There are two sides to every story. Currently, a behind-the-scenes strife is beginning at Montlake and factions are forming fast. In one corner is the ‘Bark for Sark’ crowd who believes an 0-12 record takes more than four seasons to climb out of. They see Steve Sarkisian, who finished his fourth season at Washington with another 7-6 record, as a coach on the verge of greatness. The other camp would like to thank Sarkisian for getting Washington football healthy again but don’t believe he’s capable of recreating their past glory.
Which side is correct? Can a stronger argument be made for either side? I personally straddle the proverbial fence. I understand the expectations much of Husky Nation places on their football program. I also understand how damaged Husky football was in 2008. Tyrone Willingham’s final season in Seattle was my first as a full-time Husky beat-writer. I watched every practice Willingham allowed, interviewed players and coaches after all 12 losses and understood how much work was needed to turn things around. I believe there are two sides to Sarkisian’s unfinished story and wrote this article in hopes of deciding which was most correct.
A Case for Patience
Sarkisian’s job is harder than many Husky fans will admit because Washington doesn’t enjoy the same edge they did in the 90’s. Reduced scholarships and increased television exposure for smaller programs created enough parity to mitigate some advantages. Small conference teams west of the Mississippi like Boise State, Utah and TCU found a way to consistently play with the big boys and at times even unseat them in the rankings. Technology has made the recruiting world smaller and high school athletes know they can make the NFL playing at McNeese State or Ohio State. Smaller programs can look a top-tier recruit in the eye and offer early playing time, flashy uniforms, a platform on ESPN to show off, an opportunity to play in BCS games, and a path to the NFL.
Also, after some down years, the Pac-12 has an influx of talented coaches. UCLA and Arizona are on the rise, Arizona State looks instantly improved while Oregon State continues to win with Mike Riley. Stanford and Oregon, traditionally Washington’s little brothers down south, are all grown up. They took a seat at the big-boy table along with USC, who despite sanctions and a down 2012 season, is still recruiting with the top teams in America.
The athletes Sarkisian is attempting to recruit grew up watching Oregon, Stanford, USC, Cal, and even Oregon State succeed, not the Huskies. The class-of-2013 players were six years old the last time Washington was prominent and on the national stage.
Jim Lambright watched his program digress to 6-6 in his final season despite all of Washington’s perceived advantages. Rick Neuheisel won a Rose Bowl but couldn’t maintain momentum despite all of the advantages. Keith Gilbertson was a sacrificial lamb and Willingham certainly couldn’t parlay the Washington brand into success. When problems persist with multiple coaches, maybe it’s time to look in the mirror.
Washington’s not alone as other traditional powers found recreating past success difficult. Nebraska, Notre Dame and Alabama have all enjoyed more historical success than Washington and none of them had to rebuild from an 0-12 record.
Between 2002 and 2008 Nebraska ended the season unranked five times, an astonishing statistic considering prior to 2002 they finished ranked 32 seasons in a row. That 32-year stretch included four national championships, two runner up finishes and 25 top-10 finishes.
Following Lou Holtz, from 1997-2009, Notre Dame Football was a meager 91-68 and was embarrassed in post season play with a 2-7 record during that time. Brian Kelly appears to have them back on top, but with a reasonably talented roster leftover from Charlie Weis, it still took Kelly until his third season to win more than eight games.
After Gene Stallings, Alabama struggled to play .500 football for the next decade. It wasn’t until future hall-of-fame coach Nick Saban was bankrolled to save the day that things turned around. Unfortunately there are not a lot of Nick Sabans looking for work.
In 2013 Washington has a chance to follow in Nebraska, Notre Dame and Alabama’s footsteps and return to national prominence. The Huskies return 20-of-25 starters (most in the Pac-12), open a brand new stadium that will be sold out every game, have a senior quarterback (yes I believe Keith Price will be the starter), and an easier schedule that features three winnable non-conference games. Don’t forget, UW was two missed field-goals away from nine wins in 2012 and incoming freshman kicker Cameron Van Winkle (No. 5 K in the country) is as advertised.
Patience for one more off-season could result in something special. Sarkisian not only returns 20 starters, all of which he directly recruited, most were highly ranked recruits. Since 2010 he’s hauled in the number 11, 22 and 22 ranked classes in the country respectfully. His 2013 class is currently ranked 11 and should finish in the top-15. But, because recruiting has become a big business unto itself, fans now focus on the second season with much anticipation. That means certain recruiting losses can sometimes feel like Saturday losses. With the exception of a few local stars leaving the state, Sarkisian has been a top-25 recruiter selling a less than top-25 product. How well can he recruit when Washington wins nine games?
Sometimes building a lasting winner takes time. Virginia Tech fans are happy they didn’t run Frank Beamer out of town after a 24-40-2 start to his career; he’s 191-87 since.
Seattle wasn’t built in a day and neither was the success Husky fans celebrated in the 90’s. Under Sarkisian Washington has nearly turned the corner. Marque wins over USC, Stanford, Nebraska and Oregon State highlight what a Sarkisian led team is capable of. Consistency comes with continuity, not coaching changes every five years.
A Case for Change
Perhaps some of Washington’s advantages have been mitigated, but they still have more than many Pac-12 teams. UW is in Seattle, they have brand new facilities in 2013 and the most beautiful stadium back drop in America. Sarkisian can offer recruits a world-class educated, a program on the rise, a rich tradition, an NFL pipeline, extensive alumni support, and he enjoys recruiting ties to both California and Hawaii. When taken advantage of properly, Washington’s built in advantages should allow any coach to be 7-6. Coaches, administrators, players and fans should expect more. 7-6 isn’t good enough.
Entering 2012 most pundits agreed that seven or eight wins was logical given Washington’s youth and brutal schedule, but it’s how they reached seven wins that concerns me. Under Sarkisian, Washington has been undisciplined and over-penalized. This season they were the most penalized team in school history and nearly the worst in college football. The lack of discipline is also evident with how they handle success. Sark has only won one game while ranked (against Colorado) at UW. In fact, entering the 2012 Apple Cup, UW was ranked 25th in the BCS. With wins over Washington State and Boise State, the Huskies would have certainly ended the season in the top-20. The turnaround every Husky fan has waited a decade for was in Sark’s grasp and he failed.
To be blunt, the Washington State loss was unacceptable. The Cougars were perhaps the worst BCS team in the nation and Washington held an 18-point lead in the fourth quarter. I understand rivalry games create crazy outcomes, but a well-coached and disciplined team buries their rival in that situation. It’s a coach’s job to have his players prepared. It’s a coach’s job to keep them focused. It’s a coach’s job to get the most out of their kids.
Sarkisian has been successful in recruiting top talent at Montlake, so shouldn’t he be doing more with that talent? I also can’t overlook how many elite in-state players have left. Each had unique circumstances regarding their college choice, but no matter the circumstance, watching Zach Banner, Joshua Garnett, Cedric Dozier, Danny Mattingly, and Max Browne all leave the state is a failure on some level.
There are questions surrounding his recruiting philosophy. Many compare his methods to Neuheisel, who could land top-rated skill players but generally ignored the offensive and defensive line. The lack of depth along the offensive line was evident this season as Price was running for his life and never looked comfortable in the pocket as a result.
Sark has been described as a quarterback and play-calling guru. However, it appears that former quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier’s role was greater than fans realized. Under Nussmeier’s tutelage Price was the seventh most efficient quarterback in the nation and without him struggled so mightily that many fans called for true freshman Cyler Miles. Serving the same role at Alabama, Nussmeier guided Tide quarterback AJ McCarron to the best efficiency rating in the nation.
The excuses must end. Willingham’s 0-12 team rightfully gave Sarkisian an extended honeymoon, but how long can the ghost of Willingham’s past be blamed? Most people close to that 0-12 team, including myself, understand the roster wasn’t full of 0-12 talent. Over the past two seasons Sark has utilized many of Willingham’s players to become a bowl team. Chris Polk, Devin Aguilar, Jermaine Kearse, Justin Glenn, Alameda Ta’amu, Cody Bruns, Drew Schaefer, Senio Kelemete and Cort Dennison all contributed to Sark’s middling success the past two seasons. If we still blame Willingham for Washington’s shortfalls in 2012, he should get credit for his accomplishments.
Four seasons is a decent sample size and you don’t have to look outside the conference to see new hires making an immediate impact. Rich Rodriguez only needed one season to implement and entirely different offense while guiding his team to eight wins. David Shaw took over an elite team, but he hasn’t skipped a beat guiding Stanford to consecutive 11 win seasons. Todd Graham managed eight wins his first season in Tempe.
Then we have the Westwood elephant in the room.
Jim Mora only needed one season to replace USC atop the Los Angeles pecking order, easily beating the Trojans on the way to nine wins and a trip to the Pac-12 championship game. He’s also putting together consecutive impressive recruiting class’ and poached one of Washington State’s most talented high school players in Myles Jack.
Like most questions, the best answer is found somewhere in the middle. I believe Washington still has enough built-in advantages that fans should expect to compete for Pac-12 titles. 7-6 can’t be the standard long term.
Four seasons is not long term.
In 2013 I expect Washington to compete for the Pac-12 North. They return nearly everyone and have Van Winkle eager to solve the kicking woes along with Alabama transfer Travell Dixon (6-foot-1, 190lbs Jr.) ready to step in for Desmond Trufant.
This team was extremely young and the offensive line started two freshman, two sophomores, plus injuries gave backups valuable experience. No position in college football takes more time to develop and they are poised for a big offseason that should solve many of the quarterback problems.
Price took a lot of heat, much of it warranted, but he finished the season throwing 11 touchdowns and only four interceptions the final five games. He completed 60 percent of his passes on the season and has every weapon returning.
But the offense wasn’t the most exciting part of this season. I’m eager to see what defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox can do with another off-season. With similar players as Nick Holt, Wilcox improved the total defense from 94th in the nation in 2011 (giving up 426 yards per game) to 35th in 2012 (357 yards per game). They allowed 33.3 points-per-game in 2011, good for 99th in the country. In 2012 they were 41st allowing only 24.15.
You may see a theme here; the Huskies were very young. Washington’s defense started three freshman and five sophomores, and much of the depth were also underclassmen. Plus, more help may be on the way as ace recruiter Tosh Lupoi is currently in pursuit of a couple defensive lineman and linebackers that can make an immediate impact similar to Shaquille Thompson .
UW fans have enjoyed the return of aggressive, hard hitting, defensive minded football and we all know Husky stadium can get louder after a three-and-out then a touchdown. Next season may not be the reincarnation of Purple Haze, but it should serve as a step in that direction.
2013 is a show me season for Sarkisian. Show fans his team can play with discipline. Show fans his talented but young players have improved after an off-season. Show fans Husky football will no longer be embarrassed against teams like Oregon, LSU or even Arizona.
Washington should enter next season ranked just outside the top-25 and will have to handle modest hype. Sarkisian needs to prove his team can be motivated by success instead of folding under its pressure.
I believe he will.
I’m not exactly sure what a successful 2013 season will look like. Eight wins is the bare minimum to justify improvement. With their schedule nine wins could be expected.
However, anything more would remind Husky fans what is capable and instill trust that Sarkisian is the coach to get them back to glory.