Gregg Bell Unleashed: Sark, Recruits and Twitter
Feb. 1, 2012
By Gregg Bell
Football recruiting and signing day have become so huge, so much of everyone's business, so much of an industry in and of itself, I was beginning to feel old fashioned and out of touch.
Thanks, Steve Sarkisian.
The Huskies coach sat down to assess his fourth signing day at Washington on Wednesday -- then just chuckled at some of the absurdity that now leads up to it.
Sarkisian thought of the upheaval of five new assistant coaches inside the last month, and how some of that became UW's advantage in getting the top players snared in the final days of recruiting.
Players such as five-star rated safety Shaq Thompson from Sacramento, Calif., and coveted defensive end Pio Vatuvei from Patterson, Calif. He snared Thompson via Twitter. He got Vatuvei over the phone at 12:30 a.m. Wednesday, less than eight hours before Washington received his signed national letter of intent.
The coach thought of the many players who had committed to the Huskies months ago, and stated "even at the end, at the 11th hour you are still talking to those kids every hour, on the hour. You can't take anything for granted."
"That's just the nature of the rules we are playing by," Sarkisian added. "All of these 25 guys you have to recruit until that fax comes in."
The coach thought of the flip side, the other guys who committed to UW long ago -- only to sign with rivals on this wild Wednesday. He thought of all these coveted teenagers, kids that are now alternately deified and destroyed on the internet, depending one's allegiances and perceptions. He thought of bloggers who hound high schoolers with endless calls and texts. He specifically regretted the influence from today's social media outlets, where yesterday's water-cooler talk is broadcast worldwide today under facades of legitimacy.
That's why Sarkisian was chuckling. It was far more from fatigue than from joy.
"I'm tired," he said, adjusting his purple tie under his dark suit as he continued on the upward path he's had Washington on since 2009. He had just signed a recruiting class some are ranking in the top 25 nationally, up from the high 40's entering this week.
"You have to roll with the punches. You are going to win some and you are going to lose some. You have to understand kids are ultimately, hopefully, making decisions that are best for them."
Sure, Sark tweeted on his CoachSark account "Woof!" each time he gained a commitment. But that was him playing the game by today's rules, maintaining a presence in the social-media arena in which recruits live and critics lurk.
Heck, Thompson didn't call a press conference or do the popular team-cap shell game to declare his surprise change to committing to Washington the other night. He tweeted it from his living room couch.
That doesn't mean the coach likes it that way.
Sarkisian says Twitter alone has made the job for him and his colleagues around college football more difficult than it's ever been.
"Kids are able to express themselves on Twitter," he said. "Fans are able to express their opinions on blogs, and voice their opinions. Where they used to express their opinion at the water cooler at the office, now they're spreading it to the world. And sometimes those opinions can get expressed from fans that aren't necessarily from your university but act as if they are. Sometimes that can place a negative impression on a kid.
"In my opinion it's an absolute mess. And we've got try to figure it out."
This is not just an idle rant from a weary, frustrated coach. The reform-minded president of the NCAA used to be Sarkisian's ultimate boss at Washington.
"I'm sure I will call my old boss, President (Mark) Emmert, and we'll try to figure something out," Sarkisian said. "Because I think that it is getting to a point where -- it's not out of control yet -- but there are some factors that are. And we've just got to try to figure it out."
The 37-year-old first-time coach and former top assistant at USC added: "I really don't know exactly what to do about it. But I don't like it, I can tell you that. It just kind of tastes bad to me, for whatever reason."
The last of the 25 new Huskies to sign national letters of intent Wednesday was Cyler Miles, a 6-4 quarterback from Denver's Mullen High School. Just before Sarkisian left the Graves Annex building to conduct his signing day press conference, Miles told an audience at his high School that he was - gasp! - honoring his original commitment and indeed signing with Washington.
And by the time he did, after a visit to and late push by USC, Miles' head was spinning.
"It has been hectic for me these last couple days for me," Miles told Seattle radio station KJR-AM, the Huskies' flagship radio station, Wednesday afternoon from Denver.
"I'm in the best place for me and I am excited to get this going. Let's do it!"
Ultimately, Miles told KJR, "something about Seattle and something about Washington I couldn't turn down. That's where my heart's at. I just get a feeling whenever anyone says `Washington,' you know what I mean? That's just where it is."
Sarkisian understands the strain Miles endured. And he understands he is a part of it. So is USC coach Lane Kiffin, Sarkisian's friend and former office mate. Sark spoke by phone to Kiffin four different times before Wednesday afternoon was half over.
"I feel for these kids," Sarkisian said. "They are trying to make a decision that is a lifelong decision and they are making this decision in the ultimate team game. And they are forced into a very personal decision and one that puts themselves out there and puts us in a position where we have to try to break them back down and put them back in that locker room. It's unfortunate."
In the same breath, Sarkisian said it's good for college football to have so much attention on it and excitement around it in February, seven months before the season's first game.
But, still ...
"We will try to figure it out and what is best and where to embrace it and where to try to find some limitations on that end," he said. "So it's challenging and I feel for the kids and their families for those that have to read things negatively written about them.
