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1981 to 2020: Apple Cup dominance forges foundation of success for Husky football

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When former Washington head coach Don James first arrived in Seattle in December 1974, the Huskies had just defeated the Washington State Cougars 24-17, the first of what would become eight consecutive Apple Cup victories for the Huskies, tying their all-time rivalry record. 

James couldn’t have known he’d hoist the Apple Cup trophy for the next seven years, or just how deeply his 18 years as head coach would plant the seeds of success in the core of the Washington football program — but he sure knew what it would take to get there.

“Don James had a special approach to what he was trying to accomplish,” former UW running back Joe Steele said. “Some guys look at games. Some want to have success in a season. James’ approach that we were taught pretty early is that it’s really about the development of a program.”

Steele, who finished his collegiate career in 1979 as the UW’s all-time leading rusher, remembered his legendary coach addressing the team at the beginning of each season, circling the late-November matchup against the Cougars as a must-win for the program.

And for eight straight years, from 1974 to 1981, that’s exactly what the Huskies did — cementing a tradition of dominance in the Northwest over the UW’s cross-state rivals that has continued to drive student-athletes wearing the purple and gold for close to 50 years.

“You win the northwest, and you’re gonna win the recruiting,” Steele said. “I think that people — young people and their parents — wanna look toward the program, the coaches, the stability of the situation. So the Apple Cup was really that one that was always circled at the beginning of the year. It’s a big deal. It really is.”

For the Huskies, whose 74 Apple Cup victories dwarf the Cougars’ 32, winning the annual rivalry game is an expectation — one of those games where the fear of defeat far outweighs the joy of victory.

But for the Cougars, a win in the Apple Cup creates a rare opportunity for relentless jeering — a century’s release of pent-up frustration and sheer wrath.

“There’s some real hatred coming from the other direction,” former UW coach and WSU player Dick Baird said. “I just think as the Huskies, you have to have a mentality that, ‘We’re gonna take care of the Cougars when we get to ‘em.’ If you’re wearing anything that says Husky on it, you get abused. It’s a long drive over there and back, especially if you don’t win.”

Now, in 2020, the Huskies’ first-year head coach Jimmy Lake has the chance to take his team on the long drive over to the mountains in the hopes of replicating coach James’ epic feat from 1981.

The Huskies have won their past seven games against the Cougars, a win-streak that began in 2013 during the final season under former UW head coach Steve Sarkisian and continued for six years under Chris Petersen. 

As the Huskies gun for their eighth-straight in 2020, they do so under the watchful eye of a large group of die-hard alumni — former players, coaches, and students alike.

Beyond the game, the buzz from the UW community surrounding the rivalry — even with a vacant stadium during COVID-19 — epitomizes an intricate web of UW support that extends from past players to current students and beyond.

And, as James made sure of back in 1974, much of the strength of those patented connections runs through a tradition of Apple Cup success, which has brought students and athletes to Montlake for decades.

After migrating from Los Angeles to the rainy skies of Seattle, former UW quarterback Tim Cowan, who played for Don James from 1978 to 1982, remembers the brutal Apple Cup battles as a microcosm of the UW family atmosphere.

“I remember my freshman year at that Apple Cup, and I’m like, ‘This is as big of a rivalry as there is in the entire country,’” Cowan said. “I have two sons who both played football at UCLA, and it’s nothing like the Husky experience. It’s all relationship-based, and that, I would tell you, is the difference between Washington and any other school in this conference.”

Reach Nick Mendro at Twitter: @m_mendro

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(1) comment


Very interesting. I wonder why Cougar fans are so unreasonable and Husky fans are cool headed.

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