A Husky spring game to remember
Seattle Times staff reporter
As Washington's football team prepares for its annual spring game Saturday, ticket sales for next season are again dragging and overall interest in the program stands at one of its lowest points.
Ideally, said UW athletic director Todd Turner, the spring game itself would serve as a marketing tool.
"What you would hope is that the spring game would re-enthuse people," he said. "But it's difficult to come up with a formula that allows that to happen."
Indeed, few things in sports may be as overplayed as college football spring games, which have devolved into glorified practices in which the main goals are making sure no one gets hurt and not giving away any secrets to future opponents.
But it wasn't always so. UW's spring game was once one of the highlights of the sporting calendar, particularly from 1961 to 1976 when the Huskies held an annual game against their alumni.
The varsity-alumni game drew more than 30,000 paying fans on occasion and was given treatment by Seattle newspapers commensurate to a regular-season game.
"It was a big deal," said former UW coach and player Jim Lambright, who played in the game as both a Husky and as an alumnus, and also coached in a few. "It was very similar to a home game against a lesser opponent where you had about half the seats full."
The varsity-alumni game was the brainchild of coach Jim Owens, who in the spring of 1961 wanted to give fans a way to honor the graduated members of the 1960 Huskies, all of whom had just helped UW go 10-1 for the second straight year, winning the Rose Bowl at the end of each season.
The alumni were so excited about the concept that "we had more guys than we knew what to do with," said Don McKeta, a halfback from 1958 to 1960. "It was all the guys who had just played in the Rose Bowl, and we ran all the same plays."
The alumni won 6-0 in front of 9,500 and what became a 15-year tradition — one that held increasing importance in a time before any pro sports franchises called Seattle home — was born.
The alumni, usually coached by one of their own — McKeta and Hugh McElhenny were among those who held coaching duties — would generally hit town a week or so before, spending their days working out and their nights, uh, reminiscing.
"There were a few hangovers that carried themselves out onto the field," Lambright said with a laugh.
Even alumni who were playing in the NFL or AFL — such as Rick Redman, Chuck Allen and Ben Davidson — were regular participants, something that could never happen today.
"When you're only making $10,000 a year, you're not too worried about [getting hurt]," Allen said.
The varsity — more organized and in better playing shape in a time when teams could hold 20 practices compared to the 15 allowed now — usually had the upper hand, winning all but three of the 16 games.
But it was the alumni who turned in most of the memorable moments.
Redman was involved in two.
In 1966, Redman, a linebacker and punter, was nursing a knee injury and asked coaches if they would refrain from rushing on punts so he wouldn't get hurt. Late in the game, with the alumni trailing in a tight contest, Redman — wearing only shorts, shoulder pads and a helmet without a mask — was back to punt. When he saw the Huskies back off at the line, he couldn't help himself and took off running.
He got a first down, but the varsity held on to win, and everybody left the field laughing about Redman's ploy.
Then he bumped into hard-nosed UW assistant Tom Tipps.
"He ran up to me and was still foaming at the mouth and said, 'If you ever step foot on that field again, you'd better have every piece of equipment you can find,' " Redman said with a laugh.
In 1965, Redman was on the sideline when a player named Vince Lorrain intercepted a pass and took off running down the sideline for a certain score. Redman, however, decided it shouldn't be that easy and as Lorrain neared the end zone, he came off the bench and tackled him.
"It was an impulse," Redman was quoted as saying the next day. "I couldn't resist."
Asked about it now, Redman laughed and said "he was just going to walk in. There was nobody within 25 yards of him. The refs looked around and couldn't figure out where I came from."
That same year, the alumni decided late in the game to try a field goal, though they didn't have a kicker in uniform. So they summoned George Fleming, who was on the sideline but hadn't intended to play. Wearing what the Times referred to as "sports slacks and an alpaca sweater," Fleming attempted a 38-yarder that missed.
"We decided we'd already made a little history [with Redman's tackle from the sideline] so we might as well make a little more," Fleming was quoted as saying the next day.
The most meaningful game might have come in 1970, when the Huskies were attempting to reinvent themselves into a passing team after going 1-9 in 1969 at the time, the worst record in school history — while running the wishbone. A sophomore named Sonny Sixkiller had slowly risen up the depth chart at quarterback throughout the spring, but was still No. 2 behind Greg Collins heading into the alumni game.
Collins, however, was injured early on. Sixkiller came off the bench to complete 24 of 50 passes for 389 yards in leading the varsity to a 43-7 win — the biggest victory in the history of the series — and all but sew up the quarterback job heading into the fall.
"That gave me a chance, I know that," said Sixkiller, who went on to lead a three-year revival of UW football.
As NFL players began making more money, it became harder to put together an alumni team. Don James kept the game going his first two years, and the 1976 game was held at the Kingdome, the first football game played in that facility. Sixkiller threw the first TD pass in the history of the Kingdome, an 18-yarder to Ken Conley.
But the next year, James ended the game.
"Don's point was that your varsity team was sacrificing half the playing by giving it to the alums," said Lambright, by then an assistant for James. "Don wanted to get more productivity out of it."
Many other schools also held games against their alumni in those days, and most ended around the same time for the same reasons.
Old-timers who played in the game lament that it's been difficult since then to find something to keep the alumni as involved in the program, while realizing reality dictates such a contest couldn't be held today.
"For a lot of guys, that was the last time they put on a uniform," McKeta said. "There were a lot of good memories."
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or email@example.com
|1961||Alumni 6, Varsity 0|
|1962||Varsity 7, Alumni 0|
|1963||Varsity 27, Alumni 7|
|1964||Varsity 10, Alumni 0|
|1965||Varsity 36, Alumni 13|
|1966||Varsity 14, Alumni 12|
|1967||Alumni 14, Varsity 13|
|1968||Alumni 21, Varsity 7|
|1969||Varsity 27, Alumni 14|
|1970||Varsity 43, Alumni 7|
|1971||Varsity 28, Alumni 6|
|1972||Varsity 38, Alumni 6|
|1973||Varsity 33, Alumni 19|
|1974||Varsity 43, Alumni 13|
|1975||Varsity 34, Alumni 6|
|1976||Varsity 10, Alumni 7|
|2006 alumni team?|
|Here's a possible lineup of veterans not currently on NFL rosters. NFL players wouldn't be allowed to participate.|
|— Bob Condotta|
Information in this article, originally published April 21, has been corrected. A previous version of this story contained an error. Jerry Lorentson did not play football at the University of Washington, as was implied in a photo caption accompanying an article published Friday on the Huskies' spring game. Lorentson, who was paralyzed in a high school football game, was pictured because proceeds of the spring game once were contributed to his foundation that helped rehabilitate injured athletes.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company