SEATTLE — Roscoe C. “Torchy” Torrance was a civic icon in Seattle, such that Bob Hope wrote the introduction to his autobiography and Bing Crosby considered him a friend. He liked raising money and giving it to people. Most famously, he liked giving money to football players at his alma mater, the University of Washington, and saw no reason why he should feel any shame about it, even after Sports Illustrated in 1956 documented a so-called “slush fund” administered by Torrance and used to issue payments beyond what was allowable at the time.
“It’s a fact of life that a kid can’t be a college athlete and make it through school without outside help if he’s in any need at all,” Torrance wrote in his book. “That’s why there has been a fund like ours at almost every university.”
The Pacific Coast Conference sanctioned the Huskies for those impermissible payments from Torrance’s Greater Washington Advertising Association. It sanctioned three other schools, too, and the scandal eventually led to the league’s dissolution.
Stories have trickled out in the years since. Washington wanted star running back Hugh McElhenny, so what did Torrance do? Got him a job, got his wife a job, got him a place to stay and handed him crisp bills in the locker room in exchange for touchdowns. Don Heinrich, another Washington star and College Football Hall of Famer, joked at Torrance’s funeral, in 1990, that Torrance slipped him “a dollar or two” and that McElhenny would prod him about asking Torrance for a raise.
Point is, Washington supporters have long had at least some appetite for paying players. The degree to which it still exists might dictate where the Huskies are headed.
The sport has changed immeasurably in the 60-some years since Torrance assembled all those bags, even as it stays the same. As Washington resets under a first-year coaching staff, it’s no longer against NCAA rules for players to earn money off their name, image and likeness, and this newfound financial freedom has brought into the open the bidding-war aspect of high-profile recruitments. NIL-as-inducement still is against the rules, but so is rolling through a stop sign on a right turn.
More generally, the primary competition for Pac-12 supremacy poses a greater threat than during the tenure of former coach Chris Petersen, Washington’s most successful period since the Don James era. Lincoln Riley is at USC now. Oregon is back atop the North Division, and new coach Dan Lanning has everything he needs to keep the Ducks recruiting at a top-10 level nationally.
Revenue and interest gaps have grown between the Pac-12 and its better-resourced peer conferences, though Washington always has stood among the small group of West Coast programs whose tradition, support and spending power put it within shouting distance of national relevance, if in spurts.
The Huskies are only four years removed from their most recent conference championship; there still are players on the roster who participated in the Rose Bowl. But so much has changed in the years since that it’s worth wondering what kind of program Washington can be in the modern college football ecosystem, and, with regard to that which it controls, what kind of program it wants to be.
The Athletic reported last month that an unnamed five-star prospect had agreed to an NIL deal with a booster collective at an unnamed SEC school that could pay him up to $8 million by the end of his junior year. Tennessee’s donor collective, Spyre Sports, proudly proclaims its goal of raising upward of $25 million each year for NIL opportunities.
Can Washington compete on that front — particularly with regard to contractual guarantees for high school prospects, no matter the written rules?
Does it need to?
Does it want to?
“We’re not going to do stuff like that,” says Emmy Armintrout, the executive director and general manager of Montlake Futures, Washington’s independent donor collective, asked specifically about the QB deal. “And we’re not going to compete with that. That’s never really been our lane, anyway, even pre-NIL. … I want to create something that’s sustainable, and that builds on Washington’s strategic position in the college marketplace already.”
Founded by donors, Montlake Futures exists to facilitate NIL opportunities for Washington athletes, though you won’t hear about them arranging million-dollar contracts in order to secure a recruiting commitment — even as other collectives race to outbid each other for top prospects. The Athletic recently reported that even a three-star defensive tackle, for example, netted a deal with a donor collective worth $500,000 over a four-year period. The going rate for a five-star quarterback is considered to be in the $2 million range.
Cohen said “a lot” of Washington football players and other athletes have some manner of NIL deal “from a variety of sources,” not just via Montlake Futures, and thinks the school is “just scratching the surface” with regard to what it might accomplish through NIL.
