Huskies have been here before, and coach Steve Sarkisian is hoping his team can reverse recent struggles.
Steve Sarkisian offers the thought with as much disdain as optimism: He’s been here before. If he has learned anything as the Washington football coach, it’s how to rise from a pit.
Perseverance is a fantastic trait — unless you have to show it again and again. Then, like everything else, it becomes a concern, if not an annoyance. So here is Sarkisian, at a crossroads once more. He’s amid another year that requires a strong finish to avoid having critics vandalize what he has built in 3 ½ seasons at Washington.
After a 3-7 start in 2009, Sarkisian won his final two games, including a 42-10 blowout of No. 19 California, to salvage a rough first season. In 2010, the Huskies started 3-6, including three straight losses to nationally-ranked foes Arizona, Stanford and Oregon by a combined score of 138-30, before winning their final four games and closing out the Jake Locker era with a resounding 19-7 thumping of No. 16 Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl. Last season, the Huskies finally played from ahead and started 5-1, but they had to recover from a three-game November losing streak to end on a better note.
So, yes, Sarkisian knows how to hold a team together and inspire a turnaround. He’ll need to tap into that skill again with the Huskies (3-4) on a three-game losing streak and looking nothing like the program many expected in Year 4.
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“Unfortunately but fortunately, we’ve been here before,” Sarkisian said. “We’ve responded, and I believe we’ll respond again.”
That’s true, but this is different from the other struggles. The stakes are higher. The team should be better. And the fan base’s patience is eroding. For the first time at Washington, Sarkisian stands atop a volcano of blame. The Huskies’ poor performance, especially the blowout road losses, is dissolving some of the goodwill Sarkisian has fostered over his first three seasons. Does he have another turnaround in him? He needs it badly.
Forget about talk of Sarkisian being on the hot seat, for now. That’s just an extreme minority expressing frustration. In reality, Sarkisian deserves and will receive time to finish this rebuilding job. After inheriting an 0-12 team and lifting it to back-to-back bowl appearances, Sarkisian has enough equity to withstand a bad half-season or even a bad full season. But the more the Huskies suffer 30-point losses against mediocre competition, such as the 52-17 loss at Arizona on Saturday, the more Sarkisian’s harshest detractors gain credibility.
Right now, Sarkisian isn’t fighting for his job. He’s fighting to keep the public believing in him.
He’s been here before. But the intensity is 50 times greater now.
The virus is different, too. In his first three seasons, most of the problems resolved around the defense. But now the offense, Sark’s baby, is the greatest area of concern. The coach has a quarterback who is lost. He has an awful offensive line that has been ravaged by injuries. He has only two reliable receivers, Kasen Williams and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, and he has no depth at running back because of injuries. And though the defense is improving under new coordinator Justin Wilcox, that unit is far from capable of carrying the team.
Other than that, the Huskies should have no problem making a comeback this season.
The coach is searching for answers. I’ve praised Sarkisian often in this space for his ability to revise and redirect his team. His level of introspection is rare for a coach. This time, though, there’s a lot more to ponder.
“What keeps me up (at night) is, I just want success for them,” Sarkisian said. “I just feel like they deserve it. And that’s what I want. That’s the part where I’m searching, digging, trying to find the best way to connect with these guys. Because this is a good group of guys. They are better than the way they’ve been playing. And that’s what I would like to get out of them.
“I’d like them to maximize their potential. Because I think when we do, which we will — when that happens, I’m not exactly sure yet — but when we do we’re going to be pretty good. We just haven’t found the right formula yet. That’s the hardest part for me. Because I’ve always felt like I could connect with the team, and they would respond to me.”
Sarkisian hasn’t been more complimentary of any of his teams. But this one might be his most erratic and frustrating. It is the coach’s responsibility to fix that, and he accepts it.
The coach raved about the Huskies’ Sunday team meeting, saying he had an honest conversation with the players about responding to adversity, showing character and resolve and being accountable in helping the team recover. The meeting went so well that Sarkisian sent a text message to his wife, Stephanie, afterward and said, “We just had an awesome team meeting.”
That’s a positive step, but will it yield results? Sarkisian hopes so. He needs it badly.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer