As Coach Steve Sarkisian enters his 5th season as the Husky head coach there are already rumblings about his job status unless his team does better than a 7-6 record which they have had for the past three years. Come on people, what a negative way to view a new season that has yet to start. Sarkisian has been nothing short of a savior after inheriting a program that had reached the very bottom of its very long and storied history. Sure there were some outstanding players left when he took over but a quality depth was almost non-existent and even more critical was a malaise that had come over the program where they were more worried about losing rather than thinking about winning.
Like so many other Husky fans I endured the run of consecutive seasons where this team went 1-10, 2-9, 5-7, 4-9, and 0-12. Wow, were we really watching the Washington Huskies? The same team that had won a National Championship, the same team that used to destroy opposing offenses with one of the toughest defenses in the country, and the same program that had put together 27 non-losing seasons? Unfortunately, the answer was yes and I had watched every one of those games and also watched as a lot of really good coaches get ground up in the process. There are no less than a half dozen ex-Husky coaches who after being fired at Washington are now in the NFL as well as at least a dozen who have also landed on their feet at other major college programs like Notre Dame, Stanford, Kansas State, and at Boise State. Getting fired is no fun for anyone but for some reason being in the coaching profession opens you up to all sorts of people who seem to think it’s OK to discuss your abilities publically and suggest when and why you should be fired. Sark deserves better for what he has put into breathing life back into a morbid program. Now obviously he has to win games. Everyone knows a losing season would be unacceptable and Sark himself understand it more than anyone.
To say that Sark inherited an absolute mess is almost an understatement. The Huskies were simply horrible but he has slowly and steadily made progress with his roster. Unfortunately, from the depth maturity standpoint they are still not there yet. Consider this, their first opponent this year, Boise State, will have 16 red-shirt seniors while Sark will have but 3 and one of those was an un-recruited walk-on transfer from Central Washington. Essentially he has a grand total of two players left over from his first signing class. You win in major college football with 22 year olds not 18 year olds and because of those depth issues Sark has been forced to play many of his freshmen way too early.
Having coached at that level for many years I realize how enormous the job of being a head coach is. I had been a head coach at the high school and junior college levels and that was enough to convince me that I never wanted to be in Sark’s shoes. Of course the pay check would have been nice but the stress and pressure to win at that level is almost suffocating. Consequently, I always try to look at the big picture because, unlike professional football, junior football, high school football, and college football are all part of the educational process.
Since Sarkisian has been at Washington, the Huskies have had one of the best graduation rates of any team in the conference save Stanford, where if you didn’t know, no one flunks out. Until just recently his teams have essentially been crime free and he has been a no-nonsense coach readily dismissing players who don’t buy into to the system or their education. He means business and the kids know it but what is even better is they have a sincere like for their head coach.
Each college football program has its own unique system and it usually takes years to put it in. Sark has finally implemented his and, even though he has had a major coaching turnover, the kids know and are positive about the system itself and what it asks of them. The weight and strength program under Ivan Lewis is second to none and Sark hired him in his first week on the job. Sark realized you win games in the weight room. He asks his kids to get up at 5 to 6am every morning and asks them to put in a full day’s work. If he could buy them lunch boxes he would because he teaches hard work ethics. He also preaches fun to go along with the grind and you can see the kids doing both at the same time. The Sark system has a wonderful balance to it and most people don’t see it simply because football is such a bottom line profession.
Sark and his coaches have proven they are good recruiters. His teams have also regularly given of themselves to the community and particularly to Children’s Hospital where they are frequent visitors. The point is in the overall scheme he is doing an excellent job but nobody wants to just be above average in the win-loss column unless of course you care to remember those years when winning any game was big. Each game is a championship within itself and when the Huskies start playing as well on the road as they do at home then this program will take that final step to again become one of the dominant powers in college football. That is the biggest unsolved mystery of the Sark era.
Sometimes you have to go through the brush to get to the picnic and sometimes it takes a while to find your way. Even though this is Sark’s fifth year it has taken him longer to build up his personnel to the point where he can red-shirt almost all of every class he brings in. Now that he is almost there is not time to be talking about replacing him. That’s exactly what happened to the Washington Huskies in the first place. After having 2 head coaches for 36 years, the Dawgs have had 5 in the last 15. Come on, isn’t it obvious that changing coaches all the time hurts the continuity of a program? Washington fans finally have a winning program but can’t wait to win a championship again. That’s good but believe me the expectations are even stronger to the players and coaches.
Sark doesn’t have to win to please anyone more than he does himself. He has to be the rock for his kids and he has to accept the blame for the losses. He knows and accepts that reality of the profession. Unfortunately, it comes with the territory. Then when you do win it is never enough. Why can’t you win every game? Why can’t we be like Alabama? Believe me if he knew that answer he already be doing it. What he does know is his own system and slowly but surely it is beginning to show the dividends.
One advantage Sark does have is the backing of his Athletic Director, Scott Woodward. Scott is the first AD the UW has had since Mike Lude back in the 80’s who really understands the importance and role of football in Husky athletics. He gets it and because of that Sark has some kind of job security. Woodward will stand by his man unless Washington has some kind of a disastrous losing season. He also realizes how far Sark has brought the program and from how far it was down. To venture to guess what would happen if they only went 7-6 again is negative energy. Besides that a winning season is often decided by injuries and luck or having things like the ball bounce your way. Last year they very easily could have gone 9-4 but then again they could have been 5-7. The parity in this conference is unbelievable right now and with TV dictating everything being a head coach is like standing in quicksand. With only 4 seasons under his belt Sark is already the 3rd longest tenured coach in a conference of twelve.
Right now Sark and the Huskies are undefeated. Win the first one and stay that way. Win each game one at a time and they just might get that shot at Alabama. For now though, Sark can’t worry about going 7-6 again because he only needs to go 1-0. Steve Sarkisan has put in a good system at Washington. They play hard, they recruit really well, and the kids are graduating and many more are getting a chance to play at the next level. In the big picture Steve Sarkisian is still building. Now all he has to do is build a Championship team. He knows that and he also knows fan expectations and criticism just comes with the job. That doesn’t make it right but it is the reality.