Even though they are the nation's No. 1-ranked team, the Washington Huskies feel nearly invisible. It's as if football America cannot see them raising their index fingers because Mount Rainier keeps getting in the way.
"Our image? People think 'the Northwest'--they think Eskimos and stuff," said reserve quarterback Tim Cowan.
"You look at the NCAA highlights films," said strong safety Chris O'Connor, "and we're not even there."
So last Saturday, these Huskies figured, was the day they would finally become more than just a name in the rankings. ABC planned to nationally televise the Washington-California game right after the fourth game of the American League playoffs.
Duly excited, the Huskies got ready for a game in which they would drill a fault line through California, defeating the Golden Bears, 50-7. Thus, the team ranked No. 1 in both polls improved to 5-0 overall, 3-0 in the Pacific-10 Conference.
No. 1. Got that straight?
But there was a problem: a lengthy rain delay in Milwaukee extended the baseball broadcast and provided a viewing obstacle larger than Rainier.
America saw only nine fragmented minutes of the Huskies' victory. When full coverage began in the final six minutes, Washington already led, 43-0. A Seattle television station reportedly received two bomb threats when the Huskies were preempted by baseball, so angry were the locals.
The Huskies felt like a mere commercial.
After the victory, Washington's starting quarterback, Steve Pelluer, was told that outside of the 56,500 in Husky Stadium, nobody saw much of the victory.
So Pelluer, disappointed, shook his head, which was still spinning from a second-quarter hit that caused a mild concussion.
Pelluer said, "That's pretty amazing."
The coach is Don James, the temperament is usually even keel, although he lost his temper and threatened to walk out of a press conference Monday when he was asked to compare his first two quarterbacks.
The Washington players know James' history and his intensity. "He's determined not to change," said O'Connor, the strong safety. "You can see how intense he is by the way he stands on his toes and the way he moves his eyebrows."
"Coach James gets his point across sometimes without saying anything," said tight end Willie Rosborough.
James is 50 years old and his career progression is as straightforward as his approach.
He spent four years at Kent State in the early 1970s, compiling a 25-19-1 Mid-American Conference record. He has been at Washington since 1975 and has a 62-24 record (.720 winning percentage) in seven-plus years in the Pac-Eight/Pac-10. In the last five years, he has been to the Rose Bowl three times (including the last two) and to the Sun Bowl once.
The surrounding press likes to call his teams "the James Gang" because it sounds nice. But the even keel makes it ill-fitting. How boisterous can James be when he refers to last year's 28-0 Rose Bowl victory as "the Iowa game?"
"We've gotten more respect recently than we've ever gotten before up here, I think," James said. "I've got friends from all over the country who send me clips from newspaper stories about us."
James' only distinguishing sideline mark is the "W" stamped on his purple cap.
"Coach James is strict on us, but he loves us," said Rosborough.
The team was 4-0 and groggy before the California game last Saturday. True, the opener was a 55-0 burial of Texas-El Paso. "But emotionally we just weren't up for that game. They weren't a very good team," said Cowan, the reserve quarterback.
Then came victories over Arizona (23-13), Oregon (37-21) and San Diego State (46-25). Still, James was not happy. The team's intensity was not matching his own. The victories were convincing only to the pollsters.
"We were 4-0, and after the games the locker room was quiet," said O'Connor.
Perhaps the 1982 travails of sophomore running back Jacque Robinson best represented this post-Rose Bowl sluggishness.
After gaining 180 yards all of last season, Robinson became the first freshman ever to win the most-valuable-player award in the Rose Bowl, gaining 142 yards and scoring two touchdowns against Iowa. Accepting his award, he said he wanted to win the Heisman Trophy, too.
But Robinson has been a disappointment this season. Suffering from a strained chest muscle, bruised ribs and a sprained ankle, he gained a total of only 121 yards during the first four games of this season. He is not even starting.
Yet he seemed revived after rushing for 47 yards against California and said, "Now, I'm almost healed and ready to play."
So, it seems, is his team. The Huskies had been disappointing only to themselves. At last, the California game raised their intensity and their spirits to the heights of their numbers.
The offense is now averaging 42 points and 435 yards per game. The defense is yielding only 13 points per game. In all, there are 17 starters back from the team that scored the 28-0 victory over Iowa, the first Rose Bowl shutout in 28 years.
The California game carried a sense of Huskies history, too. Senior flanker Paul Skansi caught four passes to bring his career total to 113, breaking the previous school record by two.
Senior Chuck Nelson kicked three first-half field goals, extending his NCAA record to 22 straight, 17 of them this season. The three field goals last Saturday, however, were the fewest he has kicked in a game this season.
"I just line it up, then look where I want to kick it. From there, my body knows what to do," said Nelson, whose 14 points against California put him in a tie with Hugh McIlhenny (1949-51) for the school record of 233 points.
California's first-year coach, Joe Kapp, said of the Huskies last Saturday: "They are a really good football team, maybe great. I couldn't tell. All I saw was purple."
Now, about that invisibility . . .
O'Connor, the strong safety, said, "The sportswriters in the East who vote in the polls have never seen us. They only read box scores."
But O'Connor also said, "The only way for us to lose the ranking now is to screw it up ourselves. We still have to play UCLA, Arizona State and Stanford."
Cowan, the reserve quarterback who threw three touchdown passes against California in place of the injured Pelluer, said, "People up here like the isolation, they enjoy the privacy. We're not L.A. or Chicago. But this team is getting a little more respect now."
Rosborough, the tight end, said, "This is the first year we've had a shot at No. 1, the national championship. It's the first time we've thought about something beyond the Rose Bowl. We keep it in sight, but we don't let it overpower us."