by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

We’ll get to U-Dub football in just a moment. In the meantime, a fascinating tale of the intertwining of politics and sports, and what sort of creative measures the politicians and administrators of public universities can concoct to guarantee that both serve the interests of one another, has been playing out over the past couple of years in Seattle.

Case in point is the pending refurbishment of the University of Washington’s dilapidated Husky Stadium, which has been literally crumbling in recent years. Practically speaking, the football Huskies will play their last game in the old facility this November 5, when hosting Oregon. Two days later, the massive upgrades to the stadium, which sits hard by Lake Washington, are slated to begin. U-Dub’s home games thus move downtown to the NFL Seahawks’ Qwest Field, beginning with the annual Apple Cup showdown vs. rival Washington State on November 26. The Husky gridders will make Qwest Field home for at least the 2012 and perhaps 2013 seasons, or until the rebuild of Husky Stadium is completed.

The question that arises is why the massive expenditures are needed for the revamping of an old 70,000-seat football stadium when a state-of-the-art 70,000-seat NFL football palace, with all of the bells and whistles, is available for use within five miles? Early in the past decade, the University of Pittsburgh was in a similar dilemma with its own old and worn-out football stadium, but decided to join the NFL Steelers in the sparkling new Heinz Field, just a few miles away and adjacent to the Pirates’ new PNC Park. The Panthers instead built a new basketball arena on the site of their old Pitt Stadium, and everyone seems to be quite content with the results in the Steel City...especially Pitt football. Wouldn’t it make sense for the Huskies to do the same?

Not so fast. To fund the refurbishments of U-Dub’s old football arena, the school originally had a request of $150 million of public contributions rejected, but was able to proceed with a private financing plan consisting of $50 million in donations and $200 million more from the sale of 30-year bonds, to be repaid through revenues generated by luxury suites, increased Tyee Club season ticket prices, and the sale of naming rights to the field (Starbucks Husky Stadium, perhaps?).

Still, the school is a public institution, and as such should conduct itself in support of Seattle’s, and the state’s, best interests. So how is refurbishing old Husky Stadium acting to benefit the community when a perfectly acceptable football location is located just a few miles away?

The answer, as usual, was political. Although it took a little bit of connecting-the-dots to figure out how the pieces actually fit together.

This past May, Washington’s U.S. Senator, Patty “Mom in Tennis Shoes” Murray, presided at the dedication of three tunnel-boring machines that will drill twin 3.15 mile light rail transit tunnels from Westlake Center in downtown Seattle, via the Capitol Hill neighborhood, right to Husky Stadium. The predicted cost of the University Link, or U-Link, is slated at $1.9 billion. Federal taxpayers have already chipped in $830 million of costs via a federal grant. And that federal grant was secured partly because of the suggestion that U-Link would serve Husky Stadium. A U-Dub move to Qwest Field would have put those $830 million of funds at risk, perhaps making Seattle a less desirable alternative for future federal funding. Which will certainly be needed if improvements to the SR-520 floating bridge, over Lake Washington, and the Alaskan Way Viaduct, both connectors to U-Dub and Husky Stadium, projects slated to cost northwards of a combined $7 billion, are ever to be undertaken.

Thus, the $250-300 million to refurbish Husky Stadium looks like something of a bargain compared the $10 billion or so Seattle stands to receive in the form of federal funding to rebuild the local transportation infrastructure. Without renovations to Husky Stadium, all of those projects could have been in serious jeopardy.

We thought that was an interesting sidebar story to this year’s U-Dub footballers, who figure to be an intriguing storyline to follow in their own right.

The sleeping giant in the northwest might have indeed reawakened last season in the second year of the Steve Sarkisian regime, just two years removed from the disastrous 0-12 mark in 2008 that prompted Ty Willingham’s exit. Although the Huskies’ eventual 7-6 mark LY could hardly be considered an overachievement considering the excitement surrounding UW at this time a year ago, the manner in which Sarkisian’s team finished the campaign created quite a swell of optimism into the offseason. Three straight wins to close the regular season, including an Apple Cup thriller vs. Wazzu and a last-play win at Cal in the finale to secure bowl eligibility, preceded a rousing 19-7 win over Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl, avenging a 56-21 loss to the same Cornhuskers in September at Seattle. Although ballyhooed sr. QB Jake Locker did not produce the sort of numbers (including only 17 TD passes) that many expected would put him in the middle of the Heisman mix, he ended up leading the late-season rally and not hurting his NFL stock, taken early in the first round of the draft by the Tennessee Titans.

