So far, the Huskies are sneaking into this new Pac-12.
And there's no better place for a rising football team to be this time of year than unnoticed.
Wednesday brought the latest big news in a conference that already had been overflowing with action. The Pac-12 announced it has created its own national network plus six regional networks in league markets through a partnership with four cable partners, led by Time Warner. The unique, seven-network concept is scheduled to begin broadcasting in August 2012. The announcement came two months after the Pac-12's $3 billion TV deal for football and basketball with ESPN and Fox - which came on the heels of the conference adding Utah and Colorado.
Commissioner Larry Scott said Wednesday while announcing his latest bold stroke that between the two TV deals every Pac-12 football and men's basketball game will be broadcast nationally beginning in the fall of 2012, and will also be available through personal mobile platforms. The new regional networks - one of which will be Pac-12 Washington -- will also carry Olympic sports events, adding up to as many as 850 conference games in all sports shown nationwide.
"Our networks will have some amazing games," Scott said while announcing the newest deal in New York, home of Time Warner Cable.
On the field, the Pac-12's top football teams are in transition - or turmoil.
Multiple teams have lost at least 11 starters, half their lineup, from last season. And we don't need reminded that the Huskies' star quarterback since 2007, Jake Locker, is now a Tennessee Titan.
There are two rookie head coaches in the league, a new member that is playing regularly at the BCS level for the first time, and multiple off-field issues involving suspensions and NCAA investigations.
And it's only July.
These issues dominated the first Pac-12 media day here Tuesday at Fox Studios. Some coaches added entertainment to the news on the grounds of the film and TV factory.
Fiery Arizona coach Mike Stoops joked that the media picked his Wildcats, who spent most of last season competing with Oregon for the league title, for fourth in the Pac-12 South Division because "they must think I'm a bad coach." And Arizona State's 64-year-old Dennis Erickson had `em rolling by opening with, "It's great to be here. I'm happy to be anyplace, at this time (in my life)."
Amid all this, Washington's Steve Sarkisiansat almost unnoticed. Sure, he did his requisite tour interviews of seemingly every radio, TV and internet outlet from the Disney Channel to drdrew.com. But if a few locals he's known since growing up here and then becoming a top assistant at USC hadn't stopped by, Sarkisian likely would have eaten his boxed lunch in shady peace.
Every other coach had his own table. To the left and right, they were three and four deep at Kiffin's and UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel's. Sark? He shared his half-empty table with UCLA running back Johnathan Franklin.
Earlier, inside at the main interview podium, Sarkisian and 1,400-yard rusher Chris Polkspent just eight minutes answering the group questions. That was the shortest of any team, and about one-third the time people spent grilling Oregon's Chip Kelly.
Despite a third-place finish in the Pac-10 last season, their first bowl win since 2001 and the media predicting them to finish third this season in the Pac-12 North, the Huskies represented themselves quietly here as the steadily rising program tucked into the conference's upper left corner. Nothing flashy or particularly pithy to see or hear from the purple and gold amid all the glitz in L.A., 39 days before UW's opener against Eastern Washington.
Except, that is, for the continued drumbeat of progress and rise back to the top of the league, evidenced by four consecutive victories to end 2010.
"We are a football team that you saw at the end of last season play a brand of football that we believe in. And that is playing physical football, playing sound defense," Sarkisian said. "We're evolving. We're playing a brand of football that we are proud of."
It struck me while walking among the coaches, the players and these studios that produced The Simpsons, Star Wars and other epics that this conference isn't just newly expanded, or just newly minted with all these TV and multimedia deals.
The league is as wide open to win since perhaps the Huskies' last Rose Bowl appearance in 2001, when Neuheisel called UW's plays and Marques Tuiasosoporan them.
In Washington's division alone, Oregon returns consensus All-American back LaMichael James and dangerous quarterback Darron Thomas, whom Sarkisian says might be the toughest player in the conference to defend. But the Ducks lost 11 starters from last January's national title game, six on defense. Their top tacklers are gone, as are their top receivers.
"We've got some holes to fill," Kelly said.
Stanford has Andrew Luck, last season's Heisman runner up. But catalyst coach Jim Harbaugh is gone to the San Francisco 49ers and three of five starters on 2010's dominant offensive line have also departed. Oregon State lost do-it-all dynamo Jacquizz Rodgers, who won games by himself there for years. California, already rebuilding, opens Pac-12 play with a potentially season-dooming swing at Washington, at Oregon and then against USC. And Washington State is trying to rebound from having just one conference win in the last two years.
So here's Washington, poised with Polk, 1,000-yard wide out Jermaine Kearse and a potentially surprising new quarterback in redshirt sophomore Keith Priceto take, as Sarkisian has called it, "that next step." That is, to the top of the conference.
Now's as great a time as any.
As Erickson, the former coach of the Seahawks and 49ers in the division-filled NFL, noted, the margin for error for winning this new league has increased. He loves that the Pac-12's division winners will meet in December in the first conference title game.
"To have the idea of a playoff to win a conference title is great," he said. "You might lose a game, but you could do that, have a bad day, and you can still come back to win a division and play in the Rose Bowl. And that's why we're all here."
The format doubles UW's chances of playing on New Year's Day in Pasadena, doubles the chance for Sarkisian's program to really take off.
"The challenge for us is finding that consistency level," Sarkisian said. "Our first two years, we were up and down, we hit a lull then we finished pretty strong. The challenge for us and for our kids is to find that consistency factor, and if we do slip up and do lose a ball game, get back on that horse and play the brand of football that we're proud of the very next week."
Sarkisian wants to declare so clearly to rest of the conference that UW is back to its ruthlessly successful ways of smash-mouth play from Don Jamesin the 1980s and '90s, he mentioned this "brand" or "style of football" five times in about 90 seconds here.
With the bullish Polk and freshman tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkinsleading the first true, pro-style offense Sarkisian has had in three years at Washington, plus a potentially dominant defensive line returning, physicality has been Sarkisian's theme since December.
Sure, Oregon and to a lesser degree Arizona use the fast-break, spread offense to win. Oregon State succeeds sprinkling in some of it, too -- or at least did until Rodgers left for the NFL last winter.
Yet last October's bruising home loss to Stanford may prove to be the watershed moment in Sarkisian's UW tenure. For it was after the rugged Cardinal steamrolled the Huskies, just manhandled them along the line of scrimmage, that Washington turned around its season and the entire tone of the program through a more brutish, James-esque style on both sides of the ball.
"I love where we are headed. I love the way our community has rallied around our football program and the style of play that they believe in, that they've grown up watching with Coach James," Sarkisian said.
The Dawgfather himself loves what he sees. And he didn't have to be in Los Angeles, amid all the attention being heaped upon everyone except UW, to realize it.
"I saw the enthusiasm that first day (in 2010)," James told me over the telephone. "The remarkable part of what he's done was that they were 3-6 last year with three games to go. A lot of teams would have gone into the tank. He got them playing their best ball of the season. I was on the field for that Nebraska (bowl) game. What a great game. I saw an upset coming, even before the game.
"Nebraska's players looked like they were on Holiday, wearing headphones in warm-ups. Ours were focused, so determined. You could just see how Sark had them ready."
James enthusiastically said he will again make his annual summer practice visit soon after preseason drills begin Aug. 8.
Whatever you see, Coach, please keep it to yourself. The rest of this new conference, with all else going on in it, won't know what hit them.