It'll be one time the members of Washington's star-crossed football recruiting class of 2002 will put on uniforms, head into Husky Stadium and rest assured they'll hear nothing but cheers.
When the University of Washington holds its graduation ceremony Saturday, 14 members of that class — none of whom have participated in a winning season and all of whom have had three head coaches in four years — will don a cap and gown and pick up a diploma. "They had a lot of land mines in their way, a lot of obstacles that could have prevented them from moving forward," said coach Tyrone Willingham. "But they kept the faith and got it done, and it says a lot about the character of these young men."
Eleven of the players are still members of the football team and have one season of eligibility left, including quarterback Isaiah Stanback, linebacker Scott White, running back Kenny James and defensive linemen Donny Mateaki and Brandon Ala. Others graduating include cornerbacks Dashon Goldson, Shelton Sampson and Matt Fountaine, offensive linemen Clay Walker and Stanley Daniels, and defensive lineman Dan Milsten. Three others — Jason Benn, Dash Crutchley and Ben Bandel — are no longer with the football team.
"I think it says a lot about our toughness and our commitment to this program," said White.
It also says a lot about what seems a growing trend in college football for players to graduate before their fifth year of eligibility so they can spend that last fall concentrating almost solely on the field.
"It was my plan ever since I touched down here that I wanted my last year here to be strictly football," said Stanback.
Most of the players still have a class or two to complete their degree — the university allows students to walk in graduation ceremonies if they have 12 credits or fewer remaining to complete the 180 needed.
In fact, a quirk in NCAA rules essentially encourages athletes to leave one class remaining for their final quarter of eligibility.
"You must be enrolled in credits required to complete your degree," said Rob Post, Washington's assistant director for student-athlete academic services. "If you don't have credits left you have to carry a full load. That's why you save two credits for ballroom dancing like [USC quarterback] Matt Leinart did."
The Huskies signed 21 players on Feb. 6, 2002, meaning they already are on pace for a 67 percent graduation rate for that class. Several others could graduate later, and most of the others who may not transferred to other schools.
It all appears to give further validation to the Huskies' lofty standing among Pac-10 schools in graduation rates released last December. Washington was at 75 percent, second only to Stanford.
Willingham said he'd like to someday be the best in the Pac-10 in the classroom as well as on the field.
"Why not?" he said. "Why can't you do both [win games and graduate]?"
Stanback said he has a 2.8 grade-point average and will receive his degree in American Ethnic Studies. White also is receiving his degree in AES, as are several other football players in a major that has grown popular with UW athletes in recent years.
But they each scoffed at any notion that AES is a major "favorable" to athletes. White said he initially tried communications and sociology before settling on AES.
"I actually found [AES] harder than sociology, so there goes that thought," he said. "People think we're getting paved through. But that's not the truth."
Few will be prouder on Saturday than Mateaki, who will receive a degree in history. One of seven children, he is the second in his family to receive a college degree. Roughly 50 family members from Hawaii and Tonga are coming to the ceremony.
"I think we all just expected to do it," Mateaki said of his fellow members of the class of 2002. "And with the academic support we get down here, it's like you'd have to not want to do your work not to pass."
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or email@example.com