“I also think you have to develop a cohesive locker room and a consistent strategy around recruiting,” she said. “Sometimes we get so obsessed about the kids that we miss, but the issue to me is more when we take too many kids that we miss on. I don’t think that changes in the NIL world.”
One of Amintrout’s early goals is to facilitate deals that might motivate otherwise dubious donors to contribute. Armintrout says Montlake Futures doesn’t formally interface with recruits, but she knows coaches mention the organization in conversations with prospects. Recent examples of deals for Washington athletes include a meet-and-greet with football players prior to a men’s basketball game, or a paid appearance by two men’s basketball players on a local radio station.
“I think the Washington alumni base — I’ve spoken with a lot of them who feel a little queasy about NIL, but they obviously want us to be competitive and make good stuff happen,” she said. “So if I’m able to demonstrate NIL opportunities that make them feel like, ‘OK, this feels good to me,’ that increases our likelihood of being able to fundraise down the line.”
You can count Ron Crockett among the queasy. The longtime Washington donor and former owner of Emerald Downs racetrack says he and his wife, Wanda, have funded 390 student scholarships across athletics, business and engineering. They have contributed significantly to several facilities projects and helped rally others to donate, too. Crockett was part of the search committee that recommended Cohen for the AD job.
He’s not opposed to NIL, but he is opposed to guaranteeing significant sums to high schoolers.
“Maybe they’re out there, but of donors that I know, that are willing to pay a lot of money to recruit a five-star — I don’t know that I know that person, and I’ve lived for 82 years in this town,” Crockett said. “I may be way wrong, but I think that person, or persons, would have surfaced by now.”
Still, Montlake Futures is attempting to draw from a donor base that put upward of $32 million in the department’s coffers during the 2020-21 fiscal year. There’s money out there. And while the collective isn’t currently soliciting general donations — “compensated opportunities” are the current priority, and the organization wants those opportunities to carry meaning beyond the payment — Armintrout said they do want to establish a general fund to help meet future cash deployment goals.
There is a belief at Washington that it can create the kind of value for current athletes that will resonate with prospects, contractual guarantee or not.
“You have to have examples to share of current students in your program that have benefited from NIL to attract certain types of players to your program,” said Cohen, whose interaction with the collective must remain limited. “It’s part of your blueprint for recruiting. It has to be. It doesn’t have to be the whole thing, but we have to be in on it.”
As new coach Kalen DeBoer put it: “We want to be aggressive in sharing with (recruits) that those opportunities exist here, too.”
The school can’t facilitate deals — Cohen says state ethics laws pose challenges that even some other Pac-12 schools don’t face — but Washington does have its own program, Boundless Futures, to support NIL education for athletes.
“As involved as the school can be, and as well-structured as the school can provide NIL nine months in — Washington is ahead of most schools that I’ve seen,” says Blake Lawrence, CEO and co-founder of Opendorse, an NIL technology company.
Part of Washington’s recruiting pitch has long been the number of high-profile companies based in Seattle, and Montlake Futures launched with several listed as “founding partners”: Amazon, Alaska Airlines, Costco, Nordstrom and Precept Wines.
“Based on conversations I’ve had with all of them,” Armintrout said, “they’re very interested in engaging in this space, and good things will happen. It’s just going to take a little bit of time with the big companies.”
Is it a winning formula? Even if current players make decent cash, will Washington be able to compete for star recruits who know collectives at other schools will proffer seven-figure contracts before they ever put on pads?
“I would respond differently to that question and ask, how is that a legitimate NIL deal?” Cohen said. “Or is that pay for play? That’s what I would ask.”
Petersen never ascended the James mountaintop, but he could at least see it from where he brought the Huskies during his six-year tenure.
Thirty-two wins, a College Football Playoff bid, two conference championships and three consecutive New Year’s Six appearances from 2016 through 2018 put the Huskies back on the national radar, and it raised Washington’s recruiting profile, too. Petersen’s best teams were loaded with overlooked prospects, but he also signed more blue-chip recruits (rated four- or five-stars) than not during his final three classes. So as Oregon has expanded its reach into other parts of the country — while continuing to thrive in California — and Riley brings the kind of name recognition and immediate credibility that USC lacked under Clay Helton, there is a sense that Washington is playing catch-up as DeBoer sifts through what former coach Jimmy Lake left behind.
