September 3, 2009 in Sports

Husky nation embraces Sarkisian

UW coach seen as the anti-Willingham
Bob Condotta Seattle Times
 
Associated Press photo

UW fans have warmed to Steve Sarkisian.
(Full-size photo)

Asked one day why he decided to reopen Washington’s practices to media and fans, Steve Sarkisian replied, “I don’t have a whole lot to hide.”

Come Saturday, he also will no longer have anywhere to hide.

In two days, when the Huskies begin the 2009 season with a game against LSU, the questions about Washington’s newest football coach – the 25th in school history – will begin to be answered.

Was his success as an offensive coordinator at Southern California largely the result of working for Pete Carroll and with the Trojans’ mammoth recruiting advantages?

Or is Sarkisian truly a coaching star on the rise?

Even if he proves to have more substance than just his association with USC – and early returns have been overwhelmingly positive – how long will it take to make the transition from hot young assistant to proven head coach?

These are the types of questions that typically arise with a new hire, but particularly one who has never been a head coach.

Sarkisian, 35, outwardly professes no pressure to prove himself. Asked during camp if he worried about a perception that his success at USC was because of his situation as much as his offensive play-calling prowess, he said, “I don’t mind. Hopefully, that’s what they say about us here. When you play good, you’ve got to be pretty talented.”

Still, until some hard data is in, the debate will continue, as it does for any new coach, all of whom are hired amid fanfare and optimism.

But for every Jeff Tedford – who had never been a head coach before taking over at California and immediately turning the Bears into winners – there are two or three Tom Holmoes.

Washington athletic director Scott Woodward, though, said Sarkisian’s lack of head-coaching experience was never an issue for him, citing the success Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops and Georgia’s Mark Richt as first-time coaches.

After firing Tyrone Willingham, Woodward divided possible candidates into four categories – head coaches of BCS schools, coaches with NFL experience, coaches of non-BCS teams and coordinators.

“In each quadrant you have a success story,” Woodward said. “This was one we were very comfortable with.”

In fact, Woodward said he gets more comfortable by the day.

After a few early bumps in the road with a couple of minor recruiting violations, Sarkisian has seemed to hit all the right notes.

Fans, media and the general university community have embraced the new transparency of open practices during spring and fall camp, a mind-boggling turnaround from the Kremlinesque Willingham era.

Current players say the energy and enthusiasm of Sarkisian and his staff have been a welcome change and that they and their teammates are working harder on the field and in the weight room.

Sarkisian has already scored a few notable recruiting successes, such as landing a commitment from quarterback Nick Montana, son of Joe, part of a class that continues to be listed among the top 10 in early national ratings.

“It has exceeded my expectations,” Woodward said. “I expected it, but not to this level. His grasp of the community, his grasp of Husky tradition. His grasp of what we have been here traditionally and what he wants to get it back to. He was a very quick study.”

Woodward received a sense of that during an initial face-to-face interview with Sarkisian in November. The new UW AD made runs at established names such as Texas Tech’s Mike Leach, Missouri’s Gary Pinkel, Tedford, TCU’s Gary Patterson and Cincinnati’s Brian Kelly. But none got to the finish line for a variety of reasons.

Not that it mattered, Woodward said, once he and UW president Mark Emmert interviewed Sarkisian.

“He was extremely organized and very methodical,” Woodward said of Sarkisian – who went into the interview wanting to make sure the Huskies weren’t just trying to grill him for info about USC’s football machine. “But he also has a great vision. He was by far the best interview. Not even close. … He had a clear vision of what this place is and what it can be and that was clear from day one when we met him.”

It’s a vision that’s a mix of past and future.

Sarkisian, a star quarterback at BYU in 1995-96 before entering coaching, has embraced the tradition of the program at every opportunity, invoking the names of Don James and Jim Owens whenever given a chance, and inviting former players back for reunions – even hiring Marques Tuiasosopo as an assistant strength coach.

It’s hard to fathom, however, what James would have done with Twitter and other new technology, which Sarkisian has embraced.

Along with a Twitter page, he also helped develop his own Web site, often posting such items as players and plays of the day from practice, each designed in part at luring recruits.

“It fits me,” Sarkisian said.

That much of it might have been copied from USC and Carroll is another perception that doesn’t bother Sarkisian.

“They’ve got a winning formula that has withstood the test of time, so I would be a fool to come up here and try to do everything different just to say I do things different than USC,” Sarkisian said.

Ultimately, all that really matters is winning.

Sarkisian said the situation is better than might be expected of a team coming off a 0-12 season, citing, among other things, quarterback Jake Locker, the experience of the defensive front seven, particularly the linebackers, and a bevy of young skill players on offense.

Still, he’s not ready to predict a Tedford-style turnaround.

“I don’t,” he said when asked if he has a win total in mind for this season. “I just want us to play hard.”

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