Steve Sarkisian, Washington's under-Dawg, awaits first challenge
New Washington Huskies coach embraces challenge of turning around football program that was 0-12 in 2008.
Seattle Times staff columnist
Steve Sarkisian, the underdog?
Just a year ago, when he couldn't lose for winning at USC, the thought would've been asinine. The Trojans probably led the NCAA in receiving questions about overlooking an opponent. They could win a game 38-3 and afterward Sarkisian, then an offensive coordinator, might be ripped for conservative play-calling.
The last time Sark coached a team not favored to win? In 2007, Oregon was a three-point favorite at home over the Trojans, and the Ducks won 24-17.
Besides that game, Sark was part of a three-point 'dog that went to No. 6 Auburn in 2003 and claimed a 23-0 victory. And in the 2006 Rose Bowl, Michigan was a slight favorite according to some, but the Trojans walloped the Wolverines 32-18. So if you exclude Sark's one-year NFL stop in Oakland, he barely looked a dark horse in the mouth as a major-college assistant coach.
Now a head coach, his first task is considerable. Washington is currently a 17-point under-Dawg for Saturday's game against No. 11 Louisiana State. But if you think Sarkisian is suffering from a hype withdrawal this week, you've misjudged him. The new Huskies coach is handling the identity change quite well.
Reporters asked him Monday, in several different ways, about being in this uncomfortable position. Would you have preferred to play an easier opening game to start your head-coaching career? What concerns do you have about LSU? What are the biggest challenges in taking over a winless team? How will you do things differently than you did at USC? You sure you're ready for this?
To his credit, Sarkisian attacked all the queries as he would a poorly disguised blitz.
"I think we're embracing the challenge more than thinking 'woe is me,' " Sarkisian said.
That's good to know, because "woe is me" was a potent emotion before Sark arrived. You know the dreadful numbers: The proud Huskies program has lost 14 straight games and 21 of its last 23. The skid includes 2008's stale donut-and-12 mark.
Take the recent history into account, and no coach has a more daunting season opener than Sarkisian. He must make a favorable impression somehow, against incredible odds, in the face of low expectations. And the weird thing is, even though there are bantam expectations for Year 1, they're also competing with the hope Sarkisian has fostered over the course of his charismatic introduction to the fan base.
Can the Huskies be considered lowly and on a high at once? This is Sarkisian's complicated task: to create stability even if the team's record might be unstable. To provide just enough excitement to temper the inevitable ugly stretches of a rebuilding process.
The good coaches manage to make their mark early. Sarkisian doesn't need to beat LSU to prove his worth. In fact, Washington athletic director Scott Woodward cautioned that Nick Saban, when he coached at Michigan State, lost his debut 50-10 to No. 2 Nebraska in 1995. Saban went on to finish 6-5-1 that season and had a good (but not great) run with the Spartans before leaving for LSU, winning a national title with the Tigers and stockpiling the team so that current coach Les Miles had enough talent to win the 2007 national title.
A Louisiana reporter asked Sarkisian the softball question of whether this is a new era for the Huskies.
"Without question, this is a new era of Washington football," Sarkisian said with a mischievous grin. "We've got new uniforms."
It was team-deprecating humor at its finest. Sarkisian has already learned the modesty of an underdog.
This season, he has a baseline goal. "That when the football game is over, our opponent respects us," he said.
It's just a feeling right now, but I think people will respect the Huskies this season. For all that has been made of Sarkisian's adjustment to coaching less-acclaimed players, he has always coached the game like an underdog. As a player who took time off from football after high school and became a star via the junior-college route, he knows about defying low expectations, too.
He's an unaccustomed underdog in perception only. He's actually feisty by nature. Maybe this under-Dawg bites.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or email@example.com, Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer
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