Husky football looks to bounce back under new leadership

After the firing of Rick Neuheisel, the Huskies put their faith in Keith Gilbertson to bring back stability and a winning culture.

When Keith Gilbertson was named the 24th head football coach in University of Washington history on July 29, it brought a desperately needed sense of relief to the Huskies after the gut-wrenching end of Rick Neuheisel’s roller coaster four-year tenure.

Gilbertson, the Huskies’ offensive coordinator for the past three seasons, became the top dawg after Neuheisel was fired June 12 for participating in a gambling pool on the NCAA basketball tournament and for not being completely truthful when questioned about it.

A Snohomish native who has been a coach for more than thirty years, Gilbertson was in his third tour of duty with the Huskies when he was appointed the Husky head coach. First hired as a graduate assistant under Don James in 1976, he returned as an assistant coach and offensive coordinator under James from 1989-1991, and came back in 1999 to join Neuheisel’s staff as an assistant and offensive coordinator.

Besides his obvious UW connection, Gilbertson also brings head coaching experience, having guided Idaho for three years and California from 1992-95. That made him a natural for the position. And the 55-year-old Gilbertson couldn’t have been happier.

For a guy who grew up in the state, who grew up watching Jim Owens’ teams sitting in a $1 seat in the end zone, this has been quite a journey for me.

Keith Gilbertson

“For a guy who grew up in the state, who grew up watching Jim Owens’ teams sitting in a $1 seat in the end zone, this has been quite a journey for me,” Gilbertson said.

While thrilled to become the Huskies’ head coach, Gilbertson, who received a four-year contract worth $870,000 a year, acknowledged the sticky situation he had been in during the past month and a half while Neuheisel was losing his job. “I enjoyed Rick Neuheisel and being on his staff,” Gilbertson said. “This situation has been hard on everyone-the team, the fans, Barbara (Hedges), Rick Neuheisel and his family. He was a friend of mine, and he will remain a friend.”

Though he took over the team just 32 days before the season opener on the road against defending national champion Ohio State, Gilbertson has a very clear outlook for the Huskies. “We want to play championship-caliber, hard-nosed, Division I-tough football,” he said. “We want our people to enjoy it and their experience on this campus, earn a great degree, be better people when they leave than when they came-and we want to do it by the rules. That’s really what I know.”

The Huskies and their fans are thrilled to have someone as experienced, skilled and proven as Gilbertson as their new leader coming off such a trying time. Don James and his wife, Carol, were in attendance at the news conference announcing Gilbertson’s hiring.

He knows football. He’s not a politician, he’s a football coach. They got a real solid football man.

Don James

“He’s like a son,” James said, his eyes tearing up. “He knows football. He’s not a politician, he’s a football coach. They got a real solid football man.”

Recognized as one of the finest offensive minds in college football today, Gilbertson was the Huskies’ offensive coordinator in 1991 when they won the national championship behind an offense that simply dominated opponents. That offense led the Pac-10 in total offense, rushing offense and scoring offense, relying on a balanced attack.

Despite his impressive resume—which includes three years as coach of the Los Angeles Express in the USFL and two years as an assistant with the Seattle Seahawks—Gilbertson said he didn’t think he would ever get a chance to be a head coach again. His last head coaching position was with Cal from 1992-95. Although he led the Bears to a 9-4 season and their last bowl appearance in 1993, he was fired after the ‘95 season with a 20-26 record in Berkeley. (His overall coaching record is 48-37.)

Before the Neuheisel situation broke earlier this summer, Gilbertson did talk with new San Francisco 49ers Coach Dennis Erickson—a longtime friend—about joining the 49ers as an assistant. “I didn’t want to leave because I thought we had a shot,” Gilbertson explained. “The timing wasn’t right. I wanted to be here.”

Gilbertson said he has learned from his previous head coaching stints-he guided Idaho from 1986-88, taking the team to two Big Sky Conference titles. “I am probably a little tougher on players than I was in those days,” he says.

Toughness is a welcome word these days. While Neuheisel’s teams were known for their flashy offense and ability to come back from early deficits, tough, physical play was something that seemed to be missing.

“I would hope our team looks like a team that is dying to win, flying around the field, knocking the hell out of everybody that moves and plays as hard as they can play,” Gilbertson said.

Besides toughness, Gilbertson brings stability to a program that has had a wild ride the past four seasons. During that time, Husky fans have seen Neuheisel penalized for recruiting violations, the miraculous 2000 season that ended with an 11-1 record and Rose Bowl victory, the tragic injury and death of safety Curtis Williams, the season-ending collapse in 2001 and last year’s erratic performance that yielded a disappointing 7-6 record.

He feels strongly about the team and has a sense of pride in the UW. He is a man of integrity.

Hugh Millen, former Husky quarterback

And that was before Neuheisel was found to have broken NCAA rules by betting more than $6,400 in two NCAA basketball pools, then not being forthcoming when questioned by NCAA officials.

“Gilbertson brings the stability the program needs,” says Hugh Millen, a former Husky quarterback from 1984-85 who works as a local sports radio commentator. “He feels strongly about the team and has a sense of pride in the UW. He is a man of integrity.”