“When Pete was there, it was like, all right, they’re gonna get some big dudes, they’re going to be tough on the trail, they’re going to be doing everything the right way, consistently, on every single top guy in the West,” said an experienced Pac-12 recruiting staffer. “As soon as you saw him leave, that kind of aura just left. You feel better going up against Washington now, ever since Pete left. I can say that confidently.”
Lake’s class rankings suggested a regression: The Huskies signed a 17-player class under Lake in 2021 that ranked 30th nationally in the 247Sports Composite, and their 2022 class, which included only eight high school signees plus seven transfers of varying experience, ranked 11th in the conference. That’s after signing classes in 2018, 2019 and 2020 — Petersen’s final three cycles — that each ranked in the top 16 nationally.
During that span, Washington signed 66 prospects, 36 of whom were blue-chip recruits. Of the 26 prospects signed in the two classes since, only six were blue chippers.
The difference has been stark, yet there is at least some belief that even Petersen, with his meticulous, thorough approach, left money on the table.
“Petersen is a remarkable coach,” said an FBS athletic director with West Coast experience, “but it didn’t feel like he was ever fully in on the recruiting nature of the job. I think that’s a place where if you’ve got somebody who’s all-in on recruiting, they could crush it.”
Washington does face a few justifiable disadvantages relative to some other Power 5 programs. Consider that of the current top-100 prospects in the 2023 247Sports Composite rankings, only 14 live in the Pac-12 footprint. The dearth is particularly stark at certain positions. Only two of the nation’s top-50 defensive linemen live in Pac-12 territory. Only eight of the top-50 interior offensive linemen live out West, as do only five of the top-50 offensive tackles.
Cooper Petagna says realistic expectations for recruiting at Washington likely fall below what Petersen accomplished toward the end of his tenure. He would know as well as anyone: Petagna not only worked for Petersen as director of player personnel (2018-19) but spent one season as director of recruiting under Mario Cristobal at Oregon after that, and he has previous experience on recruiting staffs at Alabama, LSU, Cincinnati and Michigan. He currently works as a national recruiting analyst for 247Sports.
“I think at the highest clip — I’ve always believed this — if Washington was over-exceeding expectations, it would be 12-15 (nationally),” Petagna said. “If they were overachieving slightly, it would be in that range Chris Petersen was floating around in, from 16-20. I think that 20-25 range is where you want to be if you’re Washington.”
Said the Pac-12 recruiting staffer: “I don’t think there’s any reason you shouldn’t be top 25 in recruiting every single year there, with the amount of resources they have.”
Is that enough to compete for titles against USC and Oregon?
“I think they can,” Petagna said. “It’s a different type of build. I don’t know what it’s going to look like for them. They need to figure out where they’re going to fit, what their niche is going to be.”
Imagine asking if Washington was adrift five years ago, when it had just won its first Pac-12 title in 16 years and made the College Football Playoff. Or three years ago, after the Huskies’ second conference championship in three seasons and their first Rose Bowl trip in 18 years. It took 22 years for the Huskies to get from James to Petersen, and while Petersen’s Washington credentials paled in comparison, his teams closer resembled the glory days than any sustained period in between. He was a fixture on lists of the nation’s best coaches. He represented stability, or at least an acceptably high floor. (Cohen so valued his leadership skills that the department still pays him $15,000 per month as a consultant.)
Then, just like that, he quit. To replace him, Cohen promoted Lake from defensive coordinator. It did not go as planned.
The Huskies are 7-9 since Petersen’s departure, and DeBoer, Lake’s replacement, became their third coach in two years when he took the job in November. Still, to Cohen, it’s inaccurate to describe Washington as some kind of sleeping giant, lost in the college football wilderness. Those 10-win seasons weren’t that long ago, and confidence in DeBoer, five months into the job, has predictably usurped the unpleasantness of 2021.
“Kalen has energized not just this football program, but this whole athletic department, and I couldn’t be more excited for what’s to come with these guys,” Cohen said. “It doesn’t happen overnight, when you’re trying to build a sustainable, winning culture, but we’re already seeing progress.”
