Emmert is hitting .500 on football coaches, hiring Nick Saban at LSU and Tyrone Willingham at Washington

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During a former purple-and-gold life, Washington president Mark Emmert made the best coaching hire of the past decade in college football.

As the chancellor of Louisiana State University, he gave a seemingly solid-but-unspectacular taskmaster named Nick Saban the Tigers’ football gig. Some LSU fans raised an eyebrow. Some yawned. Almost no one envisioned what would happen next: Saban inherited a 3-8 team and won a national championship in his fourth season.

Then, in 2004, Emmert came to Washington, his alma mater, OK’d the Tyrone Willingham hire, and well, um, oops.

So the Prez who prides himself in recognizing talent — and he has the hiring history, both in academics and athletics, to prove it — has a 1-1 record on football coaches. When it comes to impact, however, he’s 2-0. He made the best coaching hire of the past decade and, perhaps, the worst. How’s that for checks and balances?

Good-humored as always, Emmert laughs off the assertion. He gives Saban the most credit for rebuilding LSU, but at the same time, Emmert doesn’t minimize his role in both hiring Willingham and retaining him for last season’s 0-12 mark. It’s the craziest dichotomy ever, but here’s some good news for the Huskies purple and gold: The Prez sees a lot of Saban in new UW coach Steve Sarkisian.

“I see it in their approach to the players,” Emmert said. “Both are demanding taskmasters, but they have a combination of expecting great things and making it really fun to compete and win. Some of the same things that I saw with Nick Saban at LSU, I’m seeing with coach Sarkisian now.

“It’s how energetic and fired up and disciplined he is about football. You see the change in players’ bodies, the change in their diets, the change in their attitudes, the common-sense approach to the game they’re developing. And the coaches are working like mad men. Yes, it is familiar.”

Is Sarkisian the younger, taller, offensive-oriented, less grumpy version of Saban? It’s quite a thought. But before we go planning a 2013 BCS championship parade, let’s remember that not all rebuilding projects are created equal.

At the same time, it’s encouraging to remember, as we await this Huskies-Tigers season opener Saturday, that Emmert solved the how-to-fix-football problem once. After failing with Willingham, he went back to those roots to hire Sark.

“You can judge him any way you wish, but it was just different circumstances,” said Washington athletic director Scott Woodward, who worked with Emmert at LSU, when asked about the difference between the Saban and Willingham hires. “He led the Saban hire. He was less involved with the entire process of the Willingham hire, and then he came in at the end and approved it.

“This time, with coach Sarkisian, we were attached at the hip. He was intimately involved.”

As Emmert said when Sarkisian was hired in December, he had a mental checklist of things he wanted in a head coach, and Sark was an ideal match.

Why was the Willingham process different? Maybe it was the fact that Emmert, then-athletic director Todd Turner and Willingham were all new, having been hired in a nine-month span. Maybe Emmert was distracted by all he had on his plate. Maybe Emmert felt he needed to give his new AD power.

Or maybe he just messed up.

“Yeah, there was a difference in the process, but I don’t want to make it sound like I wasn’t involved in the Willingham hire in an instrumental way,” Emmert said. “I was engaged. I was involved in the final decision. I’m not going to back away from that.”

You have to appreciate his honesty and willingness to accept blame. Now that there’s a positive air surrounding the Huskies again, it’s easier to revisit those tough memories.

Emmert remembers walking onto the Husky Stadium field during halftime of a game last season. Some angry fans yelled something antagonizing. Emmert’s wife, DeLaine, was with him and acknowledged the rude behavior. The Prez shrugged.

“Gosh, if I were in the stands, I think I’d be yelling, too,” he said.

If Sarkisian is really Saban-ish, then Emmert will be receiving applause soon. He knows the yin and the yang of this sport as well as anyone. Sarkisian represents a chance to be 2 for 3 in successful football hires.

“If in a few years we’re in the Rose Bowl, I’ll be batting .667, right?” The Prez asked. “That’s not bad.”

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com, Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer