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Wednesday, September 01, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Bob Condotta
Keith Gilbertson grew up in the shadows of Husky Stadium, wanting nothing more than to be the head football coach at the University of Washington someday.
When he finally got the chance last season in the most unfathomable of circumstances there were times he almost wanted nothing more than to give it all up.
Times when he wondered if it wouldn't be so much easier to just go back to the happy years when he was merely an assistant at Washington, drawing up plays for Don James and Rick Neuheisel in relative anonymity.
A reporter recently told Gilbertson he'd heard the coach had said after last season that he might not have taken the job if he'd known how hard last year was going to be. Gilbertson said he didn't remember making the comment but said, "That's pretty true. That's pretty true. ...
"Week after week after week, distractions of all kinds, from legal issues, NCAA-type things, the state attorney general, the ethics commission, and on and on and on. And then you've still got to get in there and soothe the football team and get them settled down. We had kind of anticipated it would be real difficult and crazy, but I really didn't know it would be quite that much. At the same time, I learned a lot and those kinds of things probably make you stronger. But to say it was easy would be ridiculous."
It was a season in which loyalties were so divided, some players were sneaking calls to their former head coach, Neuheisel.
"That could have been (happening)," Gilbertson said. "You are not going to take a popular coach and take him out of his position and have the kids forget about him. But they shouldn't have. I would have been very upset with the kids' character if they wouldn't have cared about the guy."
But UW didn't just lose. Instead, a team with fragile senior leadership often got avalanched, seeming to curl up and die at the first sign of trouble.
"I think last year there was this (feeling) that this is all screwed up, I'm going to get mine and get out of here," Gilbertson said. "As soon as you lose one conference game it was, 'Well, we're not going to the Rose Bowl.' I didn't like it. But I understand those kids and I understand how they felt."
A year later, Gilbertson awaits the beginning of his second season at UW with the opener Sunday against Fresno State.
It's a season that many close to the program contend should really be counted as his first real season as head coach that last year should be tagged with an asterisk given its craziness.
But while things have finally quieted down, they can hardly be described as completely stable.
Gilbertson is working for his third athletic director and his second university president, still waiting to hear what the NCAA has to say regarding recruiting violations, and coaching a team picked to finish seventh in the Pac-10.
It's a situation that outsiders easily judge to be fraught with dangers for Gilbertson, in the second year of a four-year contract.
He at least found some humor the other day in an Internet story that listed him among "coaches on the hot seat." Right there with Gilbertson on the list? Joe Paterno, merely the second-winningest coach in college-football history.
"There isn't a person in this business who isn't immune to a bad season or a controversy or a shake-up or a scandal," Gilbertson said. "To be honest with you, (all college football coaches) are just kind of holding their breath and hoping that the phone doesn't ring."
But Gilbertson also said he doesn't "sit around and fret about" what may be on the line for him personally this season.
And it appears as if he couldn't have gotten off to a better start with his new boss, athletic director Todd Turner.
Turner, who took over at the beginning of August, has attended several UW practices and sounds impressed, saying Gilbertson is doing everything "an experienced, seasoned coach would do.
"I can't think of a better thing for the University of Washington than for our current staff to be here for a long, long time."
Still, Turner said he senses an "uneasy anticipation about where we are headed. Gilby and our team can do a lot this year to try to put people at ease about where we are going."
Doing that, however, isn't necessarily a matter of wins and losses, Turner said.
"If people are really enthused and excited, that's the most important thing that will come out of this season," Turner said. "And it might not be measured in wins and losses but in people's enthusiasm. If they are generally excited and feel good about the future and are eager to continue to participate, whether you won 10 games or one becomes far less important.
"But I'm not so naïve as to think that people's attitudes about the future are not shaped by how you perform on the field, so I think that people would like to remove those questions about where we are headed and like to see us compete."
Gilbertson doesn't seem to doubt that this year's team will at least do that.
"I looked at this team as a team I think will be really fun to coach, and so far it is," he said. "And it's a closer-knit team and one that you hope hangs in there harder and better than maybe it did a year ago."
As a program, however, what UW might need as much as anything is time, something its fickle fan base hasn't often had to give.
"I think the reality is, we need to stay without controversy for a while," Gilbertson said. "Really, we've had about 14 years of almost constant controversy if you really look at it. It's been 14 years of coaching changes and controversy and NCAA things where we've really been in the crosshairs. We need to get back to just being a university that has a football program again.
"I think the place still has a lot of magic and there is some really good football to be played here. But we have some work to do to get it back where you would say it was back to Don James' time. But I think it can be done."
James, obviously, is the standard by which all UW coaches will forever be judged. Gilbertson understands that as well as anyone, having coached with him in 1976 and again from 1989-91.
Looking at the rise of other Northwest schools such as Oregon and Washington State, Gilbertson noted that the stability of the head coaches was the key. Oregon has had two coaches since 1977 Rich Brooks and Mike Bellotti. WSU has had two since 1989 Mike Price and Bill Doba. In both cases, the latter coach was an assistant for the former coach, meaning little changed in the turnover.
"It's different here because Jim Owens and Don James, in the third year of their program they both went to the Rose Bowl," Gilbertson said.
Gilbertson said he thinks he began to lay the foundation for a Huskies resurgence with last year's recruiting class, which was heavily composed of players from the state.
"Rick wanted to recruit the Northwest," Gilbertson said. "It just happened that last year there were a lot of good players from the state. Maybe more than in some other years. But there's a difference. I'm from here. I know all the coaches. I've been recruiting in this state forever, so I've got maybe a little bit different perspective on the Washington player."
Gilbertson, however, generally loathes making comparisons with Neuheisel, leaving it to others to note the differences. And most agree that Gilbertson has shaped the program more in his image this year than he had a chance to do last season.
"I think this year we had a better camp than last year," said sophomore receiver Sonny Shackelford. "Our practices are harder and longer and we have to be stronger to get through that."
As camp progressed, as Gilbertson has seen this team come together, he has sounded increasingly optimistic.
"We're going to go to work," Gilbertson said. "Do the job, go as hard as we can go, and see what happens."
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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