SEATTLE — There’s plenty that should deter this groan and shift from Steve Sarkisian.
The bursting sun outside. The fact that he drives a 27-foot Cobalt 262 boldly named “Noah Sark” to work three times a week. The supple brown leather couch he’s sitting on in his spacious office.
He’s the state’s highest-paid employee at its pre-eminent school. He has three healthy kids stepping through the beginning of their education. His youngest is off to kindergarten this year.
Yet, Sarkisian, leaning forward for most of an interview with The Olympian, is spurred by exasperation to change his weight from right to left.
“God. … It kills me … It still kills me,” said Sarkisian, 39.
Three games. The 2011 Alamo Bowl. And, more intensely, the final two games of the 2012 season gnaw at the fifth-year’s coach’s guts.
Those three losses have dispelled belief in progress. The Huskies were 7-6 last season, just as they were the prior two seasons under Sarkisian. He went to the defibrillator to go 5-7 in his first season after inheriting an 0-12 debacle from Ty Willingham.
Those three losses leave him just one game over .500 in his four seasons at Washington after delivering proclamations upon his arrival that the revival wouldn’t take long.
Those three consecutive 7-6 seasons have turned Sarkisian’s coaching seat from comfortable to warming. A clear line of ascension would have been established if those three games – all of which Washington led late – had flipped: 7-6, 8-5, 9-4.
Instead, Sarkisian – hired in a process so secretive his friends and family figured he was just putting in extra time at USC when he was absent from Thanksgiving, though he was really in Seattle – has the three matching seasons. He also faces increasing demand that this season, weighted with a harrowing road schedule, show further progress.
“None of us came here to be 7-6,” Sarkisian said. “We came here to win championships. That’s why I took this job. To come out of the year feeling like it was a success (at 7-6) and go to another bowl game, I think that point’s over, you know? We’re over that. We’re here to win championships.”
DEPTH IS THE KEY
Sarkisian’s lower jaw takes the lead when he bursts into football speak.
Talking about the “chip on the shoulder” of his guys, the “different look in their eye,” puts him into a wound-up mode where the words start to come faster – he seems to drag in breath as an afterthought – the bottom row of his teeth flash and most nouns are prefaced by “football.” Football team, football game, football, football, football.
Trying to lead a resurrection following 2008’s 0-12 vault into the abyss has forced Sarkisian to rebuild the back end of the Washington roster.
When he arrived at Washington, there was high-end talent: Mason Foster, Chris Polk, Donald Butler, Devin Aguilar, Jake Locker, Jermaine Kearse. All went to the NFL. The supplemental players were the issue.
“I think the most difficult fix for us has been putting our roster in place to where we have the depth across the board to withstand injuries,” Sarkisian said. “I think that’s been the hardest part. To develop depth to where the discrepancy between the 1s and the 2s isn’t so distinct.
“It’s not, hey, here’s Mason Foster, then the next guy in is a true freshman and weighs 205 pounds playing linebacker for us.”
This year, there is heft in the junior and sophomore classes, which combine for 43 players, 31 of whom have redshirted.
“We have a team built on depth that if a guy goes down, the next man up might be more physically talented, just does not quite have the experience yet,” Sarkisian said.
HE’S THE MESSENGER
Sarkisian first worked with Nick Holt in 2001 at USC. He fired him from the position of Washington defensive coordinator in 2011, two days after the Huskies’ defense made Swiss cheese look solid with its Alamo Bowl performance.
The dismissal was warranted. That Huskies team gave up the most points in school history. The fact that Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III was running the shredder in San Antonio was neither here nor there. It was a season-long problem. Change had to come. It hurt.
“That one was obviously extremely difficult for me,” Sarkisian said. “You come in as a staff, you’re trying to put the best staff together and there’s obviously so much excitement and enthusiasm of bringing the staff together and when it just didn’t work out the way we all wanted it to work out, that one was really difficult for me, in that, you know, you get so close.
“We spend how many hours a day together? You talk about things and when they’re good people and good families and that stuff is really hard. Again, I go back to put on the hat of University of Washington head football coach, that was the right decision in my opinion to make at that time for our program to move forward.”
It worked. The UW unit rose to 31st in total defense under new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox.
The difference between Wilcox and Holt was dramatic on all fronts. Holt hot-stepped around, as a gold chain bounced off his chest below his gravely voice, goatee and shaved head.
Wilcox is just north of disheveled most of the time. He’s casual, but has bite when necessary. The upshot of the offseason for him is he has more time to watch film, feeding his preparation addiction.
“Last year was great,” Sarkisian said. “Justin and the guys did a good job, hopefully we can continue to build.”
Players’ failures are also an internal blow for Sarkisian. When he was the offensive coordinator at USC, that was Pete Carroll’s problem. Off-field trouble led to answers from Carroll. On-field errors did the same.
Now, Sarkisian is sought out after transgressions such as Austin Seferian-Jenkins’ DUI arrest or star wide receiver Kasen Williams being pulled over after drinking. Sarkisian has to answer for missed kicks, bewildering throws and dropped passes. He sees the missteps contorting the faces of his players. It troubles him.
“Because it has a sense of failure in me, right?” Sarkisian said. “Because those are my guys. That’s my job is to have those guys perform, no matter what arena they’re in, no matter what circumstances they’re in. And, so when they fail and when there is that criticism of them for that failure, I take it much more personally now than I ever did before when I was an assistant coach.”
Sarkisian is aware that the University of Washington football brand is the brand of Steve Sarkisian. He has direct involvement in messaging and even editorial influence on the school’s Web site that covers athletics, GoHuskies.com. He signs off on everything from the language in recruiting letters to high school freshmen to public explanations that the school is aware a player just screwed up.
The school has revamped its media relations department and much of its approach since Sarkisian arrived. That change coincided with the hiring of athletic director Scott Woodward a year before Sarkisian.
“I think at the end of the day, if something gets messaged a certain way, whether I like it or not, the perception is that it came from me,” Sarkisian said. “So, it might as well come from me. If I don’t have a great feel for what I want that messaging to be, I am going to lean on the people we have in our organization that I can count on and I trust their opinion to help me through the process of it.
“But, the end result, whether the message was from me or not, when there is something that comes from the University of Washington football program, my face is on it and I want to make sure that messaging is something that I can relate to and is something that represents me well in how we do it.”
SINK OR SWIM YEAR?
It was former quarterbacks coach Doug Nussmeier who taught Sarkisian boating basics. That first year, Nussmeier would take the Sarkisians out on Lake Washington. The following year, Sarkisian acquired his vessel.
Sarkisian’s maiden voyage with Nussmeier was not long after the band played and cheerleaders kicked as Sarkisian took the podium for the first time as Washington’s coach.
Today, Sarkisian is the second-longest tenured coach in the Pacific-12 Conference. He’s also the highest-paid coach in the conference, based on schools that have to make salary information public. USC is not one of those schools, and most contend that Trojans coach Lane Kiffin earns more. Sarkisian says with a smile he finds his prominence in tenure and money “unbelievable.”
His son is going into third grade and will start tackle football. Being able to drive the boat to work or make a quick trip out of Montlake to home – it’s about eight minutes, traffic pending – allows Sarkisian to be at some of his son’s practices.
“Seattle has been very good to us,” Sarkisian said. “My wife and I talk about it all the time. This community has been awesome. I don’t know if I want to call it a change of pace, but it’s definitely a different lifestyle than living in L.A. I think it’s been good for us as a family.
“I’m grateful to Seattle for that.”
This year, the community waits on him and the group he often refers to as his “105 sons.” The rippling mantra is, seven wins is not acceptable. Subsequently, he’s expected to lead the change before change comes for him.
Never have seven wins been deemed so unfavorable.
STEVE SARKISIAN ERA at UW
2009: 5-7 overall, 4-5 in Pacific-10
Bowl game: None
Highlight: Upsetting No. 3 USC, 16-13
Lowlight: Four consecutive losses – to Arizona State, Oregon, UCLA and Oregon State
2010: 7-6, 5-4 in Pac-10
Bowl game: Upset No. 18 Nebraska, 19-7, in Holiday Bowl
Highlight: The Holiday Bowl win, which avenged a September home loss (56-21) to Cornhuskers
Lowlight: Outscored 138-30 in three consecutive losses – to Arizona, Stanford and Oregon
2011: 7-6, 5-4 in Pac-12
Bowl game: Lost to No. 12 Baylor in Alamo Bowl, 67-56
Highlight: Beat Washington State, 38-21, in Apple Cup
Lowlight: That Alamo Bowl loss when Baylor rolled up 777 yards
2012: 7-6, 5-4 in Pac-12
Bowl game: Lost to No. 19 Boise State in Las Vegas Bowl, 28-26
Highlight: Upset No. 8 Stanford, 17-13
Lowlight: Lost to Washington State in overtime in Apple Cup, email@example.com blog.thenewstribune.com/uwsports @Todd_Dybas