(Originally published on ATQ, 2010)
The phrase “Scoreboard, Baby” means a lot to Duck fans.
To authors Ken Armstrong and Nick Perry, it has broader meaning — enough that they made it the name of their brutal assessment of Rick Neuheisel and Washington’s fin-de-siècle football squad.
“Scoreboard, Baby: A Story of College Football, Crime and Complicity”, released in October of 2010, is the sad and harrowing tale of how a University, a program, and a city traded their souls for victories, and the safety of their constituents for playing time.
In 2009, authors Ken Armstrong and Nick Perry wrote a blistering series of articles for the Seattle Times focusing on the 2000 Washington football team. Although it took eight years for Armstrong and Perry to construct their story - primarily because they had to fight their way through FOI requests, find buried court records and chase down interested parties - the articles still shocked Seattle and the UW community. Husky fans split into two camps; one group accusing the Times of pursuing an agenda, the other wringing its hands about the pursuit of victory at any cost.
Now, Armstrong and Perry have expanded their Times series into a book, and it’s a must-read for any fan of football, especially in the Northwest. If you’re a UW supporter, you need to read this to understand how tainted that 2000 Rose Bowl really was, and perhaps to understand how karma brought Ty Willingham on you. The rest of us will settle for the jaw-dropping revelations of Newheisel’s narcissism, and how it rubbed off on his team. But we should be reading it for reasons that go beyond mere schadenfreude.
Five players, and one high-profile coach, are given in-depth treatment inScoreboard, Baby. Three players were essentially criminals who, as coddled star athletes accustomed to getting away with just about anything, found an environment at UW that supported them at every turn. It was a veritable smorgasbord of bad behavior. Wife-beater? Curtis Williams. Armed robbery? Jeremiah Pharms. Hit-and-run driver, accused date-rapist and coddled drunk? Jerramy Stevens. All three had criminal histories — public records — that would have disqualified them from participation, had they been playing for a coach with a moral compass.
Lucky for them, Rick Neuheisel was in charge. By constantly refusing to lay down specifics regarding player behavior, Slick Rick allowed his players all the latitude he — and they — wanted. Punishments, if announced at all, were frequently ignored without explanation. A drunk player drives his car into the wall of a rest home, leaves the scene, is arrested and convicted.. and sits out the first half of a game. Etc.
The Seattle legal system did its best to help keep Rick’s “student” athletes eligible. Seattle police built a substantial felony rape case against Stevens, only to see prosecution delayed for weeks - while the season dragged on - then, oddly, dismissed for an alleged lack of evidence. (The victim eventually sued Stevens, who settled out of court for a reported $300k.) A prominent Seattle defense attorney represented UW football players at discount rates. The district attorney regularly balked at bringing cases against team members; was it because they feared sympathetic juries, or did they just want to keep players at their alma mater on the field?
Williams, Pharms and Stevens were coddled at every step by Neuheisel and the UW football organization. One player regained his scholastic eligibility by earning 15 credits during one summer term in an introductory Swahili class. (His GPA was magically raised to 2.02, just above the cutoff.) Other players flocked to “gut” classes like “Paper Science,” “Dinosaurs” and “Sexuality in Scandinavia” to make grades.
Two other players didn’t see that kind of support. One talented linebacker found his efforts to pursue academics resulted in a demotion to second string. Another player, talented but mentally ill, didn’t get the help he needed, with tragic consequences.
Of course, none of this rubbed off on Neuheisel, who continued to increase his job status. After the 2000 season, he was among the top-five highest paid coaches in America. Eventually brought down by his own prevarication and hubris, he managed to land on his feet - sort of - at UCLA, where any time now they’re going to get really, really concernedthat his teams don’t win very many games.
Karma, being a mean bitch, laid her heavy hand on the once-proud program by the lake. After the Rose Bowl season, Neuheisel brought in stellar recruiting classes, but couldn’t compete for Pac-10 titles. Reduced to inventing a “Northwest Championship” to give his players motivation, he eventually was caught in one too many lies for even the UW administration to overlook, and was gone by 2002 - UW’s last winning season.
UW fans accuse Armstrong and Perry of cherry-picking the worst apples in the bunch. Although these three were the highest-profile miscreants, it’s inconceivable that these were the only attitude problems on the roster. The authors do include mentions of other, less-than-salutary player records of the time. But many of their fans don’t want to hear about any of this. (Particularly, anything concerning the sainted Curtis Williams, who died 18 months after an on-field accident left him a quadriplegic. It’s understandable why Husky fans would prefer none of this came out at all, never mind almost a decade later. But to this day, a mention of Williams that’s anything less than positive will get you banned from most UW football forums.)
Perhaps to counter fan accusations of an anti-UW agenda at the Seattle Times, the authors include plenty of evidence that writers at both the Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer routinely ignored, or failed to pursue, stories that put Husky players in anything but a positive light. (Current ESPN Pac-10 blogger Ted Miller gets his share of grief for publishing encomiums to Pharms and Stevens while reporting for the P-I. Senior Times columnist Blaine Newnham is exposed as the writer UW could go to if they wanted a glowing report. Only veteran Times football columnist Bud Withers is recognized for a belated — and half-assed — attempt to report facts in public record about Williams.)
There are a few quibbles. The authors refer to the “god-awful” Oregon uniforms of the period, but the Duck livery didn’t become insane until 2003, and some think the Joey-era outfits were among the best ever. And there is a report that Oregon fans were known for pelting UW players with “duck shit” (absurd; everyone knows it was allegedly canine in origin. In reality, the projectiles were dog biscuits).
But for the most part the authors, who are admittedly casual-at-best football fans, get things right. And if it’s true that something like this goes on at almost any competitive major college program - yes, including the one in Eugene - then everyone interested in keeping their school’s reputation clean should read this book, and take it to heart. Because no fans, not even Husky fans, deserve to have their hearts ripped out by criminal players and arrogant authority figures.
Nick Perry, in an interview about the book, commented (with emphasis added):
In researching the book, we did notice a pattern both at the UW and in other programs. It goes like this: Ethics and discipline fall by the wayside in the desire to win. Shortcuts taken cause the program to fall apart. A new emphasis is placed on cleaning up the program. Boosters and fans get restless, demanding more wins. The pattern repeats.
It doesn’t always work out this way. Consider the early Rich Brooks years: Assistant coaches cut ethical corners to get players eligible; other players, with an entitlement mentality, break rules; players are caught, coaches fired, program is cleaned up. The difference at Oregon is that in 1981, there was no “winning mentality.” Thus, there was little pressure from boosters and fans, who were pretty much resigned to mediocrity. Maybe that’s how we escaped falling into Perry’s pattern. And maybe that’s why all involved with Oregon football - from the coach all the way down to the fan - need to pay very close attention, and learn from Washington’s mistakes.
Scoreboard, Baby is a cautionary tale. It’s also excellent, well-documented journalism. Highly recommended.