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Decisive, Late-Night Calls Built Sark's Staff
Release: 02/09/2012
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Feb. 9, 2012

By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing

SEATTLE - It didn't take Eric Kiesau long to feel the energy and decisiveness of Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian.

Kiesau was ending a grinding Sunday of recruiting travel last month from the West Coast to Maryland. Recruiting for the University of California, that is.

Even though Sunday was turning to Monday, Kiesau's phone was ringing as he was stepping off a cross-country flight. Sarkisian was on the other end, from the other side of the country in the middle of the night.

Sark knew his offensive coordinator, Doug Nussmeier, was about to leave Washington to take the same job and to call plays at Alabama. And Sarkisian wanted a contemporary whose career he'd been following for years, Kiesau.


"I was on a home visit ... I got the call at midnight. We talked until 2:30," the Huskies' new offensive coordinator whose name is pronounced KEY-saw said Wednesday on his new home campus at UW.

"Sark and I hit it off. It was great. Sark was all fired up. He goes, `Cool, I'm going to offer you the job right now. You want it?'"

Kiesau was stunned. And unprepared. He is a husband and father of a 14-year-old middle-schooler and an 8-year-old grade-schooler.

"Sark," Kiesau replied, "I haven't even talked to my wife (Wendy) yet! She doesn't even know what's going on."

OK, Sarkisian said, go call your wife.

"Right now?" Kiesau replied. "Sark, it's 3 o'clock in the morning."

Sarkisian's response fits his first three, rebounding seasons at Washington: "Let's get it done."

The 40-year-old Kiesau did, like a great husband and dad should. He didn't sleep that Sunday night in Maryland. He soon called Wendy back home out in the Bay Area. Then he changed a flight and flew home to Oakland.

"I wanted to look my daughter in the face. I wanted to look my wife in the face. I wanted to look them in the eye and make sure they were good with it," Kiesau said. "I'm glad I did, because it's tough. My 14-year-old daughter has moved from Colorado to Cal to Washington in three years. Tough deal. We've got to get her in and get settled."

He's doing that now, preparing to move his family from the Bay Area during his children's spring break from school. The former play caller at Colorado and last season at Cal signed a three-year agreement last month to be UW's offensive coordinator.

"Everyone talks about the football part of me taking this job. The football part was great," said Kiesau, who like Nussmeier will help Sarkisian game plan before yielding play calling duties to Sark on game days.

"It was the personal side that made this a bigger decision for me. We didn't want to move our kids in high school. My daughter is in her last year in middle school. ... It was the right time for me to go ahead and do this.

"My whole transaction took about 18 hours, literally. And I'm talking sleeping time, too, which I didn't sleep at all that night," Kiesau said. "It was a very, very quick transition."

Kiesau and new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox are the centerpieces to the commitment Washington is making in 2012 to football's nine assistant coaches -- and to the continued progress and energy inside Sarkisian's program.

The energy is as immediate as it is noticeable, especially on defense.

Kiesau, new defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi, Wilcox and new linebackers coach Peter Sirmon, and new defensive backs coach Keith Heyward barely had time to take off their old school's polos and put on UW ones before they resumed recruiting last month for the Dawgs.

Yet they and the original assistants from Sarkisian's first staff at Washington in 2009 - wide receivers coach Jimmy Dougherty, running backs coach Joel Thomas and special-team coordinator Johnny Nansen --grinded through the first day of February to produce a remarkable recruiting class. It's one most rank among the top 25 in the country.

Justin Wilcox

And they haven't stopped running. Each morning, Sarkisian is leading intense sessions on instilling his schemes and terminology into the five new assistants. At lunchtimes, they are running up and down the court at Alaska Airlines Arena playing pickup basketball. The new Huskies staff keeps pushing each afternoon, working the 2013 recruiting class while reviewing more of Sark's system and preparing for spring practice that begins April 2.

Wilcox, a 35-year-old native of Junction City, Ore., was a four-year letterman as a defensive back for Oregon from 1996-99. He was as surprised as Kiesau at Sarkisian's offer - and at Sark's decisiveness.

