In the same minutes their coach was abruptly leaving them Monday, Keith Price, Hau’oli Kikaha and Danny Shelton stood as tall as they ever have as Huskies. That’s a lesson that will serve them far beyond football. “Our team has reached a point where we are self-motivated.”
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
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SEATTLE – First they had sat stunned, stone silent for about 5 minutes, listening to their now-former coach explain why he was suddenly leaving them.
“Man, that was tense,” is how one Husky described it a few minutes later.
Then, a revitalization. With Steve Sarkisian out of the team meeting room of the football operations center in Husky Stadium, taking his first departing steps from Washington to USC, UW’s athletic director gave an impassioned speech.
Scott Woodward emphasized three, clear points:
- I promise I will find you a great coach, one who will go beyond eight and nine wins to a championship;
- This is ultimately your program;
- And right now, this week, is prime time to own it.
“This team doesn’t belong to any one coach. It doesn’t belong to me or any one coach,” Woodward told the players. “This is YOUR program. YOU make the team. YOU make the results. Whatever work you put in and whatever effort you give, that’s what you are going to get out of this month.”
When Woodward finished, his rousing, 10-minute speech had U-turned the team’s mood and perhaps its month.
Danny Shelton was the first of the players to rise. He led the 90 or so Huskies into a huddle at the front center of the meeting room.
“WE ALL WE GOT!” the junior defensive tackle and a few other veterans shouted.
“WE ALL WE NEED!” every player responded, in unison.
It was as big a moment as any the Huskies have had in five years.
“We all we got! We all we need!” is the mantra these players are living and working by this week, this month. They don’t have a head coach. They don’t know when they will get one, or who it will be. Their assistants, position coaches and coordinators alike, are, as co-captain Hau’oli Kikaha said on Monday, “in limbo.”
Will Justin Wilcox, the highly impressive, highly respected and popular coordinator who turned around the Huskies’ defense within months of his arrival last year, stay? If so, in what capacity? What will become of youthful, energetic recruiting whiz Tosh Lupoi, the defensive line coach? Veteran offensive line coach Dan Cozzetto, the man who helped restore the blocking for UW to set records for scoring and yardage this season, or any of the other assistants?
Who will these Dawgs have coaching them beyond December's bowl game? Wednesday, the Huskies named Marques Tuiasosopo as their interim coach for the bowl.
I'm humbled and so honored," the Husky legend said Wednesday, after he stepped up for the program following a meeting with Wooodward earlier in the day.
But beyond that, no one knows who will lead UW..
Yet as the aftermath of the players’ abrupt, cold life change Monday is showing, they absolutely have each other.
And they have undeniable team leaders.
BRING ON “THE JANITOR”
By what I’ve seen this week around the players, Keith Price is once again proving himself to be valuable in ways far beyond completion, attempts, yards, touchdowns and interceptions.
In the hours after Sarkisian bolted, Price was the program’s rock. He basically shrugged at the latest curveball thrown his way in a UW career full of them, as if to say, “What else?”
He has his degree. He has five years that have transformed him from a boy into a man. Those who boo him or complain about him during and after games don’t ever think about that.
"We’re so motivated. We know we need to get to nine wins. And that’s our goal."
The quarterback stood in front of Husky Stadium’s main entrance Monday afternoon, squinted into the winter sun, and represented his teammates, his university and himself with class and levity. Again. He characteristically smiled and he endured television cameras, tape recorders -- plus news folks with little sports experience throwing themselves into Seattle’s latest breaking story headfirst by asking gems such as “So will Sarkisian coach you in the bowl game?” five different times and ways in eight minutes.
As younger, scorned Huskies initially vented Monday on Twitter, Price the fifth-year senior, one game removed from entering the real world, exemplified poise and professionalism. He said more than once that he doesn’t begrudge Sarkisian leaving for what the coach and native (along with his wife Stephanie) of southern California felt was a better situation for him and his family. Sarkisian phoned Price back in Compton, Calif., in January 2009 on the first day the coach took over at UW, to reaffirm the QB’s commitment to Washington, and the bond they have will endure through this jolt.
“He’s a great friend of mine,” Price said.
