Sept. 4, 2009
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Sarkisian Thursday Post-Practice Interview
by Jeff Bechthold
In the nine months since Steve Sarkisian was named the head coach at the University of Washington, he's come in contact with literally thousands of Husky football fans.
The overriding impression he's taken from them is their devotion to the program and their strong desire to see the Dawgs get back to their winning ways.
"There's no question that this community, this university, the city of Seattle are passionate about Husky football," Sarkisian says. "You feel that passion. And they're starving to win again. I think they see that there's an opportunity that we can change and get back to that, but that it's going to take a lot of hard work."
Though he came to it via an unusual route, Sarkisian shares that passion. He and his staff hope to make energy, enthusiasm and hard work the hallmarks of the current era of Husky football. And as far as Sarkisian is concerned, there's no better place for him to be instilling his philosophies. After all, he's had his eye on Montlake for about half his life.
"I've always admired this place," he says. "The opportunity to get recruited to come play football here during the Don James era still gives me chills. To think that now I have the opportunity to be the head coach here, I'm extremely honored and proud."
Sarkisian comes to the UW with a perspective that is unique. How many UW head coaches grew up an admirer of the program, played on the Husky Stadium turf as an opposing player and then worked on it as an opposing coach? His fondness for Husky football was sown as a child, germinated in college and took full flower in adulthood.
Now, with his first game as the Husky head coach ready to kick off, he has the charge of getting the UW football program back where it belongs. With the help of his staff, the players and each and every Husky supporter, that march begins today.
How long will it take to reach the top once again? Who knows? But with everyone pulling in the same direction, the process can be shortened. That's where Sarkisian wants each fan to know that they can help.
"Growing up, being a Pac-10 kid living in California, I always admired Washington," Coach Sark recalls. "I thought this was a football program that plays hard, plays physical. They won tough, tight games. They won Pac- 10 championships. They were playing in Rose Bowls. I always admired them for that."
Sarkisian admits that there wasn't much substance in the UW's recruiting efforts towards him. He jokes that he wasn't a prospect, but a suspect. But he does recall getting a letter from the UW coaching staff and still remembers the purple "W" at the top of the letterhead.
His college athletic career took some odd twists and turns. After enrolling at USC to play baseball, Sarkisian left after a semester to attend El Camino College in his hometown of Torrance, Calif.
Once there, he was convinced to go out for football as well. His successes at El Camino earned him a scholarship to a program with a long history of prolific quarterbacks, BYU.
In Provo, Sarkisian etched his name next to the likes of Steve Young, Jim McMahon, Ty Detmer, Marc Wilson, Robbie Bosco and all the others who had preceded him. He set three NCAA records, led the nation in passing efficiency and won the Sammy Baugh Trophy and WAC Offensive Player of the Year Award in 1996.
Anyone who has followed Sarkisian since his hiring is well aware that he played for the BYU Cougars at Husky Stadium in 1996, and the Dawgs handed his team what would end up as its only loss in a 14-1 season.
But even in suffering what was certainly a disheartening defeat, the atmosphere that day made an impression on Sarkisian.
"I thought Husky Stadium was crazy," he recollects. "I remember coming out for the first snap. We were pretty highly ranked at the time. You could barely hear yourself think. We had quite a few false starts. We were late getting off the ball. We got sacked a bunch.
"It was a very difficult environment because of the crowd's interaction," he continues. "They were involved in the game. They were very smart football fans. They knew when it was third down. They knew when to get out of their seats. I appreciated the fans because of their involvement in the game."
WORKING HIS WAY UP
After a few years in the Canadian Football League and some time in the "real world," Sarkisian decided to get into coaching. After starting at his JC alma mater, El Camino, he quickly landed a job at USC in the first season of Pete Carroll's tenure there.
USC was suffering one of its lowest lows in its long, proud history, but Carroll and staff turned things around surprisingly quickly and have now won seven straight Pac-10 titles.
All the while, in at least one corner of his mind, Sarkisian still had thoughts of Montlake rattling around.
In fact, Sarkisian recalls the following story:
"Early in my coaching career, we were in training camp," he says. "The coaches were in the dorms. It was late and we all jotted down the top five head coaching jobs we'd love to have someday in our coaching career. Washington was in my top five."
As his tenure at USC continued, Sarkisian made four visits to Husky Stadium as a visiting coach: in 2001, 2003, 2005 and 2007. Similar to the previous story, he has a recollection of that first visit.
"I remember the first time we came here, in 2001," he recalls. "We were staying over in Bellevue and we were crossing the 520 bridge. It was a beautiful day. I remember leaning up to Pete and saying, `Man, this place is unbelievable.' And he replied, `No kidding. This place is a hidden gem.' "From that day, from a coaching standpoint, I fell in love with it here," he concludes.
That day, the Huskies beat the Trojans, 27-24. Backup quarterback Taylor Barton came on after Cody Pickett separated a shoulder and John Anderson kicked the winning field goal as time expired. The official attendance that day was an over-capacity 72,946.
SETTLING IN SEATTLE
Now, Sarkisian makes that drive across 520 every morning on his way to work, the iconic upper-deck overhangs of Husky Stadium welcoming him. Certainly, there are days where he envisions the seats jammed with purple and gold-clad fans, going nuts. Saturday is the day when those dreams come true.
And, as he knows first-hand from his afternoon as a visiting quarterback and four more as an opposing coach, Husky Stadium can be a loud, raucous, magical place.
Sarkisian is a firm believer in the influence a crowd can have on a game. Fortunately, he's a head coach in the right city. While the Seahawks crowds at Qwest Field break records for opponents' false starts, here on Montlake, he hopes to re-instill the intimidation factor that a crowd can provide.
"When the fans are into the game, when the energy, the electricity is in the air in Husky Stadium, it has a huge effect on the opponent," Sarkisian says. "The ability to get off on a snap count, the ability to communicate at the line of scrimmage -- it gets difficult on a quarterback."
So, to that end, the newest Husky head football coach wants every UW fan to know that they're a part of the process; that their energy, enthusiasm and support have an important, tangible role in the Dawgs' forthcoming resurgence.
"The message is simple: get here early and be loud," Sarkisian says. "We want people in their seats from the opening kickoff until the end of the game. And while they're in their seats, they're loud, they're crazy, and they're smart fans. They understand when to be loud and when not to be.
"Enjoy the game, because football games at Husky Stadium are an experience. It's not just `going to a game.' It's the experience of being there and being part of the football game."
Let him hear you!