There’s no question the fast finish in 2010 has created a lot of buzz in Montlake and optimism within the program, and Pac-12 sources are suggesting the talent upgrading on Sarkisian’s watch has the Huskies positioned to make a serious move in the next couple of years. Whether the ascent can continue in 2011, without Locker in the fold, remains to be seen.

Although Sarkisian will likely wait until fall camp before making a definitive announcement on Locker’s replacement, sophomore Keith Price, who performed admirably (completing 14 of 28 passes) when starting for an injured Jake in last year’s game at BCS title game finalist Oregon, appeared to claim the starting QB job in spring, holding off RS frosh Nick Montana (Joe’s son). Though hardly possessing the physical presence of Locker, Price has a cool demeanor, sells the play-action expertly, and throws a catchable pass, which is good news for senior WRs Jermaine Kearse (who caught 63 passes and 12 TDs a year ago despite a recurring case of “dropsies”) and Devin Aguiar. Sarkisian and o.c. Doug Nussmeier were also pleased that Kearse and RB Chris Polk (1415 YR LY after 1113 YR in 2009) decided not to enter the NFL Draft and return instead for another season at UW, so Price indeed has some experienced and explosive complementary weapons at his disposal.

A pair of highly-touted frosh, TE Austin Sefarian-Jenkins, and local product WR Kasen Williams, also figure to make an impact at some point in the fall, with Williams’ added homerun potential as a kick return threat making him a particularly intriguing prospect. Sarkisian’s main concern with the offense, besides Price’s ability to effectively replace Locker, lies along a rebuilt OL that must replace three starters who combined for almost 100 career starts (C Greg Christine, RT Cody Habben and LG Ryan Tolar), although Pac-12 sources expect the upgraded recruiting pipeline to effectively fill those gaps up front. Senior PK Nick Folk, who beat Southern Cal with a last-second FG last October, had a streak of 11 straight FGs at one point in 2010 and has yet to miss on 68 PAT tries in his career.

It’s on defense, however, where U-Dub figures to make its mark with perhaps its best platoon since the later days of the Don James regime in the early ‘90s. Coordinator Nick Holt, who accompanied Sarkisian to Seattle from Southern Cal, has plenty of options thanks to a deep and experienced DL that returns all four starters and experimented with some five-man lines in the spring thanks to the presence of 225-lb. hybrid RS frosh Josh Shirley, often teaming with DE Hau’oli Jamora to form an unblockable duo on the edges, while pile-driving 330-lb. sr. DT Alameda Ta’amu routinely ties up multiple blockers in the pits. There are some questions at the LB spots, which is inexperienced at the outside spots following the graduations of the productive Mason Foster and Victor Aiyewa, but Holt likes the upside provided by sophs Princeton Fuimaono and Cooper Pelluer, and JC transfer Thomas Tutogi. Senior MLB Cort Dennison (the team’s leading returning tackler with 93 a year ago) is an established force on the inside. Holt also has high hopes for the secondary, especially with a pair of 3rd-year starters, Quinton Richardson and Desmond Trufant, manning the CB spots. Their presence likely allows Holt to call for more aggressive schemes requiring man coverage on the outside. The lone new starter in the defensive backfield, SS Sean Parker, flashed plenty of big-play ability in cameo roles behind he graduated Nate Williams a year ago. It’s worth noting that most of the contributors to this year’s stop unit have arrived in Seattle since Sarkisian’s hiring.

Summary...Unless you were a Washington State booster, it was difficult to see U-Dub plumb the depths it reached in recent seasons that included the fallout from the Rick Neuheisel regime and subsequent erosion of the program under Keith Gilbertson and Ty Willingham, who authored the two worst seasons in school history (1-10 for Gilby in 2004, 0-12 for Ty in 2008). The Huskies now seem on their way back to prominence under Steve Sarkisian, who was inked to a hefty contract extension in the offseason. There might be a pause in the recovery this fall if Keith Price (or perhaps Nick Montana) can’t adequately fill Jake Locker’s shoes at QB, but the roster upgrades since Willingham’s departure are significant, and new frosh such as WR Kasen Williams could make immediate and dramatic impact. The newly-formed Pac-12 North, with the Oregon schools and Stanford, is a rough neighborhood, so the real breakthrough might have to wait until 2012. But thanks to the defense, another bowl visit is a reasonable expectation.

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