Jan. 14, 2009
By TIM BOOTH
AP Sports Writer
SEATTLE -- New Washington coach Steve Sarkisian is focused on the once and future Huskies: a storied past filled with Rose Bowl trips and conference titles and the clean slate on which he's building the future.
He's distancing the program from the sour taste left by five consecutive losing seasons, capped by last year's 0-12 debacle.
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In six weeks on the job, Sarkisian has brought freshness to every facet of the Huskies' program after inheriting the only major team in the country that went winless in 2008. At 34, he may be the third-youngest head coach in college football, but Sarkisian is playing the perfect tune for a program that was at its lowest point following Tyrone Willingham's 11-37 run in four years as Washington's coach.
Sarkisian has charmed critical boosters with his energetic talk of opening practices and availability to donors, media and former players at a time the school is desperately seeking private donations to help fund a renovation of Husky Stadium.
His "clean slate" message the first day he met with players resonated with those who had fallen out of favor with Willingham and the previous coaching staff.
And Sarkisian's ties to the successful USC program, including seven seasons as an assistant coach, plus the coaches added to his UW staff so far, have provided added credibility that often might be missing with a first-time head coach.
Almost everything is perfectly on track for Sarkisian, whose hiring gave the Huskies a shot of adrenaline they desperately needed.
Free to spend what was needed on a coaching staff, Sarkisian plucked Nick Holt from USC to be his defensive coordinator, to the tune of $2.1 million over three years. He grabbed Jim Michalzcik from California as his offensive coordinator for $350,000 per season. While the hires were splashy for their price tags, they also had relevance in that both men had strong ties to the Pacific Northwest and will be key leaders in the Huskies' recruiting efforts.
"It's been an emphasis in the guys we're trying to bring in here, guys who have a belief in the Northwest, guys that are proud to be living in the Northwest, or from the Northwest, who want to recruit here and know Husky football and how great it can be," Sarkisian said.
That recruiting push is in full force as Sarkisian and his staff try to salvage this recruiting year. Most of the top players available were scared away for most of the fall by the uncertainty about the Huskies' future direction. Sarkisian will have recruits on campus each of the next three weekends, trying to sell to them that a quick turnaround at Washington is possible.
Sarkisian believes this because of what he experienced at USC. In his first year, the Trojans were 2-5 and headed for bowl ineligibility. Then, as Sarkisian vividly recalls, defensive back Kris Richard took an interception back for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter of a 41-34 win at Arizona. The Trojans won the next week in overtime against Oregon State, and closed the season with four consecutive wins and a trip to the Las Vegas Bowl, where they lost to Utah.
"We went and lost our bowl game to Utah, but the stage had already been set," Sarkisian said. "We had won four games in a row, we had become bowl eligible and that stage became set that we can do this, we can win football games, we can win tight games."
The next year, USC shared the Pac-10 title and went to the Orange Bowl. The Trojans have played in a BCS bowl game every year since.
Such a turnaround at Washington would be stunning, especially since Sarkisian's main task once signing day concludes is likely to be more mental that anything dealing with on-the-field strategy. Scars still linger for the players who remain from last year's winless campaign and the simplest healing - winning - can't take place until September.
So for Sarkisian, it's time to sell again. He once tried sales for an Internet company that never got off the ground. Now he'll try to sell winning to a group of players with little experience of that.
"We have to change the belief systems here," the coach said. "We have to get these kids to believe we're going to win, not 'we're going to find a way to lose.' ... The more we convey that message the more we're going to be able to change the way these guys think, and we are going to win in all aspects.
"It's going to take a lot of hard work."