University of Washington

Sarkisian has learned lesson about winning

Maybe it's because of all the bottle-popping celebrations I've been watching in baseball clubhouses, where a club's advancement from a best-of-five playoff series to a best-of-seven playoff series reveals more hugs than Oprah Winfrey has given 25 years worth of studio guests.

But I expected Steve Sarkisian to show up drenched for his postgame chat with reporters late Saturday.

I expected Sarkisian to look like, and sound like, a coach whose team had just won a long, wild, susceptible-to-sudden-mood-swings football game decided by one point in two overtimes.

Yet even before he offered opening remarks about the Huskies’ 35-34 win over Oregon State, Sarkisian’s drained facial expression made it clear that his prevailing emotion wasn’t joy or surprise.

The prevailing emotion was relief. His team had survived.

“We are coming to the realization as a football program,” Sarkisian said, “that winning is really hard.”

As Sarkisian talked of the difficulty of winning one of 12 games on the schedule, I recalled the self-assured words he delivered 22 months ago during the press conference – or was it a coronation? – that introduced an assistant coach from Southern California as the man chosen to lead a once-proud program out of the wilderness.

“As we all know, there is only place to go and that is up,” Sarkisian had said, referring to the Huskies’ winless record in 2008. “We’ve got a tremendous football team. We’ve got kids that are talented and kids that want to work hard. We’ve just got to change the mind-set. It’s going to take a little time, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen fast.”

Three weeks into his first season, Sarkisian’s suggestion of the improbable – that the U-turn could be negotiated in a hurry – seemed to be validated by Washington’s upset of perennial conference powerhouse USC.

“We said early on that it wasn’t going to take us very long, and I firmly believe that,” Sarkisian said after the Huskies’ victory over the then-No. 3 ranked Trojans. “I think maybe some people in the world, maybe outside of our little domain, thought that was just press-conference speak. But when you get around our kids, you get around our coaches, I firmly believe that it’s not going to take us very long.”

The following day, UW was ranked in the Top 25 for the first time in six years. It was a distinction, for those inclined to see random snapshots as big pictures, that provided evidence of the Huskies’ remarkable comeback.

From 0-12 in 2008 to a No. 24 national ranking in 2009, the only work remaining for Sarkisian was to polish some of the team’s rough edges before determining how many Rose Bowl tickets to allocate family members and friends.

There was, of course, no Rose Bowl for Washington. There was no bowl game of any kind.

After stunning USC and regaining the respect of college-football poll voters, the Huskies went on to lose five of their next six.

Pushing the fast-forward button to the eve of the 2010 opener, expectations were high once again for the Huskies, thanks to the talents of quarterback Jake Locker. But they lose to a beatable opponent at BYU, and lose two weeks later, in a humiliating home blowout, to Nebraska.

A thrilling comeback victory at USC is negated, one week later, by a half-gassed effort during a rainstorm that turns a bleak Seattle evening into the essence of grim, against Arizona State.

So this was the prelude to the 21-0 lead that became the 21-21 tie that became the 35-34, saved-by-an-incompletion-on-a-two-point-conversion attempt victory over Oregon State: A 2-3 record with a schedule still requiring the Huskies to face No. 15 Arizona, No. 12 Stanford and No. 1 Oregon in consecutive weeks.

I was surprised that Sarkisian hadn’t been doused by a Gatorade barrel before he met the press Saturday night. The Huskies coach used such words as heart, fight, battle, scratch and claw to describe his team’s effort, but his tone was calm and measured.

That surprised me, too.

But once the historically long night at Husky Stadium evolved into daylight, I understood why the head coach wasn’t a jubilant mess after leaving the locker room.

There are no shortcuts to sustained success in college football, no magic formula, no legitimacy attained by flavor-of-the-week poll voters.

Three games into his head-coaching career, Sarkisian was seen as a miracle worker. A year later, we’ve got a more experienced coach, calm in the aftermath of a crazy victory.

“Winning,” Sarkisian said late Saturday night, “is really hard.”

He gets it.

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