Sarkisian also called Wilcox in the middle of the night, on a Saturday. Wilcox didn't say the call came on New Year's Eve. But he was hired to direct the Huskies' defense on Monday, Jan. 2. The Saturday before that was Dec. 31, so ...

"It was really out of the blue," Wilcox said of ringing in the New Year with Sark via the telephone. "I just had dinner and I was driving home.

"I spent the next day making a lot of phone calls (around the country and inside the Pac-12, he said), talking to Sark. And the next day, on a Monday, I was here. So, it was pretty quick. It wasn't like you put six months' notice in.

"It was very exciting. Being from the Northwest, I've always had great respect for Washington and what its stood for - even when I was at Oregon."

Wilcox's quick choice to move to UW came easier than Kiesau's. He's single.

At Tennessee, he built the Volunteers into the 28th-best in the nations statistically in just two seasons. Before that he led Boise State's attacking D through an undefeated season and Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma.

Football-wise, Wilcox says his Huskies' defense will run more 3-4, odd-man fronts than recent Washington teams have but that it will also feature variety - and aggressiveness.

More than schemes, Wilcox says improvement in UW's defense will be a basic matter of players making plays.

"It's not so much about what you do. It's really about how you do it," Wilcox said. "I mean, on defense there are only certain things you can do (schematically).

Asked for what the hallmarks of his defense will be, Wilcox was succinct. And promising: "Fanatical effort. And being physically and mentally tough."

Tosh Lupoi

Lupoi loves the breakneck pace he's been on in these first weeks at UW.

"I'm blessed to be here," said the 30-year-old, who is known as a relentless recruiting whiz.

Sarkisian was just as dogged in pursuing Lupoi to help reconstruct the Huskies' defense and maintain their three-year momentum in recruiting.

"Quite honestly, he's been a thorn in my side for five or six years," Sarkisian said. "You know the old adage: If you can't beat `em, join `em."

Lupoi's whirlwind decision took about a day to finalize. He came off the recruiting trail, flew to Seattle to see his new office, meet with Sarkisian, and sign a contract agreement, then headed out the next day to begin recruiting for Washington.

"It was very fast," Lupoi said.

"From a football standpoint to a recruiting standpoint to everything involved, what this place represents from an academic standpoint, it really is what I consider to be the total package here," Lupoi said.

To show how much Sarkisian wanted Lupoi, he'd been offering him the Huskies job for two weeks. Ultimately, Lupoi said he decided "it was something I couldn't say no to, from what this place (and) what Coach Sark represents and to be a part of this.

Keith Heyward

Heyward was a target of Sarkisian's because of the NFL- and all-conference-caliber defensive backs he produced at Oregon State - and because he is, like Sarkisian, a Southern California native with deep recruiting ties to the target area of Huskies recruiting.

Heyward got to know Southern California's high school coaches even before he got into coaching at Cal Poly in 2007, while as a sales representative for an athletic equipment manufacturer in the Los Angeles area.

He inherits a Huskies secondary that returns dynamic starters Desmond Trufant at cornerback and Sean Parker at safety in 2012. UW also just signed Shaq Thompson from Sacramento, Calif., considered the nation's top high school safety in this year's recruiting class.

Like Wilcox, Sirmon is coming home to the Northwest after working with him on the same defensive staff at Tennessee.

Peter Sirmon

The 34-year-old native of Walla Walla, Wash., was an All-Pac-10 linebacker at Oregon in 1999. He played in the NFL for seven seasons, all with the Tennessee Titans, before beginning his coaching career as an assistant at Central Washington.

He and his wife Lindsay are moving four children across the country: Jackson, Presley, Savanna, and Sadie.

Besides those needs of relocating them, Sirmon needs to replace graduating middle linebacker Cort Dennison, the Pac-12's tackling leader last season. A year before that, Washington lost outside linebackers and supreme playmakers Mason Foster and Victor Aiyewa.

He says his Washington linebackers will be aggressive and well-drilled in the fundamentals of tackling and forcing turnovers.

"We will preach tackling and turnovers every day," he said.

"We are going to do our very best to improve the product from last year. None of us are patient."

Sarkisian's Huskies have sure proven that this last month.

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