Among the synonyms associated with four-year institutions of higher education, “football factory” is not particularly flattering. It suggests a school where athletes are groomed more as potential National Football League players than contributors to mainstream society.
Nothing could be further from Chris Peteren’s “Built for Life” philosophy at Washington, where the Huskies head coach prioritizes the year-long process of preparing for autumn Saturdays over the actual results of those Saturdays.
And yet, three seasons into the Petersen Era, it’s obvious Washington’s talent pipeline to the pros has been restored. Seven Huskies are headed to the NFL Scouting Combine, which begins Feb. 28 in Indianapolis. Assuming something doesn’t go very wrong — and at the Combine, you never know — six of the seven profile as first-, second- or third-round draft selections.
Before Petersen arrived from Boise State, NFL scouts considered the Huskies as all but irrelevant. Between 2007 and 2014, a total of 11 UW players were drafted. The span included a two-year drought — in 2008 and 2009 — when no UW players were drafted.
And to think: Seven figure to be drafted in 2017. This is not a gut hunch of mine. Participation in the Combine requires an invitation. Those lucky enough to score one should interpret it as a first step to the next level.
Despite Petersen’s insistence that his players regard football as merely a part of the college experience, he’s a pragmatist who understands a system enabling the likes of wide receiver John Ross and defensive back Budda Baker to accrue millions of dollars before their NCAA eligibility expires.
Go for it, Petersen has told them. Representation in the draft reflects the kind of thriving football program that impresses high school recruits.
Seven Combine invitations seems like a lot, but here’s how competitive that world is: USC is sending eight players to Indianapolis, as is Utah, and now I am probing my laptop keyboard for a way to put that fact into context.
(My college journalism professors preached an avoidance of exclamation points, but I’m seeing so many of them nowadays, from powerful people with important jobs, that I can’t resist.)
Besides USC and Utah!, four other schools — Arkansas, Florida, Florida State and Ohio State — also are sending eight players to the Combine. Miami, Texas A&M and Clemson are sending nine. Alabama and LSU are sending 10, well behind the leader of the pack, Michigan, with 14.
The head coach who recruited 14 future NFL draft choices to play for the Wolverines, Brady Hoke, was fired by Michigan and fired, more recently, as defensive coordinator at Oregon. Hoke is now the defensive line coach at Tennessee.
In other words, while assembling talent is essential for any college head coach, molding the talent into a successful team, as Jim Harbaugh has done at Michigan, is even more essential.
These are high bars that Petersen not only has cleared, but cleared as a visionary steeped with a plan for every player.
“When they’re really good at life and the life skills that go with it, the football is usually really good as well,” he has said. “When their life isn’t in order, they struggle on the football field.”
The 2016 Huskies struggled on only two occasions: at home against USC, and in what amounted to a neutral-site road game in Atlanta against Alabama. That they contended for the national championship shouldn’t have been a surprise, given Petersen’s accomplished history.
The surprise was how Washington contended for the national championship so soon. When Petersen replaced Steve Sarkisian, five seasons of gradually attained progress — from a .500 team destined for an inconsequential bowl to a powerhouse — seemed like a reasonable ambition. Peterson turned the program around in Season Three.
“Live and learn” is the pitch Petersen throws to UW recruits. And oh, by the way, in case you’re dreaming about overcoming the impossibly long odds of advancing to the NFL, seven Huskies are making travel plans for Indianapolis.
When progress is the most important product, it’s no insult to be known as a football factory.
John McGrath: @TNTMcGrath