Keith Price and Will Shamburger are the only two members of Steve Sarkisian’s initial recruiting class at UW from 2009. This week they addressed their teammates on how everything has changed.
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
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SEATTLE – Keith Price and Will Shamburger were standing on a sidewalk outside a north Seattle elementary school.
The only two members of Steve Sarkisian’s first recruiting class at Washington back in February 2009 that are still in the program were laughing over all they’ve been through at UW.
Price and Shamburger, friends since second grade in Compton, Calif., have been Huskies so long each has already graduated. They are, in fact teachers, working in the Seattle Public Schools system for post-bachelor’s degree credits at UW. They are interns in Jamie Matthews’ physical-education classes at Green Lake School, a couple miles from Husky Stadium. Monday they were leading soccer games with kindergartners, first graders and second graders.
They arrived at UW in the immediate aftermath of 0-12. Under Sarkisian, they learned new ways to play. To practice, with rap and rock music blaring from the sidelines. To lift weights. To run, train, rehabilitate. Even to eat and dress. They rebounded within two seasons to a Holiday Bowl win over Nebraska, then to three straight bowl appearances -- after zero in the previous seven years.
Now Price is a record-setting, fifth-year senior quarterback, the trigger for UW’s blur of a no-huddle offense that is third in the nation in yardage. Shamburger is a starting safety for the 13th-ranked defense in the country.
The boyhood pals who left Los Angeles to turn around Washington are key reasons why the No. 15 Huskies have their highest ranking since 2003, and why UW is going for its first 5-0 start since 1992 on Saturday night in a Pac-12 North showdown at fifth-ranked Stanford.
“We’ve seen everything,” Price, chuckling and looking almost professorial in a white cardigan sweater, said Monday outside Green Lake Elementary.
Price, the first recruit Sarkisian called upon UW hiring him, has gone from signing with a winless team in transition in 2009 to doing this following Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s practices: a phone interview with Sports Illustrated for a national feature story on him; a sit-down interview with ESPN; and a video shoot in the Husky Stadium tunnel for a profile that will air Saturday morning on the network’s ultra-popular College GameDay show. That will be hours before ESPN’s primetime broadcast of the fifth top-15 meeting between Washington and Stanford since 1940.
Under Sarkisian, they learned new ways to play. To practice, with rap and rock music blaring from the sidelines. To lift weights. To run, train, rehabilitate. Even to eat and dress.
Heck, the Wall Street Journal had a reporter at last week’s win over Arizona. She asked questions of Price, Sarkisian and the team following the game, for another national story scheduled to run soon.
College GameDay is considering bringing its on-site show to Montlake for the first time next week, for the Huskies’ home game against second-ranked Oregon, should the Huskies pull off the mammoth win this weekend at Stanford.
Price calls it “the change. The big change.”
“We were on ROOT Sports for most of the season when I first got here,” the quarterback said, referring to the Pacific Northwest’s regional network. “Now we are having FOX national games and ESPN games. And now we’re ranked in the top 15.
“Now, we have actually implications, and these wins really mean a lot to determine our season.”
National TV games. Sports Illustrated profiles. College GameDay. Talk of the conference championship game and the Rose Bowl.
It’s becoming the new normal at Washington.
Wait … make that the new, “old” normal.
“The University of Washington is becoming like the old Huskies, like Don James back in the day,” Shamburger said proudly. “Hard-school football. That’s what I love about this Husky team, and about Coach Sark and how he carries himself.
“We are a reflection of Coach Sark. That’s what we show on the field.”
“DON’T FORGET WHERE WE’VE COME FROM”
This week began with the two teachers giving lessons to their Huskies teammates.
On Monday morning Sarkisian had Price, Shamburger plus D’Andre Goodwin – a former Huskies wide receiver who came in with Price and Shamburger but did not redshirt and this is now a UW graduate assistant – address the team on how far the Huskies have come since the new regime took over.
“Those guys were with us in year one, and here we are in year five. I wanted them to express to the rest of the room the difference to how they feel today compared to how they felt five years ago coming to a team meeting on a Monday morning,” Sarkisian said.
“I don’t want to forget where we’ve come from. I really feel like we’ve built this program the right way. And we’ve come a long, long way to get to this point.”
Price grew up a USC fan through Reggie Bush’s days with the Trojans. He remembers his friends back in Compton, just below south-central Los Angeles, cackling over him choosing to sign with UW months after the Huskies had finished 0-12 in 2008.
“You’ll never win there,” they told Price.
Third game of Sarkisian’s tenure, Sept. 19, 2009, Price was a redshirting freshman when Jake Locker and the Huskies rocked No. 3 USC at Husky Stadium.
“I think after we beat SC my freshman year, guys were more proud,” Price said Wednesday.
He, Shamburger and Sarkisian still vividly remember when they first got here Huskies players walking around campus and the athletic facilities with their sweatshirts’ hoods drawn up over their heads, as if ashamed. And those hoodies weren’t even UW ones. They were FUBU or of NFL or maybe NBA teams – anything but Husky gear.
Now? Ninety-five players plus all the coaches and football staff members are – to a man and woman -- daily models of purple, gold and black Huskies apparel.
“After we beat USC my freshman year, guys were more proud to put on their U-Dub-issued gear and walk around the campus,” Price said. “I remember that game vividly. It was an awesome game. It was awesome to be a part of. And it was a great learning experience for us.”
