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Chris Petersen, Washington eyeball transition from upstarts to established

"When you step back and look at the big picture, the bar's been moved up," Washington coach Chris Petersen said. Christopher Mast/Icon Sportswire

The "moral victory" question was inevitable and justifiable after Washington lost to top-ranked Alabama 24-7 in a College Football Playoff semifinal. It was a glass-half-empty/half-full inquiry that on one hand posits inferiority -- a patronizing, "You guys put up a good fight!' -- but also acknowledged the simple fact of where both programs were coming from when they met.

While the Huskies and Crimson Tide went nose-to-nose over high stakes after outstanding seasons, they certainly were not the same. Alabama is the ultimate old-money program, suffused with success and historical importance and unparalleled avidity among its adherents.

And Washington is ... what? That is the page-turning question.

A year ago, the hype around the seemingly rising Huskies was just starting. It inspired plenty of skepticism among rivals who'd enjoyed the program's prolonged national irrelevance. Coach Chris Petersen had predictably joined that fray by making fun of the preseason hype and all the "Are the Huskies (finally) back?" headlines.

Yet after winning the Pac-12 and earning a berth in the CFP, the narrative had changed.

"When you step back and look at the big picture, the bar's been moved up," Petersen said, rerouting that "moral victory" question.

Of course, even with the "what ifs?" of the Alabama game echoing inside his head, Petersen almost immediately cast aside the very idea he'd introduced a "bar" and started plugging the possibility of any leakage of outside noise seeping into his program, saying, "I think we go back to ground -- square one, ground zero."

Which is what Petersen will tell his players over and over again, as spring practices wind down this week, over the summer and throughout fall camp. The past doesn't matter, nor does the offseason chatter.

Huskies first-team All-Pac-12 linebacker Azeem Victor already was on-point with what is certain to be Petersen's theme. Asked about the success of 2016 changing or at least evolving the attitude in the locker room, Victor spit out the bait with just a hint of irritation.

“Never," he said. "In our eyes, we feel like we didn't do anything. We've still got that chip on our shoulder.”

That's good, because history is against Washington. For a quarter century, the Huskies encores after banner seasons have been lackluster, and don't even bring up the term "sustained success."

  • In 1991, Washington went 12-0 and shared the national title with Miami. In 1992, after ranking Nos. 1 or 2 while rolling to an 8-0 start, it lost three of its final four games amid breaking news of NCAA violations. Legendary coach Don James resigned before the 1993 season.

  • In 2000, Washington went 11-1, won the Rose Bowl and finished ranked No. 3. In 2001, it rose to No. 8 -- a ranking it wouldn't reach again before this past season -- before losing three of its last four games. Rick Neuheisel would be fired after the 2002 season, again with NCAA issues hounding the program.

When Washington finished 12-2 this season, it was the first time in 16 years that it has lost fewer than four games.

From 1957 until 1992, the Huskies had just two coaches: James and Jim Owens. During that span, they were the second-most accomplished West Coast college football program behind USC, playing in nine Rose Bowls and an Orange Bowl. From 1993 until 2016, they've had six coaches, none lasting more than six years.

If it appears we're using the past to throw a wet blanket over the Huskies' present, then here's the plot twist: We're not. The reason for that is Petersen.

Petersen signed a contract extension last week that will keep him in Seattle through the 2023 season and, apparently, will make him the Pac-12's highest-paid coach. The news was not the least bit surprising, but it confirmed what many had been thinking. The Petersen-Washington marriage looks like a longterm commitment.

That will be noticed in recruiting. It's been duly noted in the Huskies locker room.

“It shows he's here for the longterm, that he's not looking to go somewhere else that he's trying to build something here," Victor said.

Petersen is the first Washington coach since James to be heading into his fourth season with momentum. He also is the first Huskies coach since James to be playing inside a sparkling, renovated stadium. He's got an A-list athletic director in Jennifer Cohen and a highly-motivated base of boosters who are going to make sure Petersen gets what he needs, such as big and deserved raises for his assistant coaches.

When Petersen was hired away from Boise State, the question was whether he could win and recruit in a Power 5 conference. Question answered.

Last year, the question was whether the Huskies could live up to the preseason hype. They exceeded that hype with a final No. 4 ranking.

The narrative around the program has changed again. The issue now is about transitioning from upstart to perennial contender.

It seems unlikely going forward that Petersen will field too many more questions about "moral victories."