he has ever seen.

"I don't know of another coach in America who meets every week with the academic staff to go over every football player,' he said.

That's part of what Turner says has been Willingham's greatest achievement to date — changing the culture of the program.

"He has instituted the proper attitude, commitment and work ethic," Turner said.

Dick Baird, a former Huskies assistant coach and now a member of the pregame radio team, agrees. He has watched a number of practices this fall and says, "Everything is functioning better. I think it's part attitude, but it's also that they are used to the system now. They are positive toward each other and they are having fun. I think they are the best team at this point of the season in the last four years."

Willingham has made lots of other changes, however, that have drawn lukewarm reviews, namely, limiting media and fan and booster access to the everyday operation of the program. Fall training camp, for instance, is no longer open without restrictions to fans and media.

Kim Grinolds, the managing partner of Dawgman.com, a popular Web site devoted to Huskies sports, says some fans feel "a disconnect with the program" due to changes that have developed since Turner and Willingham arrived, such as taking the names off the backs of the uniforms.

"As one person said, 'It's not like it's our program anymore. It's theirs,' " Grinolds said.

Ron Crockett, owner of Emerald Downs and an influential booster, says he's fully on board with Willingham's ways.

"Everyone has a different style and we chose him to be our football coach, so I'll accept his way of doing business," Crockett said. "You buy a total package — it's hard for me to take 90 percent of a person and try to change 10 percent. I have every confidence that he will turn the program around. I have no reason to doubt it. He's proven himself before, so I know he knows how to do it."

Still, even the optimists like Baird and Crockett are preaching patience. This year's team has some capable front-line talent, but "they are precariously thin," said Baird.

Crockett mentions the depth, as well, and said, "You've got to give him time to recruit."

Ticket sales indicate that not everyone may be willing to be as patient.

Still, the Seahawks themselves may be the biggest indicator that should the team begin to return to form, the fans will return.

"You win football games," said Crockett, "and it all changes."

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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UW Football schedule

DateOpponentTimeTV
Sept. 2San Jose State12:30 p.m.
Sept. 9at Oklahoma12:30 p.m.Ch. 4
Sept. 16Fresno State12:30 p.m.FSN
Sept. 23UCLA12:30 p.m.
Sept. 30at Arizona6 p.m.
Oct. 7at USCTBA
Oct. 14Oregon State12:30 p.m.
Oct. 21at CaliforniaTBA
Oct. 28Arizona State12:30 p.m.
Nov. 4at Oregon12:30 p.m.
Nov. 11Stanford12:30 p.m.
Nov. 18at Washington State3:45 p.m.FSN

WSU Football schedule

DateOpponentTimeTV
Sept. 2at Auburn4:45 p.m.ESPN
Sept. 9Idaho12:45 p.m.FSN
Sept. 16Baylor (Qwest Field)2 p.m.
Sept. 23at StanfordTBA
Sept. 30USCTBA
Oct. 7at Oregon St.TBA
Oct. 14CaliforniaTBA
Oct. 21OregonTBA
Oct. 28at UCLA4 p.m.ABC
Nov. 4ArizonaTBA
Nov. 11at Arizona St.TBA
Nov. 18Washington3:45 p.m.FSN

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