At every juncture in his college basketball career, Jason Washburn was challenged. To his credit, even playing during the most frustrating years in Utah basketball history, the 6-foot-11 center never backed down. While he never played for a winning team, because of his work ethic and perseverance, he can be considered the cornerstone of the rebirth of the Runnin' Utes basketball program.
"It wasn't for the faint of heart," Washburn says about his career. "It wasn't for someone who could not handle turmoil, and to be honest with you, there were times, that 6-25 season, where i will admit that there were a couple of times when I was ready to break down and give up. My father really supported me from across the country, as much as he could. But there were a couple of nights where it was hard to get some sleep, just because, as a competitor and as someone who loved Utah the way I did, it wasn't something you take easily."
"There were a couple of nights when my now fiancé, Beth, had to hold my hand and really like try to convince me it was going to be OK. And I fought her. I fought her every step of the way on it, but... I'm a huge believer that perseverance will lead to something good."
Washburn began his career at Utah as a highly regarded 4-star big from Michigan that former Utes head coach Jim Boylen stole from under the nose of programs like Michigan State and Michigan. His first season, an 18-15 campaign, he redshirted and learned behind another talented post, Australian 7-footer, Luke Neville.
"The one thing I can tell fans about Coach Boylen is that from a basketball Xs and Os, I still think he had the right idea and was doing things right," Washburn said about the man who was a first-time head coach. "He took chances with players and with his system. Unfortunately, they didn't work out for him."
After a 24-10 season, Boylen's teams posted records of 18-15, 14-17, and 13-18. The final two losing seasons, as well as off the court personnel issues, appeared to be too much of a trend for Utah athletic director, Chris Hill, who dismissed the coach. Then, Washburn had a decision to make. Should I stay or should I go?
"I can't lie," Washburn said of his first coach's firing, "I was hurt. He was something more than a coach to me. He took me under his wing. We were both from Michigan, so we had that connection."
Washburn says that Utah was the primary reason he stayed, and the other was that he wanted to play for new coach Larry Krystkowiak. But the transition to Coach K was anything but a smooth one. Washburn admits he was resentful of the coaching change, but grew to respect his new coach.
"I [went to Coach K] at the end of my junior year," Washburn recalls, "and I said to him, 'Coach, I really have to apologize to you, because at the beginning I kind of fought you a little bit 'cause I wasn't ready for that change. I wasn't mature enough to look at it as an adult and take it for what it was.'"
Several players either transferred or were dismissed from the team, and Coach K's first season culminated in a disastrous 6-25 record, the worst in Utah men's basketball history. But the Utah staff continued to plug away, recruiting the best talent in the state (landing local star Jordan Loveridge), and developing the remaining talent.
"[Coach Krystkowiak] never let us play less than our best, whether the game was decided or not," Washburn said. "I said to myself, 'This man has a passion for winning that I want to be a part of.'"
At the same time as he was adjusting to a new head coach, Washburn had to adjust to a new conference. In the summer between his sophomore and junior season, the University of Utah joined the Pac-12, increasing the level of competition and exposure for the program.
"It was a hard transition because of the record we had when entering the Pac-12," Washburn said of the Utes' move to the new conference, "but it turned out to be a good decision for the program."
There is some symmetry to his career, as Washburn began with an 18-15 record and finished with a 15-18 senior season. He was raw and youthfully energetic as a freshman, while he graduated a more polished, focused player. His senior year, Washburn averaged 11.9 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks per game. He had several double-doubles in 2012-2013 and became a more complete player in the post, especially on the defensive end. He acknowledges the criticism of him being "just an offensive center," and it drove him to be more active on the glass and on defense.
"A lot of things can be credited to my senior year," Washburn remembers. "Looking at myself individually, I was tired of that criticism. I was tired of losing."
Even though the final record of his senior season was a losing one, the 2012-2013 Utes won four of their final 5, including two games in the Pac-12 Tournament. Washburn was named a Pac-12 Player of the Week, and the he tallied 18 points, 5 rebounds, and 2 blocks in a phenomenal performance against the second-seeded Cal Bears, a 79-69 victory punctuated by Jared DuBois's late 3-pointer, sending the game into overtime.
"My senior year, at the end, was everything I ever wanted in Utah basketball," Washburn said.
The foundation laid by Washburn continued this season, as the 2013-2014 Utes finished the season 21-12 overall, 9-9 in the Pac-12, and 18-2 at home. The team recorded its first 20-win season and post-season berth since 2009, and, perhaps as important, fans have returned to the Huntsman Center.
"I do feel like I was part of the upswing, which, obviously, this season showed the program is on the upswing. What happened in my senior season, those last few games, were well worth everything I went through."
Washburn, who has been playing professional basketball in the Urkraine, attended the recent groundbreaking ceremony for the soon-to-be-constructed Jon M. and Karen Huntsman Basketball Center, and Krystkowiak made it a point to call out Washburn and thanked him for being the one guy who stayed with the program and that the head coach was able to rebuild the program. So, while Krystkowiak is being credited as being the architect of the program's resurgence, Washburn is the cornerstone of that reconstruction.
"Hearing that man say [those words], the guy who is leading our program back to something legit, not just in the Pac-12, but also in the next couple of years, if not sooner, nationally, it drew some water to my eyes just a little bit," Washburn admitted. "I don't ask for thanks. I did it because I loved this place."