“We are so lucky to have someone like Keith on staff,” Hedges added. She pointed out that he had no problems with NCAA rule compliance during his stints at Idaho and Cal.

Gilbertson’s coaching career began at Idaho State way back in 1971, when he served three years as a graduate assistant. He had similar stints at Western Washington and with the Huskies before landing the offensive coordinator’s job at Utah State in 1977. He spent the 1982 season as Idaho’s offensive coordinator and then was hired as an assistant for the USFL’s Los Angeles Express. He returned to Idaho in 1985 as offensive coordinator and was named the Vandals’ head coach in 1986.

He guided Idaho to Big Sky Conference titles in 1987 and 1988. The 1988 season was his proudest, as he led the Vandals to an 11-2 record, the best mark in school history. The team advanced to the NCAA Division I-AA semifinals and he was named the Big Sky Conference coach of the year.

After that season, he rejoined the Huskies and stayed until he got the Cal job in 1992. After he was fired in Berkeley, he spent three seasons as an assistant with the Seattle Seahawks before rejoining the UW in 1999.

His coaching career has carried him to seven bowl games and many stops for him, his third wife, Barbara, and their three children. “I really kind of never wanted to be anything else in my life,” said Gilbertson, whose dad, Keith, is a longtime Snohomish high school coach.

Although Athletic Director Barbara Hedges never considered any other candidates to replace Neuheisel, she still had to wait six weeks to officially appoint Gilbertson because Neuheisel exercised his right to appeal his dismissal. His appeal was denied and Neuheisel’s termination became effective July 25.

I am familiar with the Washington experience, and I know what the fans and city want.

Keith Gilbertson

Now, the deposed coach is thought to be considering a lawsuit against the UW and possibly even the NCAA for their “rush to judgment” that led to his stunning termination, according to his lawyers. Neuheisel’s lawyers further declared that Washington fired him without cause, and thus owe him the remainder of his $3.6 million contract. That sum includes a $1.5 million loan that was to be forgiven had Neuheisel remained with the UW for the duration of his contract. Hedges says the gambling and untruthful statements gave her cause to fire Neuheisel, and that Neuheisel is not due anything.

The Neuheisel affair—which was the buzz of the Emerald City since the Seattle Times reported in early June that the Husky coach had participated in two high-stakes gambling pools, and that the NCAA was investigating his actions—left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. But the hiring of Gilbertson was the most soothing action that Hedges could have taken.

The end of Neuheisel’s Husky career was an embarrassing situation for the school as well as the 42-year-old coach who was lured from Colorado 4 1/2 years ago to take over the Husky program in 1999.

While the UW had tolerated his earlier recruiting transgressions-which resulted in restricted contact with recruits-Neuheisel got himself in real trouble in January when he publicly denied that he was a candidate for the head coaching job of the San Francisco 49ers. Days later, he admitted that he had, in fact, interviewed for the job. The admission came only after a Seattle newspaper columnist wrote that he overheard Neuheisel talking about the interview on a cell phone call at the San Francisco airport.

But the final straw was when Neuheisel and Hedges met with NCAA investigators at a Seattle hotel on June 4. There, the investigators confronted Neuheisel with information that he had participated in high-stakes gambling pools, a violation of NCAA rules. At first Neuheisel denied taking part, but later admitted that he had participated.

Neuheisel argued that he had not violated either University or NCAA policies by joining the pools with his friends. In his defense, he cited 1999 and 2003 memos from Dana Richardson, the UW’s compliance director, that said: “The bottom line of these [NCAA] rules [prohibiting players and coaches from gambling] is that if you have friends outside of ICA [Intercollegiate Athletics] that have pools on any of the basketball pools, you can participate.”

The NCAA said the memo was incorrect. And Hedges, considering the deception about the 49er job and to NCAA investigators, said enough was enough. So she terminated Neuheisel.

“I would tell you this is extremely painful for me have to make these kinds of decisions about people you truly admire,” Hedges said at the news conference announcing the firing. “I had to do that with Bob Bender and now with Rick Neuheisel. It couldn’t be more difficult.”

Neuheisel, who coached four seasons at Colorado, ended his Husky career with a 33-16 record. He guided the team to four bowl game appearances, the highlight being a 34-24 victory over Purdue in the 2001 Rose Bowl. That capped an 11-1 season in which the Huskies finished ranked third in the nation.

Neuheisel was also highly praised for his handling of the tragedy of safety Curtis Williams, who was paralyzed after a helmet-to-helmet hit in the Oct. 28, 2000 game at Stanford. Neuheisel remained in the Bay Area the day after the game to visit the hospitalized player, and maintained close touch with Williams until he died in his sleep from complications due to his paralysis on May 6, 2002.

Now, Gilbertson has the burden of stabilizing the football program while trying to get the Huskies back in the elite of college football. “I am familiar with the Washington experience, and I know what the fans and city want,” he said. “I understand the expectations. The bar has been set high. And that is exciting.”