It is popular these days to bash the Pac-12 Conference for its competitive lameness in football and men’s basketball. Relative to other Power 5 conferences in the big revenue sports, the Pac-12 is doing a masterful Jar-Jar Binks impression.
No one is quite sure of the source of the malaise, so the designated target of scorn is Commissioner Larry Scott, who has yet to brick a free throw or drop a touchdown pass.
But he is running the shop like a feudal European principality, with lavish royal banquets, shouts of dilly-dilly and amusements such as allowing court jesters into the video-replay dungeon to torture the prisoners of the realm.
Certainly, Scott has allowed the exchequer to dwindle. Revenues from the Pac-12 Networks, where TV college sports goes to die, trail the other conferences, meaning a lessened competitive ability to build a campus Palace of Versailles for training tables.
But dropping down from the conference picture to the neighborhood at Montlake, muffled snickers may be heard. While a conference’s competitive strength is a value to all schools because it increases shared post-season revenues and reduces snark on the recruiting trail, the Huskies find themselves with rare good fortune atop the slag heap.
Following the conference football championship that produced the Huskies’ return to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 2001, the men’s basketball team is looking like the only good team in a Pacific Ocean of mediocrity.
Yes, the Huskies lost at Arizona State Saturday 75-63, and looked bad doing it. But it was their first conference loss of the season. They are 10-1 in conference, 19-5 overall, and play in Pullman Saturday against Washington State (3-8, 10-14).
A late fade like a year ago isn’t out of the question. But at the moment, Washington is up three games up on three 7-4 teams (ASU, Oregon State and Utah) and figures to be the favorite heading into the conference tournament March 13-16 in Las Vegas (standings).
If they get the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, not only will it be their first appearance since 2011, the feat will accomplish a first in the school’s sports history — berths in the Rose Bowl and the NCAA men’s tourney in the same academic year.
It seems as if something like that should have happened already, but success in either sport has been rare enough without adding coincidence.
Since the NCAA expanded its basketball tourney field from 16 to 22 teams 1953 — the year a Huskies team led by Bob Houbregs reached the Final Four — Washington has made the field 13 times in the subsequent 66 years.
Using 1953 as a parallel marker for football, the Huskies in that span have made 11 Rose Bowls. But never in the same year with the hoops team in the NCAA tourney.
It came sorta close, once.
In the 1975-76 basketball season under coach Marv Harshman and led by center James Edwards and guard Chester Dorsey, UW made the 32-team field in the Midwest Region, but lost its opener 69-67 to a Missouri team coached by Norm Stewart. In the fall of 1977, Washington under coach Don James and led by QB Warren Moon, beat Michigan 27-20 in the Rose Bowl.
In 1984, the Huskies pulled off a near-equivalence.
The football team was invited to the Orange Bowl in Miami for the first and only time in school history (UW lost out on the Rose Bowl when USC beat Washington 16-7, the Huskies’ only regular-season loss). In one of the most famous bowl games in UW and national college history — the Sooner Schooner game — the No. 4 Huskies beat second-ranked Oklahoma of the Big Eight, 28-17.
Three months later, the men’s basketball team, led by two stars Harshman imported from Germany, Detlef Schrempf and Christian Welp, won the Pac-10 title and earned a sixth seed in the 48-team NCAA field. They beat Nevada 64-54, then pulled off a major upset of No. 3 Duke, 80-78. In the regionals, UW lost to 64-58 to 10th-seeded Dayton.
So 1984 was about the only comparable season of high success simultaneously by the money sports. Long stretches of mediocrity in both sports compromised any notion of powerhouse sports status for the overall program.
But Washington has landed coaches for each program who have delivered fast results.
Chris Petersen and Mike Hopkins are different personalities, and Hopkins is in just his second year as a head coach while Petersen established his resume at Boise State. They do share an authenticity and an intensity in their jobs last seen in around Montlake in James and Harshman.
Hopkins hasn’t finished the seasonal task yet. The Huskies have seven regular-season and potentially three conference tournament games before they know their NCAA tourney fate. And he has no concern for historic coincidences.
But if the hoopsters get in, longtime Huskies fan and now athletics director Jen Cohen is entitled to take a bow and have her bar tab picked up by some grateful purple people.