By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
Some cried. Rampaging runner Chris Polk simply and softly said, "Thank you."
In the center of this victorious locker room scene at Washington State Saturday night, Steve Sarkisian held the Apple Cup trophy in his hand. He used the prize for UW beating the Cougars again as a beacon to summon his Huskies to the center of the room.
"Two years ago on Monday, I met with you for the first time," Sarkisian told them immediately after their 35-28 win over WSU, which clinched Washington's bid to the Holiday Bowl opposite Nebraska on Dec. 30. "I didn't know how long it would take, but I didn't think it would take very long.
"And it sure as (Harry the Husky) hasn't!"
No, he didn't say "Harry the Husky."
The program is back.
"I've had faith in Coach Sarkisian since the first day I sat down with him to discuss the job. He wowed me then, and is wowing me now," UW athletic director Scott Woodward said. "This bowl validates the path he has us on - and not just to our community. All of college football is noticing.
"And we're not done."
The milestone Apple Cup win ended UW's quest for the postseason which dated to 2002, has spanned three coaching changes and a winless season just two years ago -- and looked stalled just last month, when the Huskies were 3-6.
That's when Sarkisian pulled another in a series of impacting coaching moves of 2010.
"We had a coming-to-Jesus" meeting," he said of the bye week following a 56-21 loss to undefeated Oregon on Nov. 6.
Hallelujah! Three consecutive victories since that awakening have Washington back on the college football map. The turnaround is historical, actually.
Turns out, what Sarkisian has done in his first two seasons as a head coach - 11 wins and a bowl appearance within two seasons of Washington going 0-12 -- is one of the fastest revivals in the last half century of college football.
I examined the records of every major college football team back to 1960 - not because I don't have a life, but because I was curious as to how big a deal this Huskies revival really is in a national context.
Seventy-four teams have endured winless seasons in the last 50 years. Only 11 of those 74 teams have rebounded with 11 or more victories in the first two seasons after going winless, as Sarkisian's Huskies have.
The Huskies are just the 12th of those formerly winless 74 teams to make a bowl game within two years.
The average number of wins per season in those first two rebound years for the formerly winless has been five. Sark equaled that as a rookie head coach in 2009, and passed it this season.
And had these resurgent Dawgs pulled out one more win in 2009 -- they lost in overtime at Notre Dame, in the final seconds at Arizona State and by one point at UCLA - right now they would be joining South Carolina of 2000-01, Kentucky of 1983-84 and Florida of 1980-81 as the only teams in 50 years to make bowls in each of the two seasons immediately after going winless.
So, yes, no matter what happens against Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl, this revival is real.
"Definitely, this is a special moment. It marks the beginning of the real change," senior safety and co-captain Nate Williams said. "Now, all the underclassmen, they will expect to go to a bowl game because that's all they know. And pretty soon, it will be Rose Bowl, Rose Bowl, Rose Bowl.
"This is a huge step. It feels great. I'm getting chills right now just talking about it."
Yet Williams is right to think the ultimate conference prize of Rose Bowls doesn't happen overnight but is rather the result of a more deliberate process following winless seasons.
Fourteen teams in the Big Ten and Pac-10 have gone 0 for a year since 1960. Only one made it to the Rose Bowl within two seasons, and it took a Hall of Famer to pull it off: The Illinois Fighting Illini, led by Dick Butkus, beat the Huskies 17-7 on New Year's Day 1964.
For those who think 6-6 is only a minor achievement for these Huskies, consider this: Only 24 of those 74 winless teams (32 percent) over the last half century went on to finish at .500 or better within two seasons. It's taken an average of four-plus seasons to reach .500 following a winless year.
Sarkisian and his staff did it in less than half that time.
Washington's recruits, the West Coast and the nation are getting the message that the Huskies are back.
"The response has been tremendous," Sarkisian said a day after accepting the Holiday Bowl bid to play in UW's recruiting hotbed of Southern California. "Not only among the kids (we recruit) but the high school coaches, they realize the style of game we play and what we stand for.
"To earn this bowl game is just another marker to point to that this program is headed in the right direction."
Headed in the right direction? That's like saying Polk can run OK.
Exactly two years ago Monday, Washington lost 48-7 at California to finish the Pac-10's first 0-12 season. A day later, Sarkisian arrived as a Rose Bowl-bound offensive coordinator still at USC for that first meeting with the Huskies on campus.
The coach remembers how the players' heads were down. They wore hoodies that were pulled up, as if to shield themselves. And Sarkisian still recalls how so little of the gear the players were wearing that day was purple and gold.
"It won't take long," he told the players that day.
Now, go try to find a UW player who isn't wearing his Husky pride on his chest - right next to the W.
Polk, who last weekend joined Greg Lewis and Napoleon Kaufman as the only Huskies with multiple 1,000-yard rushing seasons, was finishing up redshirting his first year at Washington when Sarkisian first met the team. He wasn't as sure as the new coach.
"I didn't think it would happen this fast, honestly," said Polk, who was named the Pac-10 player of the week Monday after romping at WSU for 284 yards. It was the second-most yards for a game in UW history, 12 behind what Hugh McElhenny gained against the Cougs in 1950.
"It's amazing things can turn in your favor this quickly," Polk said. He was speaking with more historical accuracy than he knew.
"This means anything's possible."
About Gregg Bell
Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of 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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