The true barometer of how football has fallen off for the University of Washington is not the Jimmy Lake shove and resulting pink slip, not the Montana stumble, not the 88-yard Boulder rumble with a fumble.
The most disturbing development surrounding an incredibly disappointing season for those in Montlake is what isn’t seen these days — fans stuffed into Husky Stadium.
Huge gaps of empty seats remain well after kickoff. Parking lots are only partially filled with tailgaters. Montlake traffic jams following the games are, get this, manageable.
The 113th renewal of the Apple Cup at 5 p.m. Friday — last season’s game was lost to the pandemic — will be the final 2021 test of where UW football stands with its fans. Even in mutually bleak seasons, the facility is mostly full for the cross-state rivalry.
There’s a chance WSU fans, including many west-siders home from Pullman for the holiday weekend, could match the numbers of Huskies fans because of the stakes. A win by the 6-5 Cougars, one-point favorites, coupled with an Oregon loss Saturday against rival Oregon State, would give them the North Division title and a place in the Pac-12 Championship.
The Cougars also have the flashier game: Jayden de Laura is the Pac-12’s best quarterback, averaging 250 passing yards a game and 23 touchdowns, both best in the league. And WSU’s interim head coach, Jake Dickert, will enhance his bid for the permanent position with the win.
The 4-7 Huskies have little flash and no stakes — they aren’t eligible for a bowl. They are playing for nothing but the pride of maintaining the seven-game winning streak in the rivalry. Few, if any, current coaches, are likely to be retained by Lake’s successor.
While UW offers only paid attendance figures and never actual crowd counts, this year’s home games collectively have been the worst in four to five decades, according to longtime observers.
The opener against Montana, before the losing began, barely drew two-thirds of the 70,000 stadium capacity.
The Arkansas State game two weeks later, against an over-matched opponent, didn’t fill up half the seating configuration.
For the Arizona State game two weeks ago, the gathering may have topped out at around 30,000.
“This is just crazy to me,” former UW cornerback Dana Hall said, after examining a photo on social media. “How did we get here?”
Many reasons contribute to the attendance decline: Lingering pandemic apprehension, COVID-19 vaccination/testing requirements, poor weather, an unattractive non-conference schedule. Most of all, a bad football team.
Longtime season-ticket holder Bobby Erickson, after looking over the tepid Arizona State gathering, said, “It looked like a poorly attended spring game.”
Adam Cooney, a former UW offensive tackle, took the opportunity to infuse a little levity: “Now I know how it feels to be a Washington State fan all those years.”
No one is laughing in the athletic department.
Athletics director Jen Cohen seemed to acknowledge in a roundabout way that slowing interest in football was one of multiple reasons for Lake’s termination, meaning his ouster wasn’t solely based on his physical sideline interaction with LB Ruperake Fuavai during the Oregon game.
“There wasn’t one factor that led me to this decision,” Cohen said. “Fan support is just one of many factors you’re considering when you’re making a decision this impactful. What I think I would just say is this was a very thoughtful decision that took me a lot of time and counsel in evaluating it.”
What she didn’t say was her department suffered through severe revenue losses during the 2020 pandemic-restricted season that consisted of four home games without fans. Employees were laid off. Coaches took pay cuts. Services were stripped back.
Coming out of that precarious situation, the school had little room for coaching error. UW is still paying off the Husky Stadium remodel of eight years ago. Donors have been asked to pick up Lake’s buyout that could cost up to $10 million, as well as help with a potentially sizable increase in the new coach’s salary.
Cohen didn’t say this, but further erosion in revenues while trying to overcome the pandemic-related losses in a highly competitive business has to be unacceptable.
Cohen didn’t mention this either, but when there’s a serious drop in attendance, the football coach isn’t the only one who pays for the shortfall. She has to be under an upper-campus microscope now, feeling a little uncomfortable when it comes to job security.
Erickson, who shared in the wildly popular Sonny Sixkiller era and celebrated the 1991 national championship team, estimated the stadium was no more than one-third full for the California and Arizona State games. This is all new to him.
“Fast forward to the current atmosphere in Husky Stadium — it’s the most apathetic fan base I’ve witnessed in my 50 years attending games,” he said. “The crowds are tiny.”
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