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Are Steve Sarkisian’s Huskies ready to take next step?
Steve Sarkisian talked of winning conference championships and competing for national titles when he took over as Washington’s football coach nearly five years ago. After three straight 7-6 seasons, he’s eager to break through to a higher level.
Times staff columnist
Nearly five years ago, as he made a rousing first impression, Steve Sarkisian set himself up for disappointment. He didn’t do anything wrong or blabber any ill-thought remarks. He just introduced himself as the new Washington football coach by erring on the strong side of expectations.
“It’s the year 2008,” Sarkisian said that memorable day, Dec. 8, 2008. “It’s time to get back to the Rose Bowl, to Pac-10 championships, competing for a national championship. That’s our goal, no question. I can’t wait to get this thing going.”
He was speaking the gospel of Husky fans starving to root again for a prominent program. And then, in the moment, feeding off the excitement, Sarkisian offered somewhat of a timeline — a dangerous thing in an impatient sports world — when he said, with extreme confidence, that it’s “not going to take us very long” to return to excellence.
And in the third game of Sark’s UW tenure, he beat USC and reminded everyone that his “not going to take us very long” statement wasn’t “coach-speak.”
Four seasons later, Sarkisian has a 26-25 record and a program desperate to break through the plateau of three straight 7-6 seasons.
Looking back, Sarkisian was right and wrong at once. As three straight bowl appearances proves, it didn’t take him very long to return the 0-12 program he inherited to competitiveness. But championships? Well, greatness doesn’t heed a schedule, no matter how good it sounds.
So, Sark enters Year 5 needing to prove more. He knows it, and you can hear the edge in his voice from time to time. This is, without question, the most important year of Sarkisian’s UW tenure. Unless a disaster occurs, he’s not coaching for his job. Let’s not be silly. But he is coaching to make the statement that mediocrity will not be a signature of his program.
Right now, he’s under more pressure than any sports figure in the city. Sure, Russell Wilson, Pete Carroll and the Seahawks must live up to Super Bowl hype, but they’ve already shown a high level of success. Sarkisian has yet to offer that glimpse, and with Washington returning to a renovated Husky Stadium this fall, now is the perfect time to advance the program.
It almost happened in 2011 when the Huskies started 5-1, but they lost five of their final seven games. It almost happened last season when the Huskies grinded their way to a 7-4 mark late in the year, but they blew a big lead in the Apple Cup and lost to Washington State before losing a close game to Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Almost is making Sark and the Huskies irritable.
“Nah, we’re not over it,” Sarkisian said of the way 2012 ended. “We’re not over it. We’re antsy. We’re pissed. We’re not over it, and we won’t be until we get to go hit somebody else.”
Sarkisian is capable of lifting the Huskies to another level. The question is how long it will take, and like Husky fans, the coach has already set the bar at ASAP. He’s past due in the minds of many, and if you go back to his opening news conference, he’s probably a little behind schedule in his mind, too.
But Sarkisian isn’t one to sulk. He’s a resilient problem solver, and he knows how to keep his teams together through adversity. They’re admirable traits, but we’ve seen his resilient side too much.
He’s ornery right now. His entire team is. Now, can they show balance on offense and defense for the first time, avoid blowout losses and losing streaks and start the long process of catching up to Oregon? Can they climb to the nine-win level?
That’s a good, baseline expectation for this season. By year’s end, the Huskies should be back in the top 25 and anticipating that they’ll stay there for years to come.
“I’m fired up, man,” Sarkisian said. “I’m ready to go. The end of last season, for me, it challenged me. When we failed in those settings, I almost took it personally, which I should. We want more than that, and I think we’ll prove it.”
The coach must prove it. He must live up to a promise that is nearly five years old.
At Washington, Sarkisian has grown from a 34-year-old offense whiz who skipped a few steps to get a big-time Division I job to a 39-year-old coach who learned some hard lessons and should be better for the experience. Every head coach must learn on the job, and most of them don’t have to do so in such a high-profile environment. Sarkisian did. You know all of his strengths and weaknesses. But you don’t know how he’ll evolve.
He can start proving that unknown this season. It’s a must, not only to stop you from being fidgety. Sarkisian is quite restless, too.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @JerryBrewer