Tom Dienhart Rivals.com College Football Senior Writer
It seems no matter where new Washington coach Steve Sarkisian goes to talk, there are a few Huskies fans who let him have it.
"They say, 'You know, I was in the stands at Husky Stadium the day you were quarterback at BYU and you got beat by Washington,' " he says. "I don't know what it is, but people just love to rub that in."
Steve Sarkisian has energized the Washington program since his arrival.
(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Sarkisian, 35, laughs at the memory of the 29-17 loss his 1996 BYU squad suffered that day in Seattle. Why not? He's a Husky now – and he's still an undefeated first-year coach, full of promise and possibilities. His goal: restore the luster to a battered Washington program.
"When I say 'Washington,' the first thing that comes to mind is tradition," Sarkisian says. "I think of national championships, Rose Bowl championships, I think of Don James, I think of great players, I think of the great quarterbacks they have had here, and of the defensive linemen."
But for most of this decade, the college football world hasn't given much thought to Washington. The Huskies stand shoulder to shoulder with traditional powers Miami and Florida State in a dubious fall from grace in the 2000s.
And, honestly, Washington has been on a 16-year descent since James – the "Dawg Father" – retired after the 1992 season with a 153-57-2 record. The program really hasn't been the same since, going 95-94-1, and the Huskies haven't been to a bowl since 2002. Last season, they hit rock bottom, going 0-12 under Tyrone Willingham. No other Football Bowl Subdivision program went winless in 2008.
The coaching churn has been remarkable: Sarkisian will be the Huskies' fourth coach this decade, following Rick Neuheisel (fired after four seasons for NCAA violations), Keith Gilbertson (fired after two seasons) and Tyrone Willingham (fired after four seasons).
Washington hired Sarkisian in early December, signing him to a five-year contract. He had spent the past four seasons as an assistant to Pete Carroll at USC. Sarkisian served as quarterbacks coach, offensive coordinator and assistant head coach. He will make $1.75 million this season and the value escalates gradually, to $2.3 million in 2013.
Each came of age as an assistant at USC under Pete Carroll, at one time sharing the role of offensive coordinator. And it was after Sarkisian turned down the Oakland Raiders' coaching job that Kiffin swooped in and took it before the 2007 season.
Now, each is set to begin his first season as a college head coach. The tenures of both already have made headlines, with Kiffin taking an early lead in bombast and brashness.
Sarkisian committed two secondary violations in a two-week span in January. One happened because he and defensive coordinator Nick Holt met with two recruits while a member of the media was present. Another occurred when Washington simulated a game-day entrance for a recruit during a campus visit.
That's nothing compared to Kiffin. He has committed six secondary violations related to recruiting, evidently believing wholeheartedly in the credo, "Love me, hate me, just don't ignore me."
"I consider Lane to be a good friend," Sarkisian says. "I wish him nothing but the best. This is going to be fun and interesting."
It has been a fast rise for a guy who was coaching quarterbacks at El Camino Junior College in Torrance, Calif., in 2000. On this day, he's driving on Interstate 5 toward another speaking engagement, his mind drifting toward thoughts of recruiting.
"That's one of the biggest things from Pete I learned," Sarkisian says. "You have to get players. He placed a huge emphasis on it and is one of the best, if not the best, in the nation at it."
The past two Washington coaches were not good at it. "Go back and look at the recent NFL drafts," says a former Washington assistant who asked to remain anonymous. "That will tell you all you need to know."
Washington had no players picked in the past two NFL drafts. Just five Huskies have been drafted in the past five drafts – and just one of those was higher than a third-rounder. In 1998, Washington had 10 draftees, the most of any school in the nation.
Willingham stood for all the right things, but he had the pizzazz of a rice cake. An inability to recruit was at the crux of his demise. And when the losses mounted – the Huskies were 11-37 in his four seasons, with no finish higher than ninth in the Pac-10 – it was easy to attack the wooden, almost robotic Willingham.
