2013's #7 Most-Read: UW's new Husky Stadium, revealed

What seemed an impossible dream in 2008 is now reality. What's been hiding behind those U-District construction fences.
Crews lay down the Husky lettering in an endzone of the new stadium.

Crews lay down the Husky lettering in an endzone of the new stadium. Photo: Husky Stadium/ Facebook

She resided on Union Bay looking out at Mount Rainier. She was aged, sagging and arthritic. Needing more than a facelift, she underwent a 20-month surgery that cost $261 million.  

Husky Stadium is the face of University of Washington football and, in late 2008, it was scarred badly. Having just endured a no win-twelve loss season under recently-fired head coach Tyrone Willingham, the football program was losing on the field, was missing out on most highly-prized recruits. 

The renovation — of the Stadium and the football program — was a complex algorithm of smart personnel changes, political resistance, a paradoxical economy, fiercely loyal Husky fans and planned facilities with bling. The UW's athletic department solved the equation by building an almost completely new stadium, the public reveal of which, on August 31, will feature the Huskies and the 19th-ranked Boise State Broncos.

The helicopter view of the new Husky Stadium. Photo: Husky Stadium/ Facebook.

It's all about the recruits

My son and I went on a recent tour of the nearly-completed stadium, which included a glimpse of Head Coach Steve Sarkisian's gorgeous office — almost a small apartment — overlooking the new field and Lake Washington. We spotted the coach at a University-area restaurant after the tour. My son: “Hey Coach, we were just in your office.” Sarkisian was ultra-friendly, but clearly uncomfortable with the attention given to his new quarters and the public perception of its expense. “It's all about the recruiting,” he said. “It really is.”

The impetus for the new stadium requires some history. Husky football tradition was to perform usually at high levels (two national championships and seven Rose Bowl wins). But not quite seven years from a Rose Bowl win, the Huskies began the disastrous 2008 season under fourth-year head coach Tyrone Willingham. His three previous years resulted in a record of 11-25 and Pacific-10 Conference finishes of last, ninth and last.

Washington was the only winless major college football team in the country that year, and many of the games were not competitive. So Athletic Director Scott Woodward made the first of several personnel decisions that proved essential to the program: He fired Willingham and hired Steve Sarkisian, a University of Southern California assistant coach who was young, energetic and a talented recruiter. Over the next several seasons, Sarkisian brought in both recruits and additional, proven recruiters as assistant coaches. But the aging stadium and related facilities were not a selling point.

He takes orders from Woodward, but Sarkisian's football program powers the entire athletic program — financially and spiritually. Save the two basketball teams, every UW team depends on football revenue for its existence. If the football team fails — as it did miserably under Willingham — everyone is sick.  

Sarkisian knows well that recruiting new talent is essential. He has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in capable assistants, whose forte is recruiting. And what appeals to recruits are eye-popping facilities. Yes, they all like to win, and they all claim that academics are important, but it all starts with great facilities. Oregon and Oklahoma State are examples of schools that attract great recruits with middling academics because they have the glitz to move recruits.

The University's Athletic Department swears (officially) that the stadium was not the product of an arms race with other schools. (Notably Oregon, California-Berkeley, Arizona and Stanford have all undergone significant football facility improvements.) The perception and evidence, though, suggests otherwise:

  • This month Sports Illustrated profiled Oregon's new football training facility, replete with Brazilian wood and marble. “[T]he. . .facility represents the most lavish maneuver yet in the competition to recruit and develop talent.”
  • When asked about the Oregon facilities after a recent tour, Bishard “Budda” Baker, a Bellevue High School safety and probably the top recruit on the Husky wish-list, said that Oregon's facilities are “a huge plus to me” in his recruitment. A similar comment came from John Plattenburg, a Houston, Texas cornerback, who is also a top Washington recruit:  “Oregon, that's a good program with great facilities.” 
  • An August 2, 2013 edition of the Tucson Citizen detailed the amenities of the University of Arizona's new $72.3 million remodel, with this conclusion: “But this is really about one thing: Recruiting.” In the month following completion of the remodel, the Wildcats secured 13 new recruits.

Recruiting 18 year-old athletes that can have their pick of colleges is a tough sell. Eye-catching facilities not only matter, they are critical. The UW's football facilities literally were crumbling, out of date and out of touch with what the buyers—the recruits—were hoping to buy.  

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