Surrounded by stumbling Seattle coaches, Steve Sarkisian will succeed
Sark took the Huskies from 0-12 to 5-7 as a rookie coach. Now, he must avoid the sophomore jinx that felled Don Wakamatsu and sent Sigi Schmid scrambling for repairs.
Seattle Times staff columnist
The sports section is just 18 months old, but it already feels ancient. Way back then, The Times displayed portraits of four gallant new coaches who hoped to rescue Seattle from the epic sports misery of 2008.
There was Jim Mora, looking stern. Steve Sarkisian, looking brash. Don Wakamatsu, looking mysterious. And Sigi Schmid, looking dignified.
"Fantastic Four," the headline read.
Eighteen months later, Mora and Wakamatsu have been fired. Schmid watched his Sounders FC team crumble before discovering a fix. Only Sarkisian has enjoyed interrupted momentum, but we must caution that he has yet to begin his second season as the University of Washington football coach.
Fantastic Four? More like Fortuitous Two.
"Sometimes, I'll joke with my wife and say, 'Honey, don't get too comfortable,' " Sarkisian says, laughing.
A proud citizen of the myopic world of football coaching, the 36-year-old Sarkisian doubles as an astute observer of his surroundings. Through the travails of Mora and Wakamatsu, he has learned how quickly opportunity can become catastrophe. The great coaching class of 2008 has turned into a whistle-toting spinoff of "The Survivor," but Sarkisian is undeterred. He has grander visions than simply maintaining his job security.
"I'm more concerned with what our travel plans will be like when we're headed to Pasadena than if I've got to move out of my house," he said.
Pasadena, Calif. — site of the Rose Bowl.
Yeah, that's how Sark rolls.
With confidence, enthusiasm and a crystallized mission, the young coach appears poised to break the cycle. He took the Huskies from 0-12 to 5-7 as a rookie coach. Now, he must avoid the sophomore jinx that felled Wakamatsu and sent Schmid scrambling for repairs.
Why will Sarkisian be different? Well, there's talent, for one thing. Quarterback Jake Locker, the possible No. 1 pick in the 2011 NFL draft, returns for a fifth season. Several other players should at least compete for all-Pac-10 honors: linebacker Mason Foster, running back Chris Polk, wide receiver Jermaine Kearse, maybe even safety Nate Williams, cornerback Desmond Trufant, defensive tackle Alameda Ta'amu and wide receiver Devin Aguilar. Sarkisian and his coaching staff inherited good talent, but they have developed it and increased it through their own recruiting.
But it's not just about having better athletes. It's also about coaching — organizing the team, putting in the proper schemes, motivating the players. While Sarkisian and Co. were criticized for some questionable in-game decisions last season, they've excelled thus far in molding this program.
It starts with the head coach delivering a consistent message. The Huskies have a clear identity now: They're an athletic, aggressive, speedy, high-energy team that plays with determination and swagger. The next step is to develop enough better efficiency on offense, defense and special teams. But the foundation has been established, and Sarkisian will never stray from the program's core philosophies.
"For me, I try to look at myself and say, 'Am I staying true to Steve Sarkisian?' " the coach said when asked about how he evaluated himself after last season. "Ultimately, I think teams become the personality of the head coach. And that was what I wanted to make sure of, that I wasn't trying too hard to be something I wasn't or instill beliefs that I didn't truly believe in. In doing so, I felt great about what we were doing. It kind of solidified the things that we were believing in and how we were doing things."
Besides getting the Huskies to believe they can win on the road, which they haven't done since 2007, Sarkisian also emphasizes the concept of momentum. Ever since the Huskies ended last season with back-to-back victories, he has stressed the importance of keeping this good start going. He credits the continuity of this coaching staff as a huge factor. No teams were able to poach any of his assistant coaches, and as a result, Sarkisian boasts about the consistent message his staff is able to give to the players.
With all of this momentum and consistency, it's not about survival for Sarkisian. It's about dreaming big.
"I think it was a real challenge just to get this program off the mat," Sarkisian said. "We were knocked down. We were on the mat, and we got 10-counted. That was a difficult transition, but for me, what's probably more difficult now is to get to a point where we're not settling for just one more little step. I think the natural thing is to say, 'Well, we just want to get to a bowl game.' Well, that's not good enough. We're not here just to get to a bowl game. One more win than last year? That's not it. We understand that we're here to win championships."
Raising expectations too soon has been a death knell for many coaches. But Sarkisian isn't into holding back. If he fails, he won't be a victim. He's attacking his aspirations.
Maybe that's why, even as his coaching mates fall around him, he can joke about his job security.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or email@example.com, Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer
About Jerry Brewer
Jerry Brewer offers a unique perspective on the world of sports.
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