John Mcgrath: Sarkisian Era a ho-hum time that benefited coach, program

December 4, 2013 

Former Washington coach Steve Sarkisian took over a program that was 0-12 in 2008. The Huskies were 34-29 in Sarkisian’s nearly five years as coach before he accepted the job at USC.

TED S. WARREN/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Your reaction to the Monday morning news of Steve Sarkisian quitting Washington for USC probably went something this:

“Really? Wow. So much for all his assurances that he planned to remain with the Huskies longer than Don James did.

“Oh, well. Who’s next?”

A guy who bolts the school that gave him his first shot as a head coach — and bolts it for a conference rival with a rich recruiting base — often invites the ridicule of scorned victims sensing they’ve been duped by a two-faced fraud.

Despite its awkward timing (six days before Washington’s bowl destination is announced), Sarkisian’s exit from Montlake was as close to amicable as a public split can be.

Athletic director Scott Woodward released a statement noting how Sarkisian “led the rebuilding of our program to new heights … we are in a much better position than when he arrived.”

Senior quarterback Keith Price, selected to speak on behalf of

his teammates after a brief meeting with their erstwhile coach, didn’t regard Sarkisian’s decision as a personal slight.

“I’m not mad at him,” insisted Price, who is familiar with Sarkisian’s history in the Los Angeles area as both a native and a former USC assistant. “His family is first.”

Among observers outside the gated community of Huskies football, meanwhile, Sarkisian never established a connection powerful enough to inspire hostility over his departure. Those who loved him likely didn’t know him, and those who knew him likely didn’t love him.

It was a marriage of convenience, Sarkisian and UW. He said all the right things and routinely professed his long-term commitment. But Washington wasn’t going to be his last stop. He knew that, and we knew that, and he knew that we knew that.

The question never was whether Sarkisian would leave, but whether he’d leave voluntarily or by force.

The partnership lasted five years, which is to say, it was just about right. Sarkisian got what he wanted: a head-coaching position in a major conference, along with a big-time contract to prove himself at the precocious age of 34. When the USC job he craved opened up, Sarkisian had a résumé qualifying him as a front-runner.

Yet Washington got what it wanted, too. The school got somebody to reconstruct a football program that had won all of 12 games in the four years preceding 2008, the historically terrible season Tyrone Willingham’s Huskies didn’t win once.

Willingham was indifferent about recruiting — he was indifferent about every aspect of his job except the country-club memberships it availed — but Sarkisian worked hard to stock the roster with talent and depth. And if his first coaching staff, full of too many buddies disinclined to present a dissenting opinion, was reflective of a 34-year old novice, Sarkisian came to realize that the best and brightest minds don’t have to think alike.

Progress plodded from 5-7 in 2009, to three consecutive 7-6 seasons that culminated with bowl appearances, to 8-4 in 2013, with the potential to finish 9-4.

Along the way, Husky Stadium was renovated from a 75,000-seat flop house into a $280 million jewel.

“The House That Sark Built”? Not quite. But if Sarkisian hadn’t rescued the program out of the ditch it was steered into by Willingham, the roll call of private donors willing to invest more than $10 in the project would’ve run the gamut from A to B.

Perhaps the most impressive achievement of the Steve Sarkisian Era is this: The job he just gave up is much more coveted than the job he accepted five years ago.

Woodward learned Tuesday that the No. 1 name on his go-to list, UCLA head coach Jim L. Mora, was staying in Westwood, thanks to such sudden perks as a six-year contract extension, pay raises for his assistant coaches, and a promise to upgrade the football facilities. But the fact Mora — 18-8 during his two seasons with the Bruins — emerged as a serious candidate suggests Woodward’s search won’t conclude with the hiring of a 34-year-old assistant coach who has no association with either the Huskies or the Pacific Northwest.

Absent Mora, there’s still plenty of candidates whose qualifications are more substantial than Sarkisian’s were.

No knock on Sark. Identified as a rising star in the coaching business when the authentic stars wanted nothing to do with the Huskies, he won more games than he lost, and led four teams to bowls. Sarkisian didn’t return UW football into the powerhouse program it was under James, but he returned it to relevance.

And on the day he decided to take his talents to USC, there was no anguished outcry. His boss wished him well. His players understood. The rest of us considered the abrupt ending of his five-year marriage with the Huskies for five seconds, and then we shrugged our shoulders.

Another college football coach had renounced on a promise that was hollow from the start.

Oh, well. Who’s next?

john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com

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