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Wednesday, October 12, 2011
Sarkisian, Huskies scaling Pac-12 mountain

By Ted Miller

Snow-capped Mount Rainier looms over Seattle, a majestic presence and a challenging climb for those willing to seek its summit. And about half of the people with the gumption to try, nonetheless, fail.

So Washington coach Steve Sarkisian picked an apt analogy for his rebuilding program when he adopted mountain climbing. It's a step-by-step process with plenty of chances to go rear-end-over-tea-kettle. He called his Huskies "inexperienced mountain climbers."

Steve Sarkisian
Steve Sarkisian's Huskies have won eight of their last nine games.
"So our ability to focus on the next step, as a mountain climber would, is what is critical in these times for us," he said. "Not to worry about what lies ahead looking up or to look back down, because you can slip and slide back down. So our focus is on the next step and it's got to continue to be that way.''

So the focus is on Colorado, which visits on Saturday. Not a "look how far we've come!" retrospective on recovering from an 0-12 season in 2008. Not a glance ahead to games with Pac-12 North Division rivals Stanford and Oregon. The present is challenging enough.

Yet it is clear Sarkisian's program has taken steps up the mountain. Washington has won eight of its last nine games. The last time the Huskies had such a streak? 2000-01 when they won 15 of 16 under Rick Neuheisel.

Not unlike Mount Rainier's instant and iconic association with Seattle, so too is it difficult to look at Washington football in the big picture without mentioning the Don James Era. That is what Huskies fans want back -- a national championship, four Rose Bowl victories, pre-eminence as a West Coast football power.

Four coaches have tried to approach what James did in 18 seasons. Neuheisel in 2000 won the Huskies' one and only Rose Bowl since James stepped down in 1993.

Rose Bowls? Toilet bowls is more like it. The Holiday Bowl win over Nebraska last December was the Huskies' first bowl game since 2002 and first bowl victory since that Rose Bowl following the 2000 season.

But Sarkisian believes the Huskies, while "inexperienced mountain climbers," are on their way back to the glory days.

"I think we can get back to that level and I think we are on our way," he said. "How quickly we get there is, I guess, the mystery of it all. But I think we can get there."

And Sarkisian doesn't believe James' legacy is a burden. Rather it's a foundation for his faith.

"I firmly believe that anytime a football program has been to that place before it is a lot easier to find your way back and to find your way back on a consistent level," he said.

Of course, the Huskies aren't there yet, particularly on defense. It's hard to get to the Rose Bowl while giving up 427 yards per game.

But they've got a quarterback for the future (and present) in sophomore Keith Price and will only start seven seniors against the Buffaloes. By way of comparison, 10 freshmen or sophomores will start.

When Sarkisian discusses his rebuilding plan, he talks about hiring a good staff and recruiting, which makes perfect but unenlightening sense. But what he comes back to -- and in relation to hiring a staff and recruiting -- is team culture. Transforming a losing locker room into a winning one before much winning takes place is the chief task of a coach taking over a woebegone program. It's a matter of, Sarkisian said, "continually finding ways to get your current team to believe in what you are doing."

He said, "That can come on the practice field. It can come in team meetings. It can come in team exercises you are doing as a group from game-day opportunities. But to continually find ways to reinforce the beliefs that you want them to believe in so that the culture can start to change."

It would seem that Sarkisian is doing a good job of leading his team up that mountain, but the real tests will be Stanford and Oregon, the top-10 programs lording at present over the North Division and the entire conference. The Ducks' recent dominance over the Huskies, in particular, is a summit Washington fans are eager to climb over. (Just see below).

But those are strides for another day. If the Huskies stop watching where their present footing is, they might just topple over.

Let's not forget that the last time Washington started 4-1 -- in 2006 under Tyrone Willingham -- it ended up losing 27 of its next 32 games.