James' death darkens UW's bad weekend

There was no sign in the first quarter at Arizona State that Washington football was about to experience one of its worst weekends of all time.

The Huskies ended Arizona State's first possession -- a three-and-out -- with a sack. They then drove 60 yards for a touchdown. On that drive, quarterback Keith Price was 4 of 7 for 46 yards, and running back Bishop Sankey rushed for nine yards and a TD.

The Sun Devils drove for a first-and-goal at the Washington 7-yard line but had to settle for a field goal as the Huskies defense tightened. Cornerback Marcus Peters grabbed an interception of Arizona State QB Taylor Kelly. When the bell rung for the second quarter, the Huskies had momentum and a 7-3 lead.

So there was no flat start, no obvious hangover from consecutive defeats to Stanford and Oregon, losses that had done little damage to the 20th-ranked Huskies' national credibility.

What happened over the next three quarters, however, was a disaster. The Huskies were outscored 50-17, and that even doesn't seem to impart how horrid they looked against a hungry Arizona State team.

Said Sankey afterward, “We got out-competed."

That's about the worst thing that can happen to a football team. That's about caring and grit and fight and shared purpose and everything that speaks to the character of a football team above and beyond talent and scheme.

And then, on Sunday, it was announced that Washington coaching icon Don James had lost his fight with pancreatic cancer.

A football defeat pales next to the loss of a great coach and a great man, but the juxtaposition of the events is notable.

James was "The Dawgfather," the man who built a football dynasty in the Northwest. Nick Saban's much-celebrated "process" -- that's Don James, whom Saban has repeatedly cited as his biggest influence.

How great was James at his peak? Sports Illustrated once made a list of the three best coaches in college football. Don James was No. 1. And No. 2. And No. 3.

I second what Bob Condotta wrote here: I never covered the Huskies under James, but I had several chats and interviews with him. He couldn't have been more accommodating. I always got a kick from telling former players how avuncular James seemed now because they'd inevitably relate stories about his stern, evaluative stare and his intimidating presence above practices standing on his coaching tower. Those stories also brought deja vu as a former sportswriter in Alabama because that was exactly how Bear Bryant's former players recalled him.

Both groups always concluded by calling James/Bryant "a great man." Not a great coach. A great man.

Of course, James cast a huge shadow over the program after his abrupt departure before the 1993 season, a move of protest against the Washington administration's reaction to onerous conference and NCAA sanctions. The program has never escaped his shadow of sustained excellence through five coaches.

Yet just three weeks ago, this version of the Huskies felt like the most "James-ian" collection yet. Sure, there were too many penalties. But the 4-0 start was typified by physicality, efficiency, running the ball and playing tough defense. That was Don James football. The Huskies didn't look like a top-10 team, but they looked like a top-25 team cut in a Jamesian mold that longtime Huskies fans could embrace.

"That," they would say. "Is how we want Washington football to look."

So how did it look over the final three quarters in Tempe?

Said coach Steve Sarkisian, “That was embarrassing." He, in fact, said it twice in case anyone missed it.

The 212 yards of lackluster offense falls on Sarkisian. The 585 yards and 53 points the previously stout defense yielded falls on coordinator Justin Wilcox.

The stunningly uninspired performance falls on everyone.

"I know we appeared a little tired tonight," Sarkisian said. "We didn’t appear as fast; we didn’t appear as physical. We appeared as a team who got a little bit lethargic. Maybe we’re a little emotionally drained, but I don’t know. That’s an excuse and there are none. We don’t have time for excuses. We have to fix it.”

The red-letter issue for Sarkisian is the solution to long-standing problems, which started almost immediately after James departed, seems to be eluding him, just as it did the four coaches who preceded him. The Huskies have posted impressive wins, even impressive seasons -- see a 2000 Rose Bowl team under Rick Neuheisel -- but there's been no Jamesian consistency.

Jamesian consistency isn't just about winning season-to-season or game-to-game. It's a moment-by-moment attention to detail, and that includes the Xs and Os, recruiting the right players and the totality of the emotional and mental focus of the locker room.

Jamesian consistency -- apologies to Huskies fans for again pointing this out -- looks a lot like what Oregon has captured with its "win the day" culture.

Seattle Times columnist Jerry Brewer noted that Washington has had at least a three-game losing streak in every season since 2004. He then added that the blowout loss at Arizona State had an unfortunately familiar feeling -- another uninspired performance on the road:

It felt like last season’s 52-17 loss at Arizona. It felt like the 38-21 loss at Oregon State in 2011. It felt like the 44-14 loss at Arizona in 2010, or the 48-21 loss at Oregon State in 2009.

Every year, there is one of these. It’s a trend, not an anomaly. And until the Huskies stop losing their minds like this, they won’t return to prominence.

Speculating on an elusive "return to prominence," of course, makes every Husky fan nostalgic for Don James.

There is no one trying harder to solve this than Sarkisian, who has always embraced James, both as a person and as a symbol for the program's aspirations. Sarkisian was a stand-up guy after the abysmal performance in Tempe.

"I have to do a better job as a coach of keeping our guys motivated and positive and energetic, because when you’re in our conference, every week it’s a new challenge," he said. "We had a couple tough losses the last two weeks, and we just didn’t bring the same energy, physicality, and ultimately execution this week that we had the previous two weeks, which gave us a chance in those games. That points right to me. I have to do a better job.”

It's good that Sarkisian is taking the blame. He also knows a pat on the back for being a stand-up guy lasts just a few seconds before the high-pressure reality of a zero-sum, results-oriented business resumes. He's a big boy making a lot of money, and that money is for wins, not words.

The Washington program -- the college football nation, really -- saluted the passing of a legend on Sunday.

It's up to Sarkisian, his coaches and players to not allow the high hopes for the 2013 season to pass based on what happened Saturday.