Washington fans can be forgiven if their optimism remains cautious. The Huskies are coming off their first losing record in 13 years, and Lake made so many missteps that he lost his job after coaching only 13 games. DeBoer represents hope, a programmatic reset after a year to forget. But even if Washington isn’t wayward, it’s at least charting a new way forward at a transformative time in college football.
“Can I sit here with a straight face and tell you the playing field is level with Georgia and Alabama and Ohio State?” says Brock Huard, the former Washington quarterback and current Fox analyst. “Absolutely not. But is it level enough to compete and win Pac-12 championships? I think they’ve shown here rather recently that yes, it is.”
James rendered it an annual expectation. In the 25-year period from 1977 through 2001 — encompassing nearly all of James’ 18-year tenure, plus Jim Lambright and the early Rick Neuheisel years — the Huskies finished ranked in the AP Top-25 poll 15 times, tied for ninth-best nationally in that span. During that period, Washington ranked eighth in FBS in winning percentage at .721, behind only Nebraska, Florida State, Miami, Michigan, Penn State, BYU and Ohio State. The Huskies went to seven Rose Bowls, winning five, and also won a share of the 1991 national title, plus an Orange Bowl victory and narrow No. 2 national finish in 1984.
In the 20 years since, they’ve finished ranked only four times and rank 71st in FBS in winning percentage during that span, at just a shade under .500. Oregon and USC each are in the top 10 for the same period.
“The perception among the Pac-12 and everybody else is, this is one of the two or three premier jobs in the conference,” the FBS athletic director said. “I can’t say I ever saw that. I saw a good team. I didn’t see a premier team, and I’m not sure they fulfilled the potential that exists there. … At least in my mind, they should be as dominant or more dominant than anybody in the conference, save USC, because they’ve got it all.”
Indeed, Washington’s resources, location and history provide few excuses for non-contention. In a pre-pandemic world, the athletic department could count on annual revenues north of $130 million when football attendance was healthy, and there have been years in which Washington has made and spent more money than any other public Pac-12 school. Under Petersen, formerly the Pac-12’s highest-paid coach among public schools, the Huskies also ranked in the top 10 nationally in assistant coach salary.
The pandemic wreaked havoc on Washington’s budget and forced many difficult cost-cutting decisions, mostly with regard to department staffing. The football season-ticket base still is recovering from a 2020 season played with no fans, followed by a 2021 season that fell miles short of expectations.
Regardless, Cohen said: “However long it takes, we’re not going to hold back on spending money on football. That’s how we’re going to get out. That’s how we’re going to evolve and develop.”
Certain Washington teams — 1991 and 1984, for example — have entered the season with the national championship as a realistic goal, if not an expectation. But in a broader historical sense, the Huskies largely have celebrated West Coast supremacy, first and foremost — win the conference, win the Rose Bowl. In fact, Petersen’s only stated goal each season was to win the conference and win the bowl game, whichever it might be.
Lake was a touch more emphatic when asked prior to last season: “Every single year, we should be contending for the Pac-12 championship and going to a big bowl game. That’s fair. Anything less than that is unacceptable.”
And DeBoer answered it like this a few weeks ago: “I don’t know anything other than trying to compete for a championship, when it comes to going about your business. It doesn’t always happen the first year, but I don’t know why that can’t be the case for us in this conference.”
He likely is inheriting a more talented roster than might be expected when replacing a fired coach. Remaining members of Washington’s touted 2018, 2019 and 2020 classes now are fifth-, fourth- and third-year players comprising nearly the entire starting lineup. Fans expect a swift turnaround in 2022. Building for the future will require DeBoer and his staff to recruit at a higher level than ever before, and do so under circumstances never before seen in college football — and prove, in the process, that Washington still has a place among the sport’s upper class.
Editor’s note: This is part of a series of stories examining college football programs that have struggled to reach a previous level of success in recent years. What’s gone wrong and what comes next? Also in this series:
(Top photo of Jimmy Lake and Chris Petersen: David Becker / Getty Images)