The Huskies' new football coach has enjoyed a fast rise through the coaching ranks since joining USC as a graduate assistand in 2001. But those who know him aren't surprised that the former BYU star quarterback has done so well.
Four days after being announced as Washington’s football coach, Steve Sarkisian greeted a visitor in his new office. A few books lay on a table, and some Huskies mementos left behind by past occupants dotted the walls. Otherwise, it was as sparsely decorated as would be expected.
But as Sarkisian sat down at a desk, he said he didn’t feel out of place even though he’s just 34 years old — the third-youngest coach in college football — and possessing just seven years’ experience at the Division I level. Young enough that he was still in high school when UW won the 1991 national title.
“I feel lucky,” he said. “But I feel like I’ve prepared myself really well and I’ve gotten a lot of great opportunities, and to me, that equals luck when you are prepared and there is a great opportunity. Some guys are really well-prepared and don’t get the opportunity, and some guys get the opportunity and aren’t prepared and it never works out. But I feel like I’m really well-prepared and I have a great opportunity and now I’m just trying to take advantage of it. That’s kind of how my career has gone.”
Indeed, a walk through Sarkisian’s past shows that every time opportunity beckoned, Sarkisian was ready for the call.
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Washington’s newest football coach was born March 8, 1974, the seventh child of Seb and Sally Sarkisian. He was the only child not born in the Boston area. The family moved to Torrance, Calif., shortly before he arrived as Seb, an engineer, sought a warmer climate.
Seb was born and raised in Tehran, Iran, coming to the United States at age 18 to attend technical college in Massachusetts. He stayed put after meeting and marrying Sally, who is Irish.
The family — four girls and three boys — was a fixture in local school activities and athletics. The oldest son, David, was a three-time All-American in soccer at Cal State Dominguez Hills.
“Being the youngest of seven kids, I learned to be mentally and physically tough,” Steve Sarkisian said. “I just remember coming in crying and my mom telling me, ‘If you want to play with them, stop crying, and if you don’t, then stay in here.’ That deal that sometimes you are going to win, sometimes you are going to lose, but either way I am going back out there, I think that has kind of shaped me throughout my life.”
Steve Sarkisian’s early sport was baseball. He didn’t play organized football until ninth grade, in part because his father didn’t want him to, preferring he play the family sport of soccer.
He fooled around at quarterback with some of the other players the summer before his freshman year and decided to give that position a try. He never gave it up, becoming a two-year starter at West Torrance High and breaking nine school records. He wasn’t even the best quarterback in his city, however. That designation fell to future major-league catcher Jason Kendall at rival Torrance High.
“He was just kind of a really good player, but not well-known,” said Fred Peterson, a teacher at West Torrance and later a coach when Sarkisian played at El Camino College.
Sarkisian stood about 6 feet, weighed 165 pounds, and thought his future was better in baseball, so he accepted a partial scholarship to play at USC.
But it took him only one fall to realize he was out of his league.
“I just struggled hitting the ball,” he says. “I looked great in batting practice. But for whatever reason — hand quickness, or staying back, the slider up and in, the fastball — it just didn’t work for me.”
So he headed home, enrolling at El Camino, intending to play baseball. But he landed in a health class taught by football coach John Featherstone, who badgered him into trying football. Sarkisian finally relented. Peterson, the offensive coordinator, remembers one day early on when the receivers told him how much they liked the new QB “because he knew the offense so well and gives the ball to all of us.”
He set a national junior-college record with a 72.4 percent completion percentage as a sophomore, attracting all kinds of recruiting attention. Washington State was among those interested, but he narrowed his trips to Kansas State and Brigham Young, eventually choosing the Utah school in part because he knew that QB John Walsh — a childhood friend — was going to declare early for the NFL draft.
“I thought my opportunity to play was really good and I didn’t have a redshirt year,” he said. “And I just liked the environment. I wasn’t LDS [he’s Catholic], but I wanted to go somewhere where the focus would be on football and just getting my degree. I only had two years to get that done and I didn’t want to get sidetracked.”
He was also attracted by coach LaVell Edwards and offensive coordinator Norm Chow.
Says Edwards: “I was really amazed at how quickly he caught on with just one spring practice, because we brought him in to start and that’s what he did.”
Tight end Chad Lewis, who went on to play nine years in the NFL, said he was a convert on the first practice. Lewis remembers that he ran a route that led him directly into the path of the safety.
“If he threw a bad football, he was going to put me into the hospital,” Lewis said. “But he was able to read the safety and threw the ball away from the safety into a place where I immediately had total confidence in where he was throwing the ball and knew he understood the defense.”
