April 8, 2011
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - Nick Montana, Nate Fellner and about a dozen of their Huskies teammates were sitting inside Kane Hall on the edge of UW's Red Square campus center. They were settling in for a morning lecture in Communications 202.
They didn't see that their coach, Steve Sarkisian, had snuck into the big auditorium. The 37-year-old, who holds a sociology degree from his time as a star quarterback at Brigham Young, sat alone in the back right wearing blue jeans, sneakers and a windbreaker.
But at least one Husky could feel Sarkisian.
"I told him later, `I didn't see you, but I felt your presence,'' Montana joked after Washington's fifth spring practice later Thursday.
Sarkisian often drops in on his players during classes, especially in the spring. (A tip for Huskies who may want to know: The coach is most likely to go to classes in May, when he's relatively lonely on campus. NCAA rules prohibit head coaches from being able to go off campus to recruit that month, but allow assistants to go out then.)
"They come randomly," a shrugging Montana said of Sarkisian and his assistants. "Gotta go to class. You never know."
Thursday, Sarkisian brought offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier with him to this latest class audit.
It's not that the coach thinks he absolutely needs to be there to ensure all his guys are in class; he says the team's class attendance is "through the roof right now." The proof is in the numbers: This past winter quarter was the fifth consecutive under Sarkisian that the Huskies' team grade-point average went up, to 2.76. That's the highest UW's academic support staff has on record for the team.
The coach sees added benefits to going from the athletics area astride Lake Washington up the hill to the main campus for school.
"I try to do it at minimum once a week, sometimes a couple of times a week," Sarkisian said. "I think it's important to have a presence on upper campus -- not only for our current players but for our student body to know that we are student-athletes and not just football players, and take pride in that."
Does he always sneak in? Or does he make sure his guys see him?
"I sneak in initially because I want the feeling to see who we are and make sure we are representing what we want to represent and how we represent," Sarkisian said. "But then I want them to make sure the word gets out that they know I am on upper campus."'
At December's Holiday Bowl in San Diego, the first-time head coach became one of the handful of men in the last half century to turn a winless program into a bowl-winning one in less than two years. He thinks there is a correlation to the Huskies' resurgence on the field and their academic surge off it.
"What is exciting for me, in my humble opinion, is that who we are on the field really works hand in hand with who we are off the field," he said. "What's exciting for me is to watch our GPA go up as our wins go up and our level of play goes up. ... Caring about it and working to be successful at it on a very competitive campus, as we all know, we have to battle. We have to compete. And our guys have done that.
"We are getting it done in the classroom and on the field."
Montana, the redshirt freshman competing with Keith Price for UW starting quarterback job this fall, is the son of Hall-of-Fame passer Joe (who again watched practice with his wife Jennifer as their son ran the second- and first-team offense Thursday). So he's been around a few coaches.
He doesn't know of one as involved as Sarkisian - and he thinks it's cool his coach is with him in Comm 202 on a Thursday morning in April.
"Yeah, it's good if you are on top of your stuff, that's for sure," Montana joked.
"No, it's cool just knowing they are going to be there, pretty much in every aspect of your life. They are not like every other coach.
"I don't know too many that would be doing all that for you."