On a Thursday night in the first week of December in 2008, the news broke that Washington had made a surprise choice for its new football coach: Steve Sarkisian.
Monday morning, news crackled again, that Sarkisian is on his way to USC.
A storied football colossus that uses national-championship and Heisman trophies for doorstops and paperweights just hired a guy whose conference head-coaching record at a highly respected school was exactly 24-21.
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What has always been said about jobs is true, whether it’s dishwasher at KFC or head football coach at USC: It’s about whom you know. And Sarkisian knew a lot of people at USC from his days there under Pete Carroll.
Five years ago, if Washington had hired the best assistant from the staff of, say, Texas, and he’d gone 24-21 in league games at the UW, does he get a sniff from the Trojans?
Or think about it like this: In the Apple Cup the other day, Washington State was at its own 28 with 5½ minutes left, down 20-17. If it had driven the length of the field, scored and won the game, and the Huskies go 4-5 in the league, can USC hire Sarkisian? If it can, then John McKay, John Wayne and Howard Jones just flinched, in unison, in their graves.
So strike up the chorus: “Hey, moron, he led them back from 0-12.”
Yes, Sarkisian inherited all the trappings of the last year of Tyrone Willingham, when the Huskies went winless. But Willingham is so despised among a segment of the UW faithful that they’re willing to overlook the fact that Sarkisian walked into a program that included Chris Polk, Mason Foster, Donald Butler, Alameda Ta’amu, Daniel Te’o Nesheim, Senio Kelemete, Devin Aguilar, Everrette Thompson, Cort Dennison and Victor Aiyewa.
Oh, yeah, and a quarterback who went No. 8 in the 2011 draft, Jake Locker.
It was hardly the dictionary definition of an 0-12 program, even if Sarkisian had to coach those players better (he did) and do a morale transplant (he did). Yet some people are so smitten by the upgrade in the energy of the program, so grateful to be rid of Willingham, that they forget: It’s part of the job description. You don’t double your kid’s allowance just because he did his homework.
Is the program better than when Sarkisian came to it? Absolutely. Did he author some sort of stunning turnaround? I don’t think so.
What he was, was Coach Close. A year ago, in season No. 4, the Huskies were 7-4 with the Apple Cup and a bowl game between them and a nine-win season. They coughed up an 18-point, fourth-quarter lead to lose to WSU (committing eight penalties in the last 16 minutes) and then got nipped by Boise State in Las Vegas.
This year, nine wins is still a possibility. But the league record is 5-4, as it was last year, as it was the year before that, as it was the year before that. Washington was right there against Stanford and UCLA, but this is the reality: The Huskies blew away the two league doormats, California and Colorado, and went 3-4 against the average, good and very good teams in the league.
A lot of what Sarkisian did was admirable. Yet five years later, the Huskies are merely a middle-rung team in the Pac-12.
Sark’s allies will argue that he coached at a place where too many people don’t understand that times have changed, that the Pac-12 is different now from when Don James was around, that expectations of too many Washington fans are of a different time.
I’m still of the belief that the Huskies have enough going — tradition, great city, good school, significant recruiting base — that you really have to screw it up not to win at Washington, at least moderately.
Ultimately, that’s exactly what Sarkisian did. He won, moderately.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org