Brenda Dean got the news through the grapevine and was mortified. Her son, Larry Tripplett, had been in a fight—kind of. During Washington's spring practice a year and a half ago, Tripplett, a junior defensive end at the time, grew tired of being held, so he rocked offensive tackle Elliot Silvers with a forearm shiver at the tail end of a play. The dueling endomorphs grappled briefly, and the skirmish was over.
It was not over, though. When Huskies defensive line coach Randy Hart arrived at his office the next morning, he found a voice-mail message awaiting him from Brenda: "Coach, I understand Larry got into an altercation at practice, and I wanted you to know that I've spoken to him about it and that I don't condone such behavior." Hart still breaks up every time he retells that story. "Poor Brenda," he says. "She probably was up half the night thinking, I've failed! My son got into a fight!"
He returned her call immediately, assuring her that the "fight" had been nothing, not bothering to mention that he'd been thrilled to see her son bare his fangs.
Raising Larry by herself for the most part (she and Larry's father divorced when the boy was one), Brenda had drilled into the lad such values as humility, gentility and consideration for others. When Tripplett arrived on campus as a freshman in 1997, the consensus among the coaches was that she had perhaps done her job too well. Larry was talented. He had sweet feet (he'd played some fullback as a senior at Westchester High in Los Angeles), amazing natural strength (he seldom lifted weights before arriving at Washington) and an excellent burst off the ball. What he lacked was a mean streak. "This guy has more talent than I ever had," says Steve Emtman, an All-America defensive tackle at Washington who retired from the NFL after the '97 season and is a volunteer strength coach for his alma mater. "Larry's only problem on the field [when he arrived] was he was too nice."
Hart's biggest job was teaching Tripplett to leave his manners on the sideline. Together they have succeeded handsomely. Lawrence, as Hart calls his most talented pupil when he wishes to get on his nerves, has learned to summon his inner ogre. A 6'1", 300-pound senior, Tripplett, who moved to tackle full time last season, is one of the nation's top defensive linemen. He is a terrific run stuffer who emerged in 2000 as a dangerous pass rusher as well. Tripplett had 6� sacks last fall—"That's remarkable, getting that kind of production from an interior line position," says Seattle Seahawks director of college scouting Scot McCloughan—and 11 other tackles for losses. He played his best when he was needed most. Two of his sacks were of Miami quarterback Ken Dorsey in Washington's 34-29 victory. In that game, the Hurricanes' sole loss of the season, Tripplett also blocked a field goal and recovered a fourth-quarter fumble. He made potentially game-saving plays in four of the Huskies' 10 wins, and was named to a handful of All-America teams.
Last Saturday he had two tackles, including a sack on third-and-seven from the Washington 14 that forced Michigan to settle for a third-quarter field goal. The Huskies went on to win 23-18, setting the stage for this weekend's showdown with No. 1-ranked Miami. Has his play been enough to silence Hart? "Please," Tripplett said while trudging off the practice field during two-a-days last month. "I mean, you're never going to silence Coach Hart."
Hart, who played guard at Ohio State from 1967 to 1969, has a manic coaching style that evokes that of his mentor, Woody Hayes. While Tripplett has come to appreciate—even to like—Hart, he recalls in gloomy terms his first season under this hypercritical assistant. "Bad things happened to me before I got to Washington," he says, "but they always got better. When I got here, it was as if the sun went away."
Practices were hell for him that first year. "Someone else could mess up a drill," he recalls, "and Coach Hart would let it go. When I messed up, he'd start yelling, 'No, no, no! Do it over!' Even when I made a play, he'd yell, 'Why don't you do that every time!' I thought about quitting every day, but it wasn't an option."
Was Hart trying to run him off? "Hell, no!" the coach says with a wide grin. "I was mad he wasn't starting. That's how good he was."
If Hart was Tripplett's personal solar eclipse, the sun in Larry's life was his mother. He grew up in Windsor Hills, a middle-class enclave in Los Angeles. Brenda is a social worker for LA. County. When she wasn't around, Larry's babysitters were his older sister, Ivy, and his grandmother, Zenobia. ("Not a lot of testosterone in that household," says Hart.) Larry was the prince. "We kept him in a bubble," says Brenda, whose gentle demeanor cloaks a disciplinarian's iron will.