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Monday, April 12, 2010
Washington doesn't want to be home for the holidays again

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

SEATTLE -- Home for the holidays. What a joy!

Unless you're a BCS college football coach, when being home for the holidays in nearly every case means your season was a failure.

So this past Christmas was odd on multiple levels for Washington's Steve Sarkisian. For one, after having coached seven years at USC, he wasn't accustomed to not reviewing game tape while the Yule Log burned.

And his experience was even stranger when he went out to do his holiday shopping around Seattle. Folks were so ... complimentary.

Steve Sarkisian
While he has seen improvement, Steve Sarkisian wants his team to become more physical.
"I've never been congratulated so much for a five-win season," he said.

Ah, but context is everything. For the Trojans, a 9-4 season, which included a loss to Sarkisian's Huskies, was a disaster. For the Huskies, going 5-7 sparked hope among the beleaguered purple-clad masses, who were but a season removed from the worst finish in program history: oh no! and 12.

It's hard to overstate the stunning transformation under Sarkisian.

In 2008, the Huskies lost all 12 games by an average of more than 25 points. In 2009, they beat four teams who won at least eight games, three of whom spent much of the season nationally ranked.

They concluded the season by stomping rival Washington State 30-0 and No. 19 California 42-10.

And now they are in the midst of spring practices preparing for what many believe will be the rebirth of a Pac-10 and national power, one that hasn't played in a bowl game since 2002. Nineteen starters are back, and one of them is quarterback Jake Locker, who could end up the top pick of the 2011 NFL draft.

After signing a touted recruiting class -- ranked 20th in the nation by ESPN.com's Scouts Inc. -- the positive momentum is unmistakable.

"From where we started, to where we've come, to where we're headed, it's exciting," Sarkisian said. "The mantra of expecting to win is there now. It's not just something that's up on a board or on a T-shirt. It's a real belief."

The question is how could such a dramatic turnaround take place, particularly against what was among the nation's toughest schedules?

Sarkisian and defensive coordinator Nick Holt are due a lot of credit, obviously. But there's also the issue that the previous administration was doing a lousy job. Tyrone Willingham's Huskies in 2008 weren't good, but they shouldn't have lost every game.

"I felt like a lot of guys didn't want to play for the coaches we had [in 2008]," linebacker Mason Foster said. "I hate to say that because I love Coach Willingham and they were great coaches, but I don't think they were relating to the players. Guys didn't want to come here and play for the coaches. They were just showing up because they had to. Now, everybody wants to come, wants to compete. They're not just showing up because they have to to get their scholarship check. People want to play for Coach Sark. People want to play for Coach Holt. That's the biggest difference."

Sarkisian saw that his message was resonating almost immediately. The Huskies statistically dominated No. 11 LSU in the opener -- their 478 yards was more than any other team would gain on the Tigers all season -- but they lost 31-23.

Most took it as a sure sign of progress. But Sarkisian, coming from USC, saw little redeeming value in losing well. He'd rather win poorly.

"What I appreciated was I had a locker room full of players who were pissed that we didn't win," Sarkisian said. "That was something I was concerned about. Was it good enough just to play OK? Or are we playing to win, expecting to win? That told me they were listening to what we were trying to get across."

A week later, against an Idaho team that went on to win a bowl game, the Huskies ended their losing streak at 15. Then they stunned the nation by slipping the third-ranked Trojans 16-13. Husky Stadium, once the Pac-10 most-feared venue, went wacko.

That gave Sarkisian leverage in recruiting. He'd been telling prospects about a hypothetical transformation. Now he could point to a tangible one.

"When there's substance there -- 'this is what we said we were going to do' -- that gave us a lot of credibility on the road in recruiting," he said.

Of course, the Huskies are hardly a finished product. For one, they are still learning to win. There were plenty of what-might-have-been losses in 2009 -- goal-line failures against LSU and Notre Dame; a late bomb versus Arizona State; a one-point defeat at UCLA.

With so much experience back, that shouldn't be as much of a problem, particularly on offense. Sarkisian wants Locker to continue to refine his accuracy and ability to find his secondary reads, but the chief area the offense needs to improve doesn't involve Locker.

"If there's an area we have to improve, it's that we need to be a more physical football team," Sarkisian said. "Great offenses are the ones that can run the football. Even when you knew they were going to run it, they could still run it."

Defense is more of a question. The Huskies must replace their two best players -- linebacker Donald Butler and end Daniel Te'o-Nesheim -- and there's a particular lack of depth at end, where incoming freshmen are almost certain to see playing time.

Still, the defense, projected to be overwhelmed in 2009, showed surprising grittiness under Holt.

"What I like about our defense right now... if there's really a group on the team that has bought in and believes in what we are doing, it is our defensive football team," Sarkisian said. "That started the second half of the year. They played lights out the last two games of the year."

Sarkisian told reporters last fall that he was surprised by how much talent the Huskies had. It was a matter of presenting them a good plan and having them buy in.

He now expects that to yield postseason fruit in Year 2. He told them that immediately after the 2009 season ended.

"This is not where we're going to be next year -- we're going to be in a hotel somewhere," Sarkisian said of no longer spending the holidays at home.

"It didn't feel right. It didn't taste good. As proud as I was with the improvements we made, at the end of the day, we were still a five-win football team. And that's not good enough and that's not why I was brought here."