SAN FRANCISCO – On the morning of Monday, Dec. 2, the Washington football team was still riding the high of beating Washington State two days earlier, finally getting that elusive eighth win and avenging 2012’s brutal Apple Cup loss.
A still-unidentified bowl game awaited them, the culmination of a roller-coaster season that had ended on a high note. The Steve Sarkisian era, under some heat earlier in the season, was looking brighter again. All was serene in the world of Husky football.
Or so it appeared. Unbeknown to most, Sarkisian had entered into negotiations with USC, and that morning the story broke with a vengeance: the coach was bolting.
From that point forward, it has been a tumultuous ride for the Huskies, full of jarring changes and disquieting uncertainty. And now that bowl game is nearly upon them, amid an atmosphere that has been anything but the festive, relatively carefree buildup that traditionally leads into such affairs.
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The players are making the best of it, considering the coach to whom they pledged their loyalty, who had been so intimately involved in their lives, is gone, poof, to Los Angeles.
Sarkisian’s interim replacement, Marques Tuiasosopo, is universally revered, but Tui’s future is up in the air after he guides them in Friday’s Fight Hunger Bowl. And Sarkisian’s permanent replacement, Chris Petersen, is residing in the background, there but not there. Petersen won’t attend the bowl game.
Some assistant coaches have already followed Sarkisian to Los Angeles, and others are left to wonder about their Husky futures as Petersen assembles his staff. Many are assuming new roles in preparation for the bowl game, including grad assistants suddenly given prominent responsibilities.
It’s just plain awkward, and a little weird — a word used by more than one player during practices last week at Husky Stadium.
“It’s kind of different,’’ senior Kevin Smith said. “We just have to adjust to that. That’s the great thing about us: We’re capable of adjusting to different distractions.”
To Tuiasosopo’s credit, he’s facing the situation head-on. He knows the players have had their world turned upside down over the past three weeks — a situation made only more tense by last week’s eruption of a potential recruiting scandal involving defensive-line coach Tosh Lupoi. He remains on the staff for the bowl game.
Seniors like Smith and quarterback Keith Price are battling to put the turmoil aside and go out winners. Underclassmen are trying to recarve their comfort zone, knowing that a new head coach and new system awaits them. And Bishop Sankey and Austin Seferian-Jenkins are grappling with the question of whether to declare early for the NFL draft, or join up with the Petersen regime for their final season.
Through it all, Tuiasosopo is trying hard to maintain an aura of normalcy. That’s best accomplished on the football field, where the familiar rhythms of blocking and tackling can be a comforting antidote to the swirling winds of change.
“Obviously, it’s very emotional for them,’’ Tuiasosopo said. “What they knew or what they signed on for Husky football, what that was all about, was like, gone in an instant. Now all the uncertainty, all the questions.
“A lot of things that we looked at getting ready for a bowl game have nothing to do with getting ready for a bowl game. So to be able to get back to some normalcy, focus on the things that really matter for us to go play a bowl game, be competitive and ultimately go try to win the game, was very important for me to do that.”
Tuiasosopo gave credit to his revamped coaching staff for helping carry that out.
“Some coaches have left, but there’s still a handful of guys who have been here the whole season,’’ he said. “They’ve done an outstanding job of just being there for the guys. A lot of it is just making sure they’re OK. I think when we’re on the field, they don’t feel any of that. They handled it great. I think it’s a tribute to the young men, but also the coaches who have stayed.”
Sophomore receiver Jaydon Mickens said pointedly, “The guys that are here, they want to be here, and we appreciate those coaches for that.”
Bowl games always have the potential to be melancholy occasions, because it is the final collegiate game for seniors — the final ever for those who are not NFL bound. Meanwhile, the Huskies are still trying to finish the goal Sarkisian had been pointing them toward down the stretch — a nine-win season.
The coach didn’t see it through, but Tuiasosopo wants his players to.
“I just say to them, ‘Hey, I totally understand if you’re not happy. I understand if you’re down in the dumps. We’re here to help you through it. But we also still have something to play for.’”
On Friday night, at AT&T Park, the Huskies finally get to play. And after three weeks of jolts, the football field will be their refuge.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @StoneLarry