That won't be the case with Sarkisian.
"It has been like night and day," says fullback Paul Homer when asked to compare the new regime's energy level with Willingham's staff.
A big difference between the stiff Willingham and the gregarious Sarkisian has been access. Willingham kept the program under wraps, limiting access on many levels as if he were guarding national secrets. Sarkisian has rolled out the welcome mat, granting access to practices and inviting fans to come and watch. He's all about creating a buzz.
"I am just trying to be myself," Sarkisian says. "I want people to know me, the energy, the enthusiasm I am going to put into this job, so they can feel the openness. That's why we opened practices and had a huge alumni event the night before the spring game; we had 300 former players, from Warren Moon to Corey Dillon to Steve Emtman and Damon Huard."
Those players represent the glory days at Washington. Their presence was to get fans to forget about last season.
"This program isn't in disarray," Sarkisian says. "It may look like it because it has a bad paint job. But that doesn't mean it's a horrible car. There are other good aspects about it."
The Huskies do have some promising players, such as quarterback Jake Locker, and many feel the linebacking corps could be among the best in the Pac-10. Still, most factors indicate Washington may have a difficult time being Washington again anytime soon.
It's not the 1980s or the 1990s anymore. That's when Washington built itself into the top program in the West. That also happens to be when USC was stuck in neutral under coaches Ted Tollner, Larry Smith, John Robinson and Paul Hackett. The Trojans went to one Rose Bowl in the 1990s, a decade that often saw USC playing in the Las Vegas, Freedom or Sun bowls.
Washington capitalized, swooping into southern California and plucking top talent. Players such as Napoleon Kaufman, Lincoln Kennedy and Beno Bryant, among others, headed north to play for the Huskies instead of staying home to play for USC.
Not only was USC treading water, Oregon State and California were struggling and Oregon had yet to hit full stride. Now, USC is a beacon of college football, aiming for an eighth consecutive Pac-10 title. And Oregon, Oregon State and California – among others – have passed Washington.
Don James is known as the "Dawg Father," the modern-day architect of Washington football. James was 153-57-2 as coach from 1975-1992, with six Rose Bowl berths and a 1991 national championship. Since then, the program has struggled under four coaches:
4 (Sun, Holiday, Aloha, Oahu)
4 (Holiday, Rose, Holiday, Sun)
8 (1 Rose Bowl)
"It's all about competing, right?" Sarkisian says. "That's what we did every day in practice [at USC]. Pete emphasized to me that it all starts with the head coach. He has to motivate the assistant coaches, who in turn motivate the players. As much energy and enthusiasm as the coaches bring to practice, the players will follow it.
"In the spring, our coaches responded well with it and the kids did, too. Our kids loved to practice. It's fun, it's competitive."
That competition spills into almost every aspect of the program, spawning something called "Turnover Wednesdays."
"Oh, man," Huskies cornerback Quinton Richardson says. "We chart everything from practices; there are winners and losers. On Wednesday, it's all about us on defense getting after it and generating at least three turnovers. It gets us going and let's us know something's on the line, just like in a game."
That's the main objective: getting the players ready for Saturdays. But that leads to a discussion about another problem – an overly ambitious schedule: This season begins with a game vs. LSU and a visit later in September by USC. There also is a trip to Notre Dame on Oct. 3.
"They are in la-la land with scheduling," the former Huskies assistant says. "You should play one tough [non-conference] game and two others you can win. Instead, they had us playing Oklahoma, Ohio State, Notre Dame and BYU. And it doesn't get easier in the future."
Washington also had non-conference games against Miami, Colorado and Michigan this decade, and has future games scheduled against Nebraska, LSU and BYU.
Sarkisian has heard it all, but he'd rather think about the possibilities. This is his program, his chance to rebrand a national power that has fallen into disrepair.
"There's lots of energy all the time from the coaches," Homer says. "Will we make it to a bowl? We expect to win. We will get it done."