Is the Washington football team ready to 'take the next step'?
Taking the next step is an obvious goal for the Huskies. Coach Steve Sarkisian's team has finished 7-6 the past two seasons, each time advancing to a bowl game.
Seattle Times staff reporter
In case the members of the Washington football team forget the goal for this season, all they need to do is look up or down. Left or right.
Emblazoned just about everywhere they turn, from locker-room walls to the covers of playbooks, is the motto for this season — "Take the next step."
It's an obvious goal for the Huskies, who in the first three seasons under coach Steve Sarkisian have stabilized after the disaster that was the end of the Tyrone Willingham era, finishing 7-6 the past two seasons and each time advancing to a bowl game.
But Sarkisian is aware as anyone that ultimately that won't cut it at Washington, where 14 Rose Bowl appearances remain second among all Pac-12 schools, trailing only USC.
Eventually, he knows, the Huskies have to go from respectability to true contention.
"Obviously, the goal for coach Sarkisian and for me is Rose Bowls," said UW athletic director Scott Woodward. "That's what we are about here, and what we have been about. It's what coach (Don) James was about and what we aspire to be in the Pac-12, and we are not shying away from it."
The question, then, is whether the Huskies are indeed ready to take that next step.
The consensus is that the Huskies might still be a year away. They have just 12 scholarship seniors on the roster, due in part to a smallish recruiting class in 2009, when Sarkisian replaced Willingham (only seven of 19 from that class remain).
And they could start as few as three or four seniors. Next year — when quarterback Keith Price will be a senior and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins and receiver Kasen Williams are juniors — seems like a more natural time for the Huskies to reach contending status. A problem this season, too, is a schedule regarded as one of the toughest in the country.
Sarkisian, though, says he thinks the Huskies are ready for a breakthrough, while stopping short of saying specifically where that will lead.
"I feel like we have a unique opportunity," he said. "We have guys in this program that may have redshirted or been backups that really have a chance to go and be front-line players for us, and if that all occurs and we do it individually, and then collectively, then I think our program can continue to grow. I just don't want us to become complacent, that where we are is where we are supposed to be."
Fans are certainly ready for a return to the glory days.
Jim Owens and James — the coaches that all at UW will inevitably be compared — not only got UW to the Rose Bowl in their third seasons, they won it.
Neither, though, faced the same sort of overhaul as Sarkisian, who took over in the wake of an 0-12 season in 2008. That record might have been due, in part, to massive injuries and coaching unrest, but there's no doubt the program needed major reconstruction.
And Woodward has said from the start his goal was to find a coach he felt would build it with a sturdy foundation. What he didn't want, he has said, is a quick rise up and an equally quick drop.
"I do like the way we are building this program," he said. "Steady, solid foundation. It's incremental progress. I think our football play is getting better, our recruiting is getting better, our coaching is getting better. I think everything we are doing in the program is getting better and better, and that's where I want it to progress."
Sarkisian signed six junior-college players in his first class in 2009, when the Huskies were scrambling to fill holes. But UW has signed just four since, building instead for the long haul.
Woodward says he is "very pleased" with the behavior of the players and their work in the classroom — signs, he says, of the program being rebuilt the proper way.
Still, teams are ultimately judged on wins and losses, something that will be even more vital with Washington moving into its renovated stadium in 2013. And the Huskies are competing in a Pacific-12 Conference that has been fortified by a 12-year, $3 billion TV contract that has allowed schools to spend more freely on football coaches and facilities.
Sarkisian, though, says he thinks UW is well-positioned to handle the increased competition. The renovated stadium and football operations center will help UW counter moves made elsewhere.
And the progress made his first three years, he said, has UW on the right track.
"I'd be lying if I didn't say we wanted to win every game," he said. "I wish we hadn't lost any. But the reality of the situation was that it was going to take us a little time. ... I thought we would be somewhere around here. We are going in the right direction, but we are definitely not satisfied."
Proof that Sarkisian feels some urgency came following the 2011 season, when UW allowed a school-record 467 points, capped by a 67-56 loss to Baylor in the Alamo Bowl. Two days later, Sarkisian fired defensive coordinator Nick Holt and two other defensive coaches, kicking off a complete restructuring of the defensive coaching staff.
Sarkisian has said firing a friend he had lured from USC was among the hardest decisions of his life, but one he knew had to be done.
"I just felt like I was wearing the head coach of the University of Washington hat and my job is to do what's best for our football program and for this university," he said. "And I felt like at this time that was the best thing we could do, for the immediate, and as I've looked down the road, for our future."
Said Woodward: "That was coach Sarkisian making a smart and tough decision after looking at the whole body of work for all season. We needed to make a change and I think he made a proper change and it was a hard change because a lot of those guys we work with our are friends. But when you don't get a job done, something has to be done."
Woodward showed his faith in Sarkisian when he gave him a contract extension following the 2010 season that takes the coach through 2015. And after the defensive staff restructuring, every assistant on the team has at least a two-year contract.
Given the youth of the team, then, it's tempting to look at the Huskies as something of a two-year project to truly take the next step.
Coaches, though, are always on something of a hot seat in the eyes of fans, and should the Huskies stumble, there will be grumbling.
Sarkisian, though, said he doesn't worry about pressure.
"That doesn't bother me and I don't really feel it or see it," he said. "I think that our fans and our alumni are tremendous, they love Husky football, they are proud of what we have accomplished. They want to win every game, too, just like we do, and that's the goal."
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or email@example.com.
|Huskies under Sarkisian|
|UW coach Steve Sarkisian has stabilized the program, but has yet to win more than seven games in a season.|
|2010||7-6||Holiday, beat Nebraska, 19-7|
|2011||7-6||Alamo, lost to Baylor, 67-56|
|Total record at UW: 19-19|