It's only April, but Steve Sarkisian's Huskies make a good impression
New coach Steve Sarkisian and his staff are earning the respect of Washington players.
Seattle Times staff columnist
On Championship Monday in college basketball, on opening day for the Mariners, Steve Sarkisian chimed in with his own event.
"Competition Monday," the new Washington football coach said, grinning.
Only a nervy coach with the vision of a tunnel would put a spring practice in conflict with two of the signature events in all of sports. But that's what happened Monday when the Huskies took the field for their first session in full pads.
They were only halfway done when the Mariners began their Griffey Redux season. They were still on the field when Michigan State and North Carolina tipped off.
Somehow, I got the short end of the coverage stick. I used it as an opportunity to perform an experiment.
Could the Sark Bowl hold its intrigue on this sports holiday?
Hypothesis: It would be such a bust that, during the 11-on-11 drill, Sarkisian would post on his Twitter page, "Someone gimme some scores or else I'll have 2 ask Coach Willingham 2 finish practice."
Conclusion: Competition Monday held its own.
Before seeing Sarkisian and his assistant coaches in action, I had given these spring practices the theme "Pomp and Pumped." I predicted the bells and whistles that come with a charismatic coaching staff probably would trump the instruction. Instead, I left Husky Stadium feeling more confident that this is a group capable of rebuilding the program.
It's just a feeling, not a prophecy, and certainly every college football team is allowed good vibes in April. Energetic spring practices don't make contenders, but they help, especially when there appears to be solid leadership orchestrating them.
For all the bravado we've seen from Sarkisian off the field, he's just as organized and sound on it. His practices are intense, yet crisp. His coaches are fiery, yet fair. And he's quickly gaining the trust of an emotionally-battered team that endured a winless 2008 season.
"I think their whole approach is second to none," safety Victor Aiyewa said.
From the extreme tempo of the workouts to the emphasis on fundamentals to the mix of prodding and positive reinforcement, the Sark-proclaimed best coaching staff in America is making an impression.
Don't underestimate how multidimensional the Huskies' problems are, however. This is the easy part. If players from an 0-12 team don't have enough pride to compete for new coaches, then they don't deserve to play big-time college football.
We won't really get a chance to see Sarkisian's impact until the Huskies fail and must decide whether to stay with the program or stray into self-doubt again. But this is an appropriate start.
Asked why he has been so impressed, Aiyewa focuses on the communication. For him, it starts with his defensive coordinator, Nick Holt. It seems that Holt, who often displays a pro wrestler's brand of swagger, can really teach the game.
"Coach Holt breaks everything down to a T," Aiyewa said. "He explains everything so well. He's already made us better on defense because he focuses in on the details and relays it all perfectly."
In Aiyewa's view, the new practice style has been as liberating as it's tough.
"There's no leash on the defense," he said. "We all get a chance to run around and hit each other. It's our time to show the coach who's a physical player, who's the one willing to run around and hit."
And it's an honest environment. The coaches curse more than Chris Rock during a stand-up routine. At the same time, they're just as quick to praise.
Linebacker E.J. Savannah, back on the team after a year away, was asked if the team's perception of the coaches matched the reality.
"We perceived them to be guys who come in and try to get us hyped up," Savannah said. "That's who they are. But you can tell they care about us. That means a lot."
As a result, the Huskies are a loose bunch displaying a fire rarely seen in their games last season. If you parachuted into Husky Stadium from out of nowhere and someone told you this was a bowl team, you wouldn't laugh.
Of course, to the experienced eye, there are still many issues. So many issues. But despite all their flaws, they made missing an uplifting Mariners victory tolerable.
And Competition Monday definitely had more drama than Championship Monday. When I returned from practice, North Carolina was already ahead by 18.
"Next week is Tell the Truth Monday," Sarkisian said.
Whatever that means, I'm there.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
About Jerry Brewer
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.