The Huskies' coach must grow from promising to dominating to reach the program's goals.
Hope, Steve Sarkisian often says, is a flimsy feeling akin to going to a liquor store and buying lottery tickets.
Belief, the coach says, is the sturdier tenet that his Washington football team attained while outlasting the turbulence of a trying regular season.
And ambiguity, I say, is what envelops everyone else when trying to make sense of the hope-defying, belief-acquiring, mystifying Huskies in Sarkisian’s fourth year.
Sarkisian just survived another up-and-down campaign and finished the regular season with a 7-5 record for the second straight year. If the Huskies win their bowl game, they will earn an eight-victory year for the first time under Sark. If they lose their bowl game, they will finish 7-6 for the third consecutive season.
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It’s not the stunning year-to-year progress that converts the masses from hope to belief, but it’s hardly worth sounding the alarm. Sarkisian inherited an 0-12 team and turned it into a consistent winner, even though those winning records are by the slightest margin. It’s a solid first step. This season, the Huskies aspired to take the next step, but after a 31-28 overtime loss to Washington State on Friday, they missed an opportunity to end the regular season at 8-4 and make their progress clear.
Now their progress is open for debate. It means that Sarkisian, who has stayed ahead of criticism during his tenure, is now left to deal with the impatience of a fan base that knows and demands excellence. He should handle it fine because his standard is high, too. But it is a new burden.
Where are the Huskies after four years of Sarkisian? That is the question of the moment. There is a clear answer: Much closer to sustained success than they were when Sark replaced Tyrone Willingham. But in terms of returning to glory — becoming a perennial force in the Pac-12 and in all of college football again — Sarkisian’s program remains in an uncertain state.
I tend to believe (not hope) there is ample evidence to suggest that, if Sarkisian has done this much in four years, you should be patient and expect him to restore the Huskies’ supremacy within the next four-year block. But there’s no denying that the Huskies aren’t rising as rapidly as they were at the beginning of Sark’s tenure. There’s no denying there are warts the coach must remove. And there’s no denying the Huskies are enduring both the growing pains of a rebuilding program and of a first-time head coach learning on the job.
Washington athletic director Scott Woodward hired Sarkisian, the former USC offensive coordinator, knowing there would be a process for the program and for Sark. He and former UW president Mark Emmert chose Sarkisian because they knew he could breathe life into the program immediately. Then, they figured he would sort through the rookie coach stuff, catch his breath and grow along with the program.
It’s time for Sarkisian to graduate from the young, promising coach who wills his team to scant success to the polished coach who builds dominant teams.
Sarkisian has impressed with his resolve. Five weeks ago, the Huskies had a 3-4 record and were coming off a 52-17 loss at Arizona. Critics swarmed him. Doubt surfaced. But just as he had before, Sarkisian responded, guiding the Huskies to four straight victories before the loss to the Cougars.
Washington saved its season by turning to a revamped defense and streamlining the offense to focus on the running of Bishop Sankey and the playmaking of tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins and wide receiver Kasen Williams.
The Huskies found enough juice this season to beat nationally ranked foes Stanford and Oregon State and survive one of the nation’s most difficult schedules. I asked Sarkisian last week why his teams are so good at recovering. At first, he was sheepish because he’d rather be known for dominating, but he gave a thoughtful answer.
“I’ve always thought of — and I don’t want anyone to take this the wrong way, I’m not trying to toot my own horn here — I’ve always thought of myself as a pretty resilient guy,” he said. “As a player, I never was the biggest, strongest, fastest guy. I always liked to find those edges, whether it was mentally or emotionally or whatever it was, to try to be successful. I’ve just tried to convey that type of message to our team at the most adverse times. I never want our team to be viewed as a convenience team: When it’s convenient to be good, we are good. We should be good at the most adverse times. I think we’ve shown that. I think we respond really well to adversity.”
But when will we see how the Huskies handle prosperity? That’s the next step. And it requires Sarkisian to expedite his maturation, too. He must become sharper as a play-caller, a motivator, a teacher and a CEO. He must find a way to win this upcoming bowl game and get that eighth win, which would set up a Year 5 of extraordinary expectations. And then, next season, he must take the Huskies’ improving talent and mold it into a disciplined team that stays in the Top 25 all season, avoids 30-point blowouts, challenges all of the Pac-12’s elite and plays with balance on offense, defense and special teams.
Pressure is mounting. But give Sarkisian credit for his role in creating these expectations. And hope the Huskies start making you believe that the days of ambiguity are ending.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @JerryBrewer