The program is humming like it did in the heart of the Don James’ glory days. Fresh from last year’s 12-2 record and appearance in the College Football Playoffs, the Huskies are back in a New Year’s Six bowl game with a 10-2 mark.
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Keishawn Bierria still remembers vividly the first time Chris Petersen addressed the Huskies as their head coach, following the turmoil that accompanied the sudden departure of Steve Sarkisian just a few days earlier. Bierria is one of the few remaining Husky players who was there at that pivotal moment in December of 2013.
Petersen, he said, called upon his observations from playing the Huskies the previous two seasons while at Boise State.
“He knew what type of team we were,’’ Bierria said, “and he was like, ‘We’re going to change all of that. You guys are going to carry yourself differently. You guys are going to go to class a lot more, because I’ve been looking at these grades, and these grades are going to change.’
“I’m going to get you guys ready for life. So you all better be ready to make some changes.”
Four years later, the transformation has been profound, and in full bloom as the Huskies head into the Fiesta Bowl against Penn State on Saturday at University of Phoenix Stadium.
The program is humming like it did in the heart of the Don James’ glory days. Fresh from last year’s 12-2 record and appearance in the College Football Playoff, the Huskies are back in a New Year’s Six bowl game with a 10-2 mark. Should they beat Penn State, it would surpass the 22 wins in 1990 and ’91 for the most in any two-year stretch in school history (albeit with a slightly lower winning percentage).
Washington has a strong recruiting class coming in next year, and enough returning players to ensure that a significant drop-off in the near future is unlikely. It’s a far cry from what was close to a .500 team Petersen brought to the Phoenix area for the Cactus Bowl in his first season at Washington. The Huskies lost that game to Oklahoma State, 30-22.
Petersen spoke Friday of the culture change enacted by the Husky veterans that he feels enabled the program’s growth. That includes fifth-year seniors like Bierria, offensive linemen Coleman Shelton and Andrew Kirkland, linebackers Connor O’Brien and Sean Constantine, and running back Lavon Coleman, who all go back to the Sarkisian era as redshirts. They will, in fact, be the final link to those days when their careers end on Saturday.
There are also four-year seniors like wide receiver Dante Pettis and tight end Will Dissly, whose careers at Washington coincide precisely with Petersen’s tenure, as do those of redshirt juniors like Vita Vea, Greg Gaines, Jomon Dotson, JoJo McIntosh, Kaleb McGary, Jesse Sosebee and Shane Bowman.
That is the group that had to buy into a message from Petersen that must have been initially jarring. Petersen on Friday called them “cultural drivers,” borrowing the term from Penn State coach James Franklin, who took over the Nittany Lions in the same 2014 season.
“You can have bunch of really good players and get nothing done,’’ Petersen said. “So that’s probably the thing we’re most proud of, those guys just really kind of getting what we’re all about and being all in, from how we practice to how we do everything.
“When you have a new crew come in, there’s a lot of ways to be successful. And sometimes it’s really hard for young guys to figure that out — why are we doing things this way when we were having some pretty good success the other way?
“For those guys to figure that out and make the switch and grow through that, it’s hard. It’s hard for anybody, let alone young kids who were recruited under a different philosophy. So we wouldn’t be here without those guys.”
Bierria, a second-team All-Pac-12 linebacker, remains a defender of Sarkisian, whom he credits with believing in him when few others did as a recruit out of Narbonne High School in Carson, Calif.
“For that, I will always thank Sark, and I will always say he’s a great person,” Bierria said, but added: “But then again, he did leave us in a rough way. A lot of guys felt bothered by that.”
That was the tense atmosphere in which Petersen took over and began trying to win over the holdovers, starting with that very first meeting.
“I just remembered how he carried himself, the seriousness he had when he was talking to the team,’’ Bierria said. “When someone’s speaking words that they truly believe in, you can see it. You can really feel and understand, ‘Wow, this is the real deal.’ That’s what Coach Pete showed us. He was all about that.
“Whatever he was speaking about, it’s how he lived by. That’s one of the things that really captured a lot of guys in the room. Some guys, I don’t want to say feared it, but they hadn’t really seen that from a coach, because a lot of guys were under Sark, and that coaching staff was a little more lax. When Coach Pete came in and talked to us, it really grabbed you. Right then, that’s when I bought in.”
Dissly had committed to Boise State for the 2014 season but opted to go with Petersen when he left Boise State for Washington. He was a second-team All-Conference performer this season at tight end, but he says his biggest pride comes in being part of returning the Huskies to football prominence.
“Washington for a long time has been a powerhouse in college football,’’ Dissly said. “We dropped off there for a bit, and then when Coach Petersen came to U-Dub, the fans expected it and we delivered. I definitely don’t think it’s going to stop after this year. It’s going to keep growing.”
The long-term prognosis at Washington is healthy. In the short term, the Huskies are nagged by last year’s loss to Alabama in the semifinals. As Petersen said, “There’s a lot of time and energy and money and all those things spent here. And you don’t win that last game, it’s really, really hard. I think there’s kind of a sour taste in your mouth.”
Bierria, who understands better than almost anyone the renovation of the Husky program, becomes animated and slightly dreamy when envisioning what a Fiesta Bowl victory over Penn State would mean.
“Oh, man,’’ he began. “To the program, to everybody. To me? It’s everything. It’s about leaving the place better than you found it. It’s all of that. It’s going there and getting the job done. It’s Death Row, it’s Purple Reign, it’s Washington. Going in and getting the win — it’s just something we’ve got to do.”