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A Brief History of Stanford-Washington Football

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A look back at one of Stanford’s most competitive opponents.

Stanford v Washington Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Welcome to A Brief History of Stanford-Washington. To commemorate this weekend’s game between these division foes, I’ll be looking back at the history of this very important series. It might surprise you to hear, but of all Stanford’s PAC-12 opponents and other rivals, the game with Washington is historically the Cardinal’s most even matchup. Stanford holds a winning record against every other North division team but the Huskies, who have a slight edge in the all-time series.

The Stanford Cardinal and Washington Huskies both claim one national championship. Washington has a higher all-time winning percentage and, with their most recent PAC-12 Championship last year, they have one more conference title than Stanford. The Cardinal have had more all-Americans, and have the only Heisman winner between the schools. The Huskies have had more NFL Draft picks, but Stanford has had more players go in the first round. Both teams have held ten game winning streaks against the other.

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The University of Washington began sponsoring football in 1889, two years before Stanford fielded its first team. Stanford first played Washington in 1893, the pair met in Seattle and the Stanford University team blasted Washington 40-0. They wouldn’t play for another 27 years.

Stanford University grew to be one of the best Californian teams in the 1890’s, and Washington rose to a position of dominance in the Pacific Northwest in the 1900’s. Under the guidance of head coach Gil Dobie, Washington held the region in a stranglehold. From 1908 to 1916, Dobie’s teams went an astonishing 58-0-3. That’s right, Washington was undefeated for nearly a decade. Dobie left Seattle to coach Navy in the WWI years, and then went to Cornell, where he led the Big Red to three undefeated seasons in the 1920’s. In Dobie’s final season in Seattle, Washington won the Pacific Coast Conference in the league’s inaugural year.

Stanford joined the PCC in 1919, and played their first game against Washington in 1921. Since that game, a 3-0 Stanford victory in Seattle, the two teams have not gone more than two years without playing each other outside of WWII.

The 1920’s saw the first big clashes between these two teams. Pop Warner’s Stanford squad and Enoch Bagshaw’s Huskies were in regular competition for the PCC title and the resulting berth in the Rose Bowl. Washington got their first win in the series in 1922, defeating Stanford 12-8 at the year old Stanford Stadium. The pair didn’t play in 1923, when the Huskies went to their first Rose Bowl (tying Navy 14-14), and they didn’t play in 1924, when Stanford won their first PCC championship (and then lost to Notre Dame 10-27 in the Rose Bowl). The pair would play in 1926, and Washington’s 13-0 home victory over Stanford decided the conference champion and sealed the Huskies’ undefeated season (Washington lost the Rose Bowl to Alabama 19-20).

After the loss, Warner got the better of the Huskies for the rest of the decade. Stanford won five straight over Washington from 1926 to 1930, the 1926 squad being Stanford’s undefeated national championship claimant. The Huskies tied Stanford in 1931 and then beat them in 1932, Warner’s final year, but Warner held a 5-2-1 record against Washington during his tenure at The Farm.

Early Stanford-Washington matchups often carried Rose Bowl importance.
Wikimedia Commons

In the 1930’s, Stanford and Washington were in a battle with USC for domination of the league. The Indians’ 24-0 shutout of the Huskies in 1934 sealed their second of three straight PCC championships and Rose Bowls under Tiny Thornhill. Directly following Stanford’s three appearances in Pasadena, Washington won the PCC, their only blemish in conference play being a tie against the Indians. The Huskies lost the Rose Bowl to Pitt. In 1940, Stanford and Washington once again fought for the PCC title. The Indians’ won 20-10 at home, and sealed their last undefeated season with a 21-13 victory over Nebraska in the Rose Bowl.

Stanford suspended their team for the duration of World War II, so the series took a brief hiatus. Washington continued to play, mostly against military teams, they were also invited to the 1944 Rose Bowl, a very unusual arrangement which saw the Huskies face off against USC in their only conference game of the season. Washington lost 29-0. When the Indians resumed play, the series also resumed. Washington won the first two games, which may have been aided by the team never having been disbanded during the war. The Huskies’ 25-0 victory in 1947 was the most lopsided score to date in the series, but Stanford payed them back in spades. In 1948, the Indians shut out Washington 20-0, and the next year Stanford won 40-0, a margin that wouldn’t be eclipsed for 61 years.

After Stanford’s PCC title in 1951, the Indians and the Huskies kicked around the middle of the conference standings for the rest of the decade. The PCC disbanded after 1958 due to a scandal, but Stanford and Washington helped to found the Association of Western Universities, which would eventually become the modern PAC-12. In 1959, the first year of the AAWU, the Huskies went 9-1, and were selected to play in their first Rose Bowl in 15 years, which Washington finally won in a 44-8 whupping of Wisconsin. The Huskies went 9-1 the next year as well, and beat #1 Minnesota 17-7 in Pasadena. The Gophers were already named the national champions by the AP poll, and some think the Huskies should claim the 1960 season as a national title year for their win over Minnesota.

Washington was coached by the great Jim Owens from 1957-1974. He would go down as one of the great coaches of the PAC-8 era. Stanford started the decade at an all-time low point, but with the hire of John Ralston, their own PAC-8 great, the Indians eventually regained their former glory. Still, for most of the 1960’s, Owens owned Stanford and Ralston. The Huskies won eight straight games over the Indians from 1959 to 1966. In 1967, Stanford finally beat Washington, 14-7 in Seattle. It signaled a sea-change in the nature of the series.