"And I feel for the coaches in a sense that maybe some things are written better about a kid as a potential player (have) pumped (him) up maybe more than he should be. So there are a lot of challenges that go into it. We are kind of in uncharted waters. We'll have to try to figure it out."
For years, Sarkisian has been barking for one possible solution: Creating a new, early signing period like in other college sports so all of this attention - positive and negative - isn't concentrated into one, pressurized signing time each winter.
"I think it would help. I've been an advocate of that here for quite some time," Sarkisian said when I asked him about it Wednesday. "We have it in a lot of our others sports and football is not one of those. But I do think an early signing period could help, and an earlier visitation period where maybe we did some spring official visits could help. Those are a lot of topics that are on the table for discussion right now."
`WE NAILED IT'
As for the 25 signees, the Huskies got the most help in their biggest areas of need.
The Huskies added depth and size on the offensive line with five new blockers, including 6-5, 295-pound Jake Eldrenkamp from the Seattle suburb of Bellevue and 6-3, 283-pound Shane Brostek from Hawai'i. Brostek is the son of former Husky All-America offensive lineman Bern Brostek, who started at center for the UW from 1986-89.
UW got two highly regarded quarterbacks -- Miles and polished Jeff Lindquist from the Seattle suburb of Mercer Island - to expand the stable of scholarship quarterbacks behind record-setting passer Keith Price from one to three.
And most urgently, the Dawgs got better on defense. Specifically, in the secondary.
"The defensive backfield (was) an area where we absolutely nailed it," Sarkisian said.
Thompson, a prep All-American at Sacramento's Grant High, is considered perhaps the top senior high school safety in the country. He's perhaps the top recruit Sarkisian has landed in four years at UW.
He is 6-2, 215 pounds, and one of his best friends is James Sample, a Huskies safety who played with him at Grant. While Tosh Lupoi's jump from California to UW last month as a new defensive assistant and whiz recruiter also played a factor in Thompson's switch, so did Thompson's relationship with Sarkisian. That began before his official visit to Washington in September.
"As everyone calls it, `the big fish' in all this thing," Sarkisian said of Thompson.
"For us to get Shaq Thompson is just awesome. This kid is a tremendous football player ... but what's cool is he's an awesome kid. He's got tremendous work ethic. He's an excellent leader. But he's also 6-2, 215 pounds playing safety who can run, played tailback in high school, not afraid to put his face on anybody coming across the middle of the field, which I think is important.
"He's a very intimidating figure back there, and I couldn't be more fired up to have Shaq as part of our program."
At 9:45 a.m. Wednesday, about 90 minutes after the surprise signing of Vatuvei, a NLI signed by Cleveland Wallace came across the fax machine in the Huskies' football office. The 5-11, 165-pound cornerback from Oak Grove High School in San Jose, Calif., was thought to be going to Oregon State. That's where new Huskies defensive backs coach Keith Heyward used to work, until last month. Sarkisian loves how versatile Wallace is, noting he can be a safety, cornerback, kickoff returner and even a running back or wide receiver.
At about 2:30 p.m., during his press conference, Sarkisian announced that Brandon Beaver was a Husky. The first team all-CIF Southern Section Western Division pick from Compton, Calif., and Dominguez High School was rated by rivals.com as the 22nd-best prospect in California. Sarkisian says Beaver can be "a tremendous cover corner for us."
Earlier, UW signed speedy defensive back Darien Washington from Orange Lutheran High School in Southern California.
Add Thompson, Wallace, Washington, and Beaver to Sample, returning starting safety Sean Parker and senior-to-be cornerback Desmond Trufant, and the Huskies feel the secondary is suddenly an area of strength on a defense being remade by new coordinator Justin Wilcox.
"When you look at those four defensive backs, we absolutely nailed it in every capacity," Sarkisian said. "They really fulfilled a huge need for us on that end."
All in all, to go from a class ranked near 50th in the nation to what some now see as a top-25 one in a matter of days was something of a coup, given the turnover in coaches and recruiters.
To think: Sarkisian didn't hold his first full meeting of the entire new staff inside one room until Tuesday morning.
"With all that happened to us this past month, with staff changes and hiring guys and getting guys into place, our staff's ability here this past week and probably most notably here this last 48 hours or so, to close and to finish the way that we did, I couldn't be more proud of the staff," Sarkisian said.
"We were in somewhat of an awkward situation for a time when you bring in five brand-new coaches."
My favorite signing of the day? Psalm Wooching, from Kailua-Kona, Hawai'i.
He is 6-3½, 217 pounds. He plays fullback with the versatility of an H-back or extra tight end for Sarkisian's varying offensive sets.
Best of all, he fire dances.
Don't believe me? See for yourself: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V2T3Ln_c5qM&feature=youtu.be
How many of Wednesday's signees across the country can - or would even want to - do that?
"Is that awesome or what?" Sarkisian said. "We watched that on a Friday night before a game as a staff. I said to myself, `I gotta to have that guy!'
"I can't wait for him to do it in Husky Stadium before a game or something cool that way."