Never the Twain Shall Meet

To start today’s post, let’s go all the way back to December 2007. My family, all of us Huskies, was sitting around discussing the possibility of traveling to a bowl game or the NCAA Tournament. My brother, frustrated by my cynicism about the chances of that happening in the near future, boldly declared that both football and men’s basketball will enjoy postseason play during the upcoming season.

Had my brother done more research into the University of Washington’s history in the revenue-generating spots, he might have been a little less confident. In the 43 years since the Athletic Association of Western Universities reconstituted itself as the Pac-8 (eventually to become the Pac-10, the Pac-12 and perhaps someday the Pac-16), the Huskies have reached the NCAA tournament and played in a bowl game during the same academic year just six times — a three-year span from 1983-84 through 1985-86, back-to-back years in 1997-98 and 1998-99 and again last season.

It’s worth noting that standards for postseason play in both sports have changed dramatically in the last four decades. So it was that in 1971-72, Jim Owens‘ charges could go 8-3 on the gridiron while Marv Harshman‘s first hoops team went 20-6 and neither advanced to the postseason. (Sadly, the CBI wasn’t around to take the basketball team when it was snubbed by the NIT.) Still, the issue runs deeper than that. Take a look at a graph of Washington’s records in the revenue sports dating back to 1968-69:

The two graphs look somewhat inverted. Basketball performance makes a “U” or a “V” — strong in the ’70s and early ’80s, then down most of the ’90s before bouncing back in the 2000s. Meanwhile, football obviously peaked in the ’90s and has struggled since.

The inverse relationship between UW’s performance in football and men’s basketball becomes even more obvious when we chart the two records against each other:

For the most part, there’s a downward-sloping line, indicating that basketball does worse as football does better and vice versa. The correlation between the two winning percentages is -0.34, reflecting this inverse relationship and indicating that about a tenth in the variation in the Huskies’ basketball record could be predicted just by knowing how the football team performed the previous fall.

So far, 2011-12 is an outlier on the graph. I’m going to confidently predict that Lorenzo Romar‘s team will not finish the season undefeated. Nevertheless, this has a chance to be one of the best combined seasons for Washington revenue sports. Given the stability of the basketball program and the upward trend in football under Steve Sarkisian, there is every reason to believe the Huskies can have success in both sports in years to come. The target is 1984-85, when Don James led the football team to a rare Orange Bowl victory and Harshman’s last team won the Pac-10 behind Detlef Schrempf and Christian Welp.

There is an upside to having basketball and football teams constantly going in opposite directions, and it’s that Washington has rarely been bad in both sports at the same time. In fact, just once in the Pac-X era have the Huskies finished below .500 in both football and men’s basketball during the same academic year: 2007-08, the very season my brother predicted their success.

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