Stanford was back on its feet under Ralston just as Washington was starting to backslide under Owens. Stanford would end up beating the Huskies in 10 straight games from 1967 to 1976, by that time both coaches were gone. Indeed, Ralston’s handpicked replacement, Jack Christiansen, was also done as Stanford’s head coach at the end of the 1976 season. Owens’ successor was Don James, whose tenure would lead to another complete reversal in the dynamic between the pair.

The Cardinal were a mediocre team for most of the 1970’s, 1980’s, and 1990’s. That wasn’t the case with Washington. Under Don James, the Huskies were one of the premier football programs on the West Coast. In 1977, they won the PAC-8 for the first time under James, they would win it five more times in the next sixteen years. They came close nearly every other season, barely losing out to USC or UCLA most of the time. In 1977, Don James broke the Cardinals’ decade long winning streak, and he would only lose to Stanford one more time in his career.

Washington dominated the series with Stanford until the turn of the century. James’ Huskies routinely annihilated the Cardinal, and posted their own ten game win streak in the series from 1983 to 1993 (they didn’t play in 1989). From 1977 to 2003, Washington held a 20-2 record against Stanford, and handed the Cardinal many humiliating losses, including outscoring Stanford a combined 135 to 23 from 1990 to 1992. Those were Don James’ last three years in Seattle before he retired. He won the PAC-10 each year and the unbeaten Huskies earned a national championship in the Coaches Poll for their unbeaten season in 1991.

Don James’ Washington Huskies routinely victimized Stanford for nearly 20 years.
David Eskenazi Collection

James’ successors, Jim Lambright and Rick Neuheisel, had just as much success, beating Stanford even after the Cardinal got good again under Dennis Green and Tyrone Willingham. Indeed, Stanford’s only conference loss in 1999, their first conference championship season in nearly 30 years, came against the Huskies.

Stanford beat Washington for the first time in 11 years in 2004. It was a surprise, because the Cardinal fielded a completely unremarkable team. The bigger surprise was that the Huskies were even worse. Just as Stanford’s program hit a low point in the mid-2000’s under Buddy Teevens and Walt Harris, Washington hit its absolute nadir. The Huskies had completely collapsed under Keith Gilbertson and continued to struggle mightily under former Stanford head coach Tyrone Willingham.

Since their victory in 2004, Stanford has seen much more success against their former tormentors. Jim Harbaugh was hired in 2007 and immediately set about turning the Cardinal’s fortunes around. In his first year, he lost to Washington 27-9, but the team steadily improved. The Huskies hired Steve Sarkisian, who would lead Washington back to respectability in the 2010’s, but by then Stanford had already taken off. The Cardinal beat the Huskies by a touchdown in 2008, and then by 20 points in 2009. In 2010, Harbaugh’s last year and Sarkisian’s second, Stanford drubbed Washington 41-0 in Seattle. It was the most lopsided result in series history, but David Shaw would best it the next year when the Cardinal buried the Huskies 65-21.

In the first half of the 2010 decade, Stanford and Oregon dominated the PAC-12 North. The two competing foes sucked all of the oxygen out of the rest of the division race. This situation infuriated Husky fans, who were losing out to two teams they had become very used to defeating in decades past. From 2011 to 2014, the first four years of the North Division, the Ducks and the Cardinal went an astonishing 31-1 against the rest of the division. The one loss was Washington’s upset of Stanford in 2012, when the Cardinal finally won their first conference title of the new millennium.

After the 2013 season, Steve Sarkisian eventually left Seattle for an ill-fated stint at USC. Washington then hired Chris Petersen to fill the coaching vacancy. Petersen had had unbelievable success at Boise State for nearly a decade, and appeared to be the man to get the Huskies back on track. It didn’t happen right away. While Petersen was getting his ducks in a row, Oregon and Stanford kept on dominating the league. The Ducks won the conference in 2014, and made the College Football Playoff’s Championship Game. In 2015, Stanford won the league, and went to their third Rose Bowl in four years, where they pummeled Iowa into the turf.

Washington v Stanford
Stanford and Washington appear to be set up to compete for North Division titles for years to come.

In 2016, the dark horse pick by some experts to win the PAC-12 North was Washington. The Huskies had finally collected the talent Petersen had deemed necessary to compete for the division championship. They had threatened in years past, but now Washington had the experience necessary to beat these teams instead of just play them close. It didn’t end up being a struggle.

On September 30th, the Huskies pulled off a shocking beatdown over Stanford, a 44-6 explosion against the reigning PAC-12 champs. The very next week they erupted against Oregon, destroying the waning Ducks 70-21 and snapping their infernal 12 game losing streak to their rivals. Just like that, the coup was complete. The Huskies won the PAC-12 North by beating Washington State, who had also blown out the former conference hegemons. Washington won their first conference title since the 1990’s and made their first Playoff appearance. Their win over Stanford is now their most lopsided victory over the Cardinal ever.

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This brings us to 2017. The Huskies are now the big favorites, and hoping to win their second straight North Division title and PAC-12 Championship.

Washington’s victory last year tipped the scales back in their favor. The Cardinal had clawed their way to the precipice of leading the series, but the losses in 2012 and 2016 thwarted their hopes. The Huskies lead Stanford in the all-time series 42-41-4.