But best of all, Price nailed the tone of this 8-4 team minutes after its meeting with Sarkisian and Woodward, when he was asked about whom might coach the Huskies in December’s bowl game. His answer captured how this jarring week at UW has lit a renewed fire within the players -- the forgotten subjects left twisting in this change and the subsequent plot twists, such as Jim Mora signing a contract extension at UCLA on Tuesday, a day after Mora said UW officials had contacted him.
And, of course, what would a coaching change be without the endless and often ridiculous rumors that have filled the players’ computer and smart-phone screens last two days?
These guys read all that stuff, too. And right now, they don’t care.
"It doesn’t matter who’s coaching. You could have a janitor coaching us, but we’re so motivated," Price said. "We know we need to get to nine wins. And that’s our goal.
“Our team, man, we’ve got a lot of great leaders. A lot of great leaders,” Price said, “because at the end of the day we are the ones playing out there. Not Coach Sark, or any of the other assistant coaches. We are the ones out there playing. We are going to have our same swagger. And we are going to perform at the highest of our abilities, and we are going to continue to prepare like we have all season.
“Our team has reached a point where we are self-motivated.”
Forty-five minutes after news broke that Sarkisian had taken the USC job, sophomore linebacker Shaq Thompson Tweeted from his @ST7_ERA account to @KeithPrice17: “keep us together bro!”
If there had to be a week for this to happen, this was as good a one as any in the season. The Huskies had already been scheduled to be off from practice until at least this weekend, as they await Sunday’s word on where and when they will be playing, and against whom, in their fourth consecutive bowl. The morning weight-lifting sessions are going on as usual under strength and conditioning coach Ivan Lewis. The players are so used to the routine structure integral to each day of any football season they could largely run a practice, too, if need be.
Heck, Price has already done that. After he led players-only workouts on the field in June, when NCAA rules prohibit coaches from being on the field with players, he joked how he’d gotten enough of a taste to know he doesn’t want to go into college coaching after his playing days are done.
Price said he expected another team meeting this week to discuss where the players go from here in the next few days.
“Maybe I’ll talk to the team,” Washington’s career leader in touchdown passes and completion percentage said.
“We wish Coach Sark well over at USC – but we have a pretty good football team, as well. Whoever we are playing in the bowl game, we are going to ready to strap it up.”
Tuiasosopo will be leading Washington most likely to San Francisco on Dec. 27 in the Fight Hunger Bowl against Brigham Young, though the Sun Bowl in El Paso or a return to Las Vegas become more possible if two-loss Oregon influences its way back into the Bowl Championship Series. That would bump every other non-BCS bowl team from the Pac-12 up a rung in the conference’s bowl-affiliation ladder.
No matter who ends up coaching UW, no matter where Washington gets sent for that bowl game, those are going to some driven, dedicated Dawgs playing around the coming holidays.
“Whoever our coach is going to be for the bowl game, we are going to play hard. There’s still a lot to accomplish in this season,” Price said, speaking outside the main, west entrance of the football operations building and Husky Stadium on the street level facing Montlake Boulevard.
As he did, a teammate passed by and to show his head was still up, he declared to all, “Go Dawgs!”
“To finish with nine wins would be huge for this program and for this team,” Price continued. “So that’s our next goal.”
That would be UW’s most victories in a season since the Huskies won the Pac-10 in 2000. Price’s quarterbacks coach this year, Tuiasosopo, was the Most Valuable Player of that season’s Rose Bowl.
Beyond Price, cornerback Marcus Peters has capped his standout redshirt-sophomore season by joining Thompson in impressively leading and representing the underclassmen this week. And Kikaha, the defensive end who leads this team with 10 sacks, has risen up to lead the team – again – in the junior’s steady, thoughtful way.
I don’t know who will eventually become the 26th coach in 124 years of Husky football. I have some educated guesses, and some are names you know but haven’t been debating. I sense it will take as little as by this weekend or perhaps as long as a couple weeks for the Huskies to sign the right man to continue the program’s upward trend toward championships.
But I do know this: No matter who ends up coaching UW, no matter where Washington gets sent for that bowl game, those are going to some driven, dedicated Dawgs playing around the coming holidays.
"We are all together,” Kikaha said. “We are tight as a team.
“We will persevere to whatever's next.”
Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director or Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for the Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.
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