Pac-12: Saskatchewan Roughriders
September, 4, 2009
By ESPN.com staff | ESPN.com
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
SEATTLE -- Steve Sarkisian has to stand up to tell the story about the time he convinced Don James -- the Dawgfather -- he's the perfect man to coach Washington.
That the moment takes place at cushy Broadmoor Golf Club likely will give some Husky fans a fretful pause. Didn't Tyrone Willingham roll up 36-hole days when he should have been racking his brain for ways to fix the flagging football program?
|Stephen Brashear/Icon SMI|
|Steve Sarkisian has had overcome adversity many times before, which was attractive to Washington when it was looking for a new coach.|
But wait! Let Sarkisian explain -- and act out -- how he impressed James.
"I hit a seed about 10 feet off the ground right into a house," said Sarkisian, gleefully swinging an imaginary driver in his office overlooking Lake Washington.
"Coach James is putting on the green behind me. And he yells, 'That's the sign of a good ball coach! That away baby!'"
First impressions count for a lot. By every account, Sarkisian makes a good first impression.
That doesn't guarantee much, starting with a daunting debut against 11th-ranked LSU on Saturday, but it does provide something the Huskies haven't had for a while: hope.
The 35-year-old Sarkisian made a good first impression on Washington athletic director Scott Woodward and school president Mark Emmert. They interviewed Sarkisian for the Huskies' coaching job at the posh Fairmont Hotel in downtown Seattle on Thanksgiving night in 2008. Sarkisian was one of only two sitting coordinators Woodward wanted to talk to about the Huskies' vacancy, the other being Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, who is now the Longhorns head-coach-in-waiting behind Mack Brown.
While Woodward wouldn't say one way or the other, word was Sarkisian was not at the top of the Huskies' list. Until after the interview.
"We checked all the boxes and [Emmert] and I just go, 'This was an incredible interview,'" Woodward said.
Sarkisian didn't wow Woodward and Emmert with visual aids or detailed plans or a secret playbook. What first stood out was his energy. Next came Sarkisian's personal story, which most folks believe features him starting his coaching career on the 1-yard-line, courtesy of USC coach Pete Carroll.
Woodward was most surprised -- and excited -- about hearing how often Sarkisian had failed.
- Despite putting up huge passing numbers at West High School in Torrance, Calif., Sarkisian wasn't offered a football scholarship.
- He was cut from the USC baseball team.
- He was a baseball bust at El Camino Junior College because he couldn't hit a curve ball.
- He started playing football at El Camino almost on a whim, earned a scholarship to BYU and put up huge numbers.
- He went undrafted by the NFL and signed with the CFL's Saskatchewan Roughriders.
- He quit in 1999, following a 3-15 season, moved back to Torrance and got into sales for a software company.
- He coached quarterbacks at El Camino.
Then -- poof -- something good happened.
In 2001, a fourth-choice coach who was sure to fail got hired at USC, and that guy -- Carroll -- offered a graduate assistant's job to Sarkisian on the advice of Sarkisian's former quarterbacks coach at BYU, Norm Chow.
That first season, USC made a trip up to Washington and lost its fourth consecutive game, 27-24. But on the ride across the 520 Bridge to Husky Stadium, Sarkisian recalled an impression.
"I remember leaning forward to Pete and saying, 'This place is unbelievable,'" he said.
"Unbelievable" is how longtime Huskies fans would describe the slide from No. 3 in the nation in 2000 to 0-12 in 2008.
So it wasn't just the USC pedigree. It wasn't just the youthful enthusiasm. Woodward knew he had his man because of something else.
"He had overcome adversity," Woodward said, "and he will have to do that here."
That's for sure. The Huskies, winners of 15 Pac-10 titles, are 12-47 since 2004.
That dismal record permeated the program with misery and decay. For obvious reasons, the players lacked confidence. They also were out of shape. Some of them didn't give a rip.
Forget beating them down and building them back up. Sarkisian saw a team that needed to believe it wasn't a bunch of losers. They needed to believe football was fun again.
"It dawned on us about halfway through spring that these guys struggled when adversity struck in practice or during a scrimmage," Sarkisian said. "When a guy gets beat or makes a mental mistake -- a guy might drop a ball, get a penalty call, whatever can happen -- they harbor that for sometimes the rest of practice. It was almost as if they fell back into a negative perception of themselves, which we were trying to pull them out of. They would fall back into where they thought they belonged.
"These guys were beat up mentally and physically. They'd been torn apart every which way. There was a lot of build-up that needed to take place. That was a challenge, to build them up but coach them like we needed to coach them."
So there was plenty of positive reinforcement. But this isn't a tea party. It's Pac-10 football. There was also tough love.
"I have to be the half-crazy guy, especially at the beginning of practice," Sarkisian said. "I want them to feel the intensity."
Sarkisian's work with dual-threat quarterback Jake Locker has received positive early reviews as far as refining his passing technique in order to make him more consistently accurate. Sarkisian also is quick to note the Huskies' talent is better than last year's 0-12 record indicates. For what that's worth.
Nonetheless, a transformation will require a massive injection of talent. Though wins won't likely pile up this season, Sarkisian has been winning on the recruiting trail, his 17 present commitments earning Top-25 national rankings, according to most services.
Despite everything, Husky fans always have high expectations, so Sarkisian's recruiting philosophy, which zeroes in on the biggest bully on the block, will warm the neglected cockles of their hearts.
"With every kid we recruit, we say, 'Is he good enough to beat USC with?'" he said.
James went 9-8 vs. USC. If Sarkisian approaches parity with the Trojans, he likely will get plenty of "atta boys" from the Dawgfather and the rest of the beleaguered Husky nation.