I asked him if that upset proved to the Huskies that what Sarkisian and his new staff was selling was well worth buying.
“Oh, definitely,” Price said, “because we didn’t have half the talent that year that we do now -- and we were able to beat USC when they were No. 3. I was shocked. It was an amazing experience.”
Shamburger, the starting free safety now, chuckled when I brought up Huskies burying their heads in their hoods in early 2009.
“After that 0-12 season, Coach Sark was always asking, ‘Why do you guys have your hoodies on like that? You seem embarrassed to have the pride of a Husky,’” he said.
“Coach Sark changed that around to make everyone prideful of wearing that W on their chests.”
That is what Sarkisian wanted the current Dawgs to know before they played Stanford in the latest, biggest game the program has had since … oh, well before Sarkisian arrived to transform the culture, the attitude and the won-loss record.
“The University of Washington is becoming like the old Huskies, like Don James back in the day.”
“Granted, this is a really, really big game in everybody’s eyes Saturday night,” Sarkisian said. “But the reality of it is we’re not going to change. We are going to prepare the way we prepare. We are going to embrace the process. We are going to embrace the opportunity.
“And we are going to have fun doing it.”
When Sarkisian led the Huskies to that pivotal, proving upset of USC in the third game of 2009 – back, as Price rightly says, they didn’t have near the talent they have now – the coach won by shortening games and relying on opponents to eventually make mistakes. Even as recently as the run up to the 2011 Alamo Bowl I can remember UW’s defenders talking about dropping deep to keep Baylor’s receivers in front of them, to make Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III drive methodically down the field. The Huskies were waiting for Griffin and the Bears to make errors.
These Huskies don’t wait for anything.
They push the pace on every snap. They attack on offense and defense. If they fall at Stanford Saturday, it won’t be because they played back waiting for the rugged Cardinal to screw up.
Beyond that, there’s a noticeable change in the team’s focus and demeanor. Not only is the most talented and deepest team Sarkisian has had at Washington, it is the toughest-minded one.
Among the players and during practices, Stanford week really doesn’t feel any different from, say, Idaho State week. The focus is on self-improvement, on improving areas such as tackling and special-teams coverage -- and not so much on Stanford’s smash-mouth style, or the fact Kevin Hogan at quarterback makes the Cardinal far more dynamic on offense this season.
There is a sense of self-discipline evident in the Huskies’ focus. It’s on the “process,” as Sarkisian often mentions, rather than the product.
“From my freshman year to now, we weren’t a very disciplined team. We weren’t taking the coaching like we needed to be taking the coaching,” Shamburger told his teammates Monday in the team meeting room of the new football operations building beneath the west end of Husky Stadium. “But now, year by year by year, everyone is taking in what Coach Sark is saying, what the position coaches are saying. Everyone is now accountable. Everyone is on one page, as a collective group.
“We are looking really good now.
“As soon as Coach Sark came here he said he was going to make a difference, that he was going to change everyone’s attitudes, change their expectations of what being a Husky really means.”
Now, they do just as the sign they tap over their heads just before the exit the Husky Stadium tunnel says. They “EXPECT TO WIN.”
“THIS IS THE BEST IT’S EVER BEEN FOR US”
It used to be that Sarkisian would spend Sundays crafting is his mind themes for the week. He felt compelled to introduce the themes in the Monday team meeting, to catapult the players into the week of work. He drew upon his experiences as a junior-college transfer quarterback who broke passing records at Brigham Young, from three seasons in the Canadian Football League, from his time as a Rose Bowl-winning assistant coach and coordinator at USC. He used jokes, anecdotes, hard-line approaches – whatever he sensed may work.
Five seasons into this rejuvenation, that motivation now comes from among the players, not from the coach.
“I go into team meetings on Monday mornings now, and I don’t feel like I have to pump up the team or pump up the game,” Sarkisian said this week.
“We have a unique, quiet confidence about us. It’s not arrogance. It’s not that way at all. It’s just a quiet confidence. I think our guys have a real sense of belief in one another. They have a real sense of belief in the schemes that we are running. They have a real sense of belief in the other side of the ball – our offensive players believing in our defensive players and the defense believing in the offense.
“This is the best it’s ever been for us. … And it takes time to get to that point.”
All of this, of course, sounds great on a Wednesday. Come Saturday, in the latest game that will measure how far Washington has indeed rebounded under Sarkisian, the result will depend less on what Price and Shamburger told the team Monday -- and more on poise and on execution of the plan that Sarkisian and his staff have installed to combat No. 5 Stanford.
And then next week, when Oregon presents the next, biggest-game test, the work, this inward focus and the realization of how far the Huskies have come will renew all over again.
Did someone say “the process”?
“Sometimes you can get into these games as a player and think, ‘Wow, we’ve arrived. We’ve made it,’ because we are on a nationally televised game against a top-five opponent,” Sarkisian said. “You miss the fact that you still have to go play the football game. You have to prepare really well and do all the little things to get ready for that ball game.
“I wanted to send a little bit of a reminder of where we started, and the hard work that’s been put into this to get to this point. That hard work is what’s going to get us beyond this point.
“I didn’t want to lose sight of that.”
Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director or 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.
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