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For Husky Fans, News Is All Bad

August 23, 1993|JOHN BALZAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SEATTLE — They're picking on Seattle.

Aren't they?

Once again, this mid-sized city with an outsized sports appetite and a king-sized drive to be a contender finds itself feeling isolated, and angry.

Humiliating!

Unfair!

Shocking!

Hammered!

A very, very dark day!

Worse than anyone could have predicted!

No, these were not the views of sodden ex-jocks at sports bars, but "objective" news accounts that summed up a day of dismay for the sports-minded of Seattle. It began when two local television stations carried live from San Francisco the Pacific 10 Conference's announcement of a two-year bowl ban and sanctions against the prized University of Washington football program.

And it only got worse as word spread that Coach Don James, one of the most recognized symbols of success in the Pacific Northwest, in and out of sports, would resign.

Barbara Hedges, Washington athletic director, helped set the tone for hometown reaction when she spoke on live television and said that while punishment had been expected for an array of player and booster violations, the Pac-10's sanctions "are too harsh and unwarranted."

Hours later, an angry statement was read on behalf of James, attacking the credibility of those who charged the program with wrongdoing and saying he could not remain in a conference that treats a team "so unfairly."

"The big dog is shot out of the sky," lamented Jim Lambright, the Husky assistant who assumed James' responsibilities.

Resentment was fueled on talk shows, and by evening, local television preempted national network news to swarm over the story. "Because," as KOMO-TV anchorman Eric Slocum explained, "this is a day that the Huskies will never, never forget . . . the magnitude is so enormous."

Here and there among person-on-the-street interviews and callers to talks shows, residents said they hoped the sanctions would bring forth a time of reflection on the Washington campus. "This football team is practically professional, and maybe it shouldn't be," said Washington student Leslie Richardson. "People should come to college to learn."

But among those who felt the need to speak out, Richardson's was a minority view.

Two complaints were most often voiced. One, that junior and senior players on this season's team will suffer the penalties for the deeds of others. And two, that Washington was being hit hard because it was a winner.

"If it was not a successful football program, I don't think the sanctions would have been so severed. If it was Oregon State, no way," said Dori Monson, sports anchor for KING radio. He wondered aloud if the university would sue those who were in the thick of the scandal, such as ex-Husky and now Raider Billy Joe Hobert or any of the boosters involved with rule-breaking activity.

Broadcaster Bob Rondeau, the "voice of the Huskies," said the PAC-10 penalties were out of line with other sanctions in the NCAA, including those recently imposed on repeat offender Auburn. "There are two standards of justice here," he said. "Auburn's crimes were much more heinous."

Plenty of Husky fans were ready to say they believed that the team's infractions were downright minor and in no way justified such penalties as the bowl ban, loss of television revenues and scholarship reductions.

"No harm was done," said student Michael Mills. "They may have broken some rules, but it seems kind of harsh."

At the university bookstore, Yang-He Tak worked the Sunday shift at the Husky Highlights souvenir counter. "Everybody says one thing: They're shocked at how harsh this came out. Shocked, and angry," he said.

Although preseason rankings did not put the Huskies in the top 10, Washington fans had awaited the start of the season in the belief that they were well positioned in the Pac-10. Those dreams, too, were dashed by the conference sanctions, and many Husky followers said the program would be hurt deeply on the scoreboard for years to come.

Attorney Ron Neubauer, who represents boosters Herb and Clint Mead, suggested that seasoned players might leave for other schools rather than face two years without possibility of bowl competition. "There could be a mass exodus of juniors and seniors," he said.

Seattle is a city where even some of its fine restaurants cater to fans with televisions, and it's not the only time recently that the city has felt at odds with the nation over its athletic passions. Last year, when Seattle clung to its Mariner baseball team by selling a majority interest to the Japanese, the city was put furiously on the defense. Almost unanimously, the city's fans and leaders decried as small-minded and xenophobic those in other cities who opposed foreign ownership of American baseball.

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