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Thursday, September 27, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Emmett Watson

During Husky Scandal Of 1955, One Genuine Hero Stood Out

As you may have heard, unless you wear earplugs, this is the 100th anniversary of UW football. Football, I suppose, deserves its traditions as much as anything else - although it's not necessary to bow down and worship the names of Dobie, Bagshaw, Phelan, et al.

But in all the stuff being aired and puffed out, I have heard no mention of the famous Husky football scandal of 1955. Scandals are forgotten where nostalgia comes thickest.

But anyway, we had one. A dilly. It made the cover of Sports Illustrated under the heading, ``That Mess at Washington.''

NCAA penalties were severe. The Huskies were barred for three years from playing in the Rose Bowl, although the Huskies of those years could only have made Pasadena on a tour bus.

As it happened, I helped cover the scandal for Sports Illustrated. I must have filed 10,000 words on the Byzantine doings at Huskyville. I must have interviewed two dozen players and principals in that scandal, although it seemed like hundreds.

Anyway, there was one kid on that team I grew to like. He was a senior end, a hard-knocking player, unspectacular but solid. His name was Jim Houston. What made Jim Houston stand out, it seemed to me, is that he understood the raffish nature of the scandal, the plots and subplots, the bizarre, out-of-hand illegal doings at work.

Make no mistake, this was a college football scandal of imaginative chicanery. It infected the athletic department, some of the coaches, and went right up into the president's office.

Basically, what made the scandal possible is that ``the downtowners'' - the boosters, the alums, the money guys - more or less controlled the Washington football program.

There is no point in mentioning names now. Many of the principals are dead, or growing very old. But somehow, this kid, Jim Houston, understood it all and he helped me gain a perspective on that mess at Washington.

Jim was different. He was highly intelligent, and he spoke thoughtfully and carefully. He was no Goody Two Shoes, but Jim was one of a handful of Husky players who took not a dishonest nickel when the ample ``slush fund'' money was being divvied up.

So in that sense, Houston became my all-time football hero.

He got the normal, or legal, scholarship - free tuition and the right to work in Hec Ed pavilion for 50 hours a month at $1.50 per hour. No free books were included.

At Christmas, or during other campus breaks, Jim hitchhiked to his home in Prosser, Yakima County. Here was a kid who could have used some slush-fund money, but he toughed it out like any other student on the shorts. He graduated with a degree in engineering.

The only real ``Saturday's Hero'' element came with Jim's girlfriend. During college, he courted the beautiful Jackie McDonald, who was Miss Washington in 1950 and 1951 and who worked as KING-TV's weather girl for three years. They were married right after they got out of school.

So more or less in celebration of 100 years of Husky football, I drove up to find Jim Houston, who now lives in Vancouver, B.C. Sort of to pay homage, you understand, to the one real football hero I ever had.

He hadn't changed much. Somewhat thicker around the equator, of course, but the same careful, low-key way of speaking. After school, Jim did spectacularly well in business.

He now heads up a thing called The Urban Projects Group, the umbrella group for all kinds of things - housing, office buildings, land development, commercial projects; one of his recent endeavors is the ownership of 11 Red Robin restaurants in B.C. He recently acquired a railroad that runs tours to Jasper, Banff and Calgary.

We spent a wonderful few hours together. We talked about the old scandal, former players, coaches, and how Jim sees things today. He is not bitter; quite the opposite.

``I haven't seen a Husky game for three or four years, but we buy season tickets. Our people jump in a van and go down to Seattle on Saturdays.

``Looking back on it, that scandal may have been the best thing that ever happened to Washington athletics. It broke the grip on athletics that the downtown boosters had.

``John Cherberg, our coach, went on to a great career in politics. After the scandal, we got Darrell Royal, Jim Owens and Don James, and they ushered in some great years of Husky football. That scandal may have been the cathartic that was needed.''

``Do you contribute to the UW athletic fund?'' I asked.

``Yes,'' he said, ``five thousand dollars a year. After all, Washington gave me a good education and football helped me get it. I just think it's only right to put something back.''

Emmett Watson's column appears Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday in the Northwest section of The Times.

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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