As good as Washington was under Don James, it needed to get better.
When the Huskies traveled to El Paso, Texas, to play Alabama in the 1986 Sun Bowl, they were considered one of the nation’s top teams. But they lacked the speed to keep up with linebacker Cornelius Bennett and the Crimson Tide.
There was a message in that moment. The 28-6 defeat caused Washington’s staff to shift its recruiting focus. It triggered a change in philosophy that prompted Washington to concentrate on finding faster football players.
“As far as the philosophy of speed, it was kind of drubbed in our face when we played Alabama,” said Dick Baird, Washington’s recruiting coordinator at the time. “Unfortunately, we had to get our teeth kicked in to realize it.”
After that loss, James called Baird into his office. The message was simple: “I want all of our emphasis to go toward speed.”
Baird started to chart the West Coast’s top track times. The Huskies continued to lock up the top talent in the Northwest. And they committed to bolstering their recruiting effort in California.
That foundation, and the subsequent success, produced bowl wins and a national championship in 1991.
History is repeating itself.
“As you go back to some of those national championship days, all the multiple Rose Bowl days, there’s a very, very dominant number of California kids on those rosters,” Washington defensive line coach and defensive run game coordinator Tosh Lupoi said. “I think that’s what we’re really building here.”
More than two decades later, recruiting has changed. Social media makes it easier to track talent. Every combine, camp and recruiting trip is rounded up on the Internet. But the basic blueprint established by James' staff remains relevant. Steve Sarkisian and his assistants continue to work toward controlling Washington. But the Huskies are also capitalizing on their California connections.
“We’re really trying to put our signature on California,” Lupoi said.
The Huskies did well in California last year, bringing in 15 athletes, and they have continued to do well since signing day, securing nine more verbal commitments from California recruits.
"The number of premier athletes that come out of that state that go on to play at such a high level, not only in college football, but in the NFL, I think lends itself for us to go into that state with the background that we have," Sarkisian said. "Whether it’s where we’re from, where we’ve coached, the relationships that we’ve forged -- we spend quite a bit of time there. Not to neglect the other surrounding states, but we spend quite a bit of our time in the state of California to go along with our time in the state of Washington."
While James and Sarkisian realized the importance of recruiting California, they made sure not to neglect Washington’s top talent. However, the idea of fencing off a program’s home state has changed.
"It’s not about sending our entire staff to California or making sure everybody’s got a piece of the state of Washington," Sarkisian said. "It’s doing it the right way and making sure we’re covering our bases in our own backyard, but we’re also maximizing our opportunities to go recruit some of the best players in the country, which happen to be south of us."
More than locking up a single state or a region, the Huskies focus on walling off the prospects that best fit their program, while trying to reel in a few surprises along the way.
“It’s been a big push to have a very strong effort of really owning Washington and really competing to own the Northwest, as well as having, out of the whole Pac-12 Conference, perhaps the strongest push to really own the state of California in the recruiting aspect,” Lupoi said.
While several nationally rated 2012 local prospects left the state, including linemen Joshua Garnett, who signed with Stanford, the Huskies’ used a late push both locally and in California to haul in a top 25 class.
The 2013 group currently ranks No. 21. They have two receivers in the ESPN 150 -- No. 72 Damore’ea Stringfellow (Moreno Valley, Calif./Rancho Verde) and No. 144 Darrell Daniels (Oakley, Calif./Freedom) -– and two recruits in the ESPN 300 -– No. 160 quarterback Troy Williams (Harbor City, Calif./Narbonne) and No. 207 defensive lineman Elijah Qualls (Petaluma, Calif./Casa Grande).
In addition to the players from whom Washington has secured verbal commitments, several other highly touted prospects praised the program before selecting other schools.
“With the stuff they’re building now, it has yet to come,” said linebacker Reuben Foster (Auburn, Ala./Auburn), the nation’s No. 2 prospect who is currently committed to Auburn. “They’re building a program. They’re building a good program. And I’ve seen it. There’s a difference when you see it.”