Two standout years followed, including a 14-1 season as a senior in 1996, well-documented for the one loss coming at Husky Stadium. Sarkisian remembers another turning point coming late in the 1995 season. In the second-to-last game, he threw four interceptions in a 34-17 home loss to Utah.
“They booed me so hard, my mom left the stadium,” he said.
But in the kind of rebounding-from-adversity UW athletic director Scott Woodward cited as a reason for hiring Sarkisian, he came back the next week to complete 31 of 34 passes in a win at Fresno State, setting an NCAA record for completion percentage in a game.
He’d grown to 6-2, 210 by then. But the NFL looked at his relative lack of arm strength and size and took a pass.
He instead headed to Saskatchewan of the Canadian Football League, getting married the weekend before he had to leave for training camp. His wife, Stephanie, joked this week about the fun five-month honeymoon in Regina.
He decided to give pro football three years, hoping success in Canada might lead to a shot in the NFL. But when the third season resulted in 21 interceptions and a 3-15 record, he decided to head home to an uncertain future.
He landed a job at Kiko.com, an educational Internet startup, also coaching part time at El Camino.
Peterson recalls Sarkisian charting the down, distance and coverage for every play.
“I told him one day, ‘You’ve got a real feel for this. Don’t waste your time in software.’ “
That decision was made for him when the company went belly-up. Soon he got the biggest break of his coaching life when Pete Carroll took over at USC and hired Chow — Sarkisian’s offensive coordinator at BYU — to be his offensive coordinator.
“I called and tried to get in, and Norm got me in front of Pete,” Sarkisian said. Carroll offered a graduate-assistant job in 2001, and Sarkisian, who had just bought a house and had a baby on the way, decided to give that a year. The Trojans went just 6-6 but finished strong and Sarkisian was hired to a full-time job at San Diego State the following winter. About six weeks later, the quarterbacks coach job at USC opened up and Carroll offered it to Sarkisian, who had never moved to San Diego.
Once there, Sarkisian had a front-row seat as Carroll revived USC into one of the most dominant programs in history.
Or, as Sarkisian says, “everything went boom and it just hasn’t slowed down since.”
Carson Palmer won the Heisman Trophy in Sarkisian’s first year at quarterbacks coach, USC won a share of the national title the next season, and Sarkisian was suddenly regarded as a hot coach.
He decided to try the NFL for a year, coaching quarterbacks for the Raiders in 2004, but learned he liked college better and headed back to USC in 2005.
That turn of events, however, resulted in one of the few controversies of Sarkisian’s career. The perception among many in L.A. is that Carroll helped force Chow out to make room for the return of Sarkisian — Chow ended up with the Tennessee Titans. The relationship between Chow, now the offensive coordinator at UCLA, and Sarkisian has been rocky since.
Peterson, whose son is married to one of Sarkisian’s sisters, says he wishes Sarkisian and Chow — whom he says is a longtime friend — would mend their relationship.
“That’s my only mark against him,” Peterson said. “In my mind I think he owed it to Norm to clear that up and as far as I know, that’s still not cleared up.”
Sarkisian admits as much.
“Obviously, the time when he was leaving USC and I was coming in, we grew apart,” he said. “The less time you work together, the further you grow apart. And he ended up at our rival, and that didn’t help. It is what it is. He’s been a very good mentor to me, and we had some great moments together. I think someday it will grow itself back together again.”
Sarkisian, who took over as offensive coordinator at USC in 2007, has inevitably been compared to Chow since. Some Trojans fans lament that the offense hasn’t looked quite as explosive the past few seasons. Sarkisian’s defenders pointing out Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart left around the same time.
Sarkisian had a chance to become head coach of the Raiders in 2007 but turned it down.
But he said he never questioned the Washington job.
“He wanted to be here badly,” said Woodward, who admits he initially had concerns about Sarkisian’s age and lack of experience. But Woodward said he kept getting good reviews on Sarkisian, and an interview in Seattle on Thanksgiving Day and another early the next week in Los Angeles solidified what he was hearing.
“A lot of people have done this at a very young age and done well,” Woodward said. “We felt he had immense poise and maturity for his age.”
Lewis, asked if he’s surprised this happened so quickly, says no. “I’m surprised it took this long,” he said.
Lewis says he always marveled how calm and controlled Sarkisian was in the huddle at BYU. “I see that in his sideline demeanor now,” he said. “He’s always building confidence with his guys. I’ve not seen him wig out once. The University of Washington doesn’t know what they’ve got, but I do.”
Sarkisian’s father, Seb, is likewise nonplused that his son has risen to rarefied coaching air so quickly.
“He always shot for the moon,” Seb says. “That was always him.”
Resurrecting UW’s moribund football program might be an only slightly less lofty goal.
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org