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O’Neil: What Ahmad Rashad’s college coach got right is what UW had wrong

Ahmad Rashad starred for Oregon football, not Washington, despite hailing from Tacoma. (Getty)

All due respect to a certain cerveza, but there’s a pretty good case for Ahmad Rashad being the most interesting man in the world.

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A graduate of Mount Tahoma High School in Tacoma when he was known as Bobby Moore, Rashad became a Pro Bowl wide receiver in the NFL, and a staple of sports television after his athletic career.

That résumé doesn’t even hint at Rashad’s whole story, though.

Muhammad Ali once slept over at his house, and stayed for four nights. Michael Jordan is one of his closest friends. He’s also an indirect reminder of a particularly shameful era of University of Washington football, but that has nothing to do with him and everything to do with the Huskies’ coach at the time.

Rashad was not just a star. He was a star that other stars gravitated toward. And remembered, which is why his interview on Bomani Jones’ ESPN podcast “The Right Time” was so incredibly entertaining. It’s really worth a listen if only to hear Rashad recall meeting Frank Sinatra and then mistaking a bowl of wasabi for guacamole and taking himself a big ol’ bite. The Chairman remembered that when the two saw each other years later.

And as I listened to the interview, I was struck by the way Rashad talked about his college football career: “I came from the University of Oregon where we had a coach that was really interested in developing young men,” Rashad said.

That’s something a lot of college coaches say. It’s something that this coach, specifically, did, according to Rashad.

“During that time – you know, there were demonstrations and all kinds of stuff like that,” said Rashad, who played for the Ducks from 1969 to 1971. He specifically mentioned protests against Dow Chemical over its role in the Vietnam War. “Our coach let us miss practice to go to these demonstrations. To be real human beings.”

Do you know who Oregon’s coach was at that time? I didn’t. I looked it up: Jerry Frei. Then I had to read up because the name meant nothing to me. Frei played at Wisconsin in the 1940s with a four-year gap between his sophomore and junior seasons because he served as a pilot in World War II. Frei was on the Oregon staff for 17 years, the first 12 as an assistant and then five as a head coach. In an era when college coaches were dictators, ruling fiefdoms, Frei was adamant about calling his players young men and refusing to regulate their appearance or censor their views.

“(He) took real care to understand the most important thing is to know how to get along with other people and do that,” Rashad said during Jones’ podcast. “Football – the guys that were going to be pros were going to be pros no matter what. His thing was to make sure that everybody sort of got a chance to ask questions. To say why. To be able to do that kind of thing. And that was one of the reasons I went to Oregon.”

That made me think of the reasons why he might have gone to Washington. Or more precisely, the reason he didn’t.

Rashad didn’t mention it in his interview with Jones, and I haven’t heard him address it anywhere, but Washington coach Jim Owens had kicked Rashad’s cousin off his team in 1966. That was Donnie Moore, who rushed for 221 yards in a victory at Ohio State as a junior and then – two weeks later – was kicked off because he was seen holding a beer in a tavern – a violation of team rules. As Dan Raley of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer spelled it out, Moore was one of five UW players at a specific watering hole on this particular evening, but he was the only one disciplined because the coach didn’t know about any other violations.

Moore was suspended the rest of the season and was drafted into the Army two months later. He never played college football again.

This all occurred during a time when Washington football was marked by “racial tension.” That’s the polite way that historians and journalists tend to describe resistance to the ingrained, sustained discrimination that is an enduring reality of black life in America. “Racial unrest” is another euphemism, as if there were some sort of political plate tectonics occurring under the surface.

But what was happening at Washington wasn’t subtle. And in 1969, Washington lost 22-7 to Oregon, a game in which Rashad played. Washington’s Landy Harrell – a black running back – lost a fumble in the game and was punished for it. He had to run stairs at Husky Stadium as punishment and was demoted on the depth chart. A white running back who also fumbled in the game was not punished. Black players were upset and in response to the threat of a possible boycott, Owens held one-on-one meetings with the players in which he asked for pledges of loyalty. He suspended four black players, whom Owens said failed to pledge 100-percent loyalty. Most of the team’s black players boycotted the next game at UCLA, deboarding the team buses which were blocked in by an estimated 200 protestors decrying unfair treatment. Washington lost to UCLA by 43 points that weekend.

This is a scar on Washington’s football history, one I did not know about until 2001 when I was reporting a story on Marcus Houston. He was a high-profile running back for Colorado, and his father – Herman – was part of the UW team in 1969. Herman was from Seattle’s Central District, and he was one of the black players on that bus.

Now, the criticism of Owens was not unanimous. Plenty of people vouched for him then and now, often pointing to his faith in Sonny Sixkiller as starting quarterback. But there were also complaints about black players being stacked at specific positions, a belief that playing time wasn’t always determined by ability and the behavior of specific assistant coaches and a trainer in particular.

There were changes to Washington’s program after that 1969 season. Black assistants were added to Owens’ staff, arbitrary discipline was eliminated and a trainer who made racist remarks was fired.

There’s now a statue of Owens outside Husky Stadium, and while it elicited complaints at the time, there was a whole bunch of talk about “healing” when it was unveiled in 2003. But after listening to Ahmad Rashad’s description of his time at Oregon, I think that’s a much more compelling monument to what college football can – and I think should – be.

Follow 710 ESPN Seattle’s Danny O’Neil on Twitter.

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