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Originally published August 27, 2012 at 8:02 PM | Page modified August 28, 2012 at 7:20 AM

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Washington's Steve Sarkisian still has the Huskies on the right path after offseason of change

Consistency key to Husky coach Steve Sarkisian keeping program's overhaul on schedule in fourth season.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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It's Year 4, already. Steve Sarkisian has been here so long that he probably doesn't bother carrying an umbrella anymore.

What the Washington football coach stands for is so ingrained you can recite it on demand. You recognize his quirks so well you can say his pet phrase "who we are" before he lets loose with the words. As Sarkisian enters an important fourth-season marker of program building, his challenge for this campaign is quite telling. The expectations are a hash of contradictions.

Change.

And more of the same, please.

Got that, Coach?

The Huskies' motto this season says it all: Take the next step. It means they've been good, considering the circumstances. Now, it's time to get rid of the qualifier and simply be good. It's time to fix the defense so that they can stay on pace. Because of a brutal early schedule, this still looks like a transition year, albeit one with a talented roster that has more upside than Sark's first three teams. Nevertheless, progress is a must.

Sarkisian has created the infrastructure for success, and it's sturdy. From inheriting an 0-12 team to making two straight bowl appearances and posting a 19-19 record over three seasons, Sarkisian's Huskies have done a good job overall. Now comes the second phase of program building, where reforming the past no longer applies and a good job isn't good enough anymore.

The stakes are higher now that the Huskies are on solid ground again. Sarkisian has always understood that, and in the most difficult decision of his short head-coaching career, he fired defensive coordinator Nick Holt and two other defensive coaches after a wild 67-56 loss to Baylor in the Alamo Bowl.

Then he poached the well-regarded Justin Wilcox from Tennessee to replace Holt, and the Huskies are on their way to significant change on defense.

But as much as you look forward to the transformation of that defense into a stingier version that suits Washington's tradition, everything else can remain the same and evolve naturally. You love what Sark is doing, except for the defense. Instead of being stubborn, he made quick and decisive corrections, even though it complicated his friendship with Holt. The second phase of this building — the push for excellence — demands it.

Fortunately, it seems Sarkisian was able to alter a portion of his master plan without disturbing the program's overall continuity.

"The transition on defense was easier for the team because Sark keeps the same message," senior cornerback Desmond Trufant said. "It was easy for Coach Wilcox to slide in. Everything is the same, except we're learning a new scheme.

"We've got a lot of players back. The continuity was already there because of those players. Our defense is different, but we're not changing to something different as a team. We're still the same, only striving to be better."

All teams tinker and change schemes, and coaching staffs rarely stay together for a long time. What's different about Sarkisian — and what could have made the change more difficult — is how much he preached over the past three years that the Huskies are playing offensive and defensive systems that have stood the test of time and should be accepted with absolute trust.

When the Huskies struggled, Sarkisian kept the team united by reiterating that thought. Even though it became apparent the Huskies needed change on defense, it was still a tricky sell because Sark's trust message was so strong. But the coach has mitigated any problems thus far by being transparent with his team. There's a consistent aspiration, though the approach has changed.

"We have some hard and fast beliefs that we live by," Sarkisian said. "And now I feel that we really have the leaders in place that have been hearing the same consistent message, and it can be reiterated in the locker room without a coach having to say it. To continue that, we had to get these new coaches to buy into some of those philosophies as well.

"But hopefully the real messaging and the beliefs and the philosophy that we live by are consistent from me, and they know that I am not wavering, and they don't need to waver off of those."

Sarkisian is guiding the Huskies with a steady hand. You know this because, when he needed to make an incision this past offseason, he did it in a precise and correct manner.

As a result, the program remains healthy.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @JerryBrewer.

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