BY Art Thiel 12:23AM 12/04/2010

Apple Cup win will put Sark on watch list

Bowl appearance amid arms race would make UW coach worth swiping

Washington Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian could be a ray of sunshine to another program with a sudden coaching vacancy. (Drew McKenzie/Sportspress Northwest)

Looming large over Apple Cup week is the storyline of the legacy of Jake Locker, the greatest modern-era Huskies quarterback who’s had neither a winning season nor a bowl-game appearance.

He can put in for the upgrade to his collegiate reputation if by Saturday evening he has beaten the Cougars and pushed the Huskies into the postseason, albeit a 6-6 mark will not provoke harp-playing and the release of doves.

But he’s been on such bad teams, the whole legacy thing is emotional rather than clinical.

Still, it’s a fair storyline because it could be his last game for UW, a five-year trial that has so far given him little justice.

Also legit, on the other side of Martin Stadium’s frozen lentil field, is the storyline about the future of coach Paul Wulff, whose 5-31 record in three years is defensible only by those who understand the magnitude of meagerness that attends the Cougars roster.

But the most intriguing storyline has generated little talk:

What if it’s the last Huskies game for Steve Sarkisian?

No, there’s not a good rumor to cite for the speculation. Just logic.

If UW gets a bid to either the Holiday Bowl in San Diego or the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio, his profile after just two seasons at Montlake is elevated sufficiently to make him a target for headhunters.

Not saying he’s a prime candidate. Nor is he as likely to put out feelers as, say, Rick Neuheisel, who is the kind of guy who greets you warmly until he spots someone over your shoulder he thinks is more important.

It’s the football landscape that is getting a little more renegade.

With each move by a school to a new conference, with each mega-contract signed by a coach, with each jaw-dropping new TV deal (or creation of a self-started network) for a conference, the pressure cranks up to win a lot, and fast, and sooner than that.

Although Sarkisian at 36 is still on a learning curve as a head coach, a bowl appearance two years after the 0-12 debacle of Tyrone Willingham would satisfy the expectations of any fair-minded fan who doesn’t make his wife wear a Dawg-nose hat with her bustier.

Moderate success at beleaguered Washington, following graduation from his apprenticeship during USC’s reign atop college football, makes him at minimum a guy worth watching, and for a desperate handful, a guy worth stealing.

It’s hard to say who or what would happen, but we all know it starts at the top, the NFL, where there have been head-coach firings at Dallas and Minnesota, to be followed next month, if form holds, by a half-dozen others. In the colleges, the University of Miami has a large vacancy. And after this final weekend when the bowl lineup is set, many more college jobs will open.

The coaches’ annual game of musical chairs grows more intense because the arms race has left every big-school athletic director with an eye twitch, a tic and a stutter.

With the emergence of outliers such as Boise State, Texas Christian and Utah, and the decay of conferences such as the Big East and Atlantic Coast, the natural order upon which the BCS was built has been greatly disturbed.

And with the economy in a two-year tank with no real recovery in sight, madness begins creeping around the edges of the AD’s office.

While no one knows how the big issues will eventually shake out, every school knows there’s one place not to be.

Behind.

Fall back, and your conference might run away from you – if it doesn’t fall apart first.

Fall back, and you will be left out of the big TV money that goes to the power conferences.

Fall back, and your budget-slashing university president would rather pay you off and get someone in who can keep a financially faltering athletic department from dipping into the general fund.

Factor in those non-salary issues, and a coach who has the ascendant profile of Sarkisian becomes attractive.

Attempting to top his $1.7 million annual reimbursement will daunt many, but not all.

Huskies fans are fortunate that Sarkisian still works for the man who hired him, Scott Woodward, who will have his coach’s back. Woodward himself seems secure, having been given a five-year contract as a lovely parting gift by former university president Mark Emmert, who became president of this national sports freight train, the NCAA.

Woodward did himself no favors by blurting on KJR radio that the University of Oregon should be “embarrassed” by its poor academic standing, hours before the Ducks football team embarrassed Woodward’s football team. That was sufficiently bad form that the UW’s interim president forced Woodward to apologize directly to the UO administration. Woodward is expected to return from his hands-and-knees walk to and from Eugene this week.

But it’s unlikely the matter puts Woodward in jeopardy, not with an interim president and not with the fund-raising for stadium renovation in a delicate stage.

Unless of course, he blurts again.

Barring another gaffe that invites the president onto the front page for unpleasantness, Woodward figures to have the will and ability to go all out to keep his coach. Since the UW is no different than any other school in its fear of falling behind, the administration will probably accede.

But every school has a limit – except for the schools that are falling behind.

The business of coaching high-profile football teams has become ever more neurotic and unpredictable. If there is doubt, ask yourself if a year ago you saw Pete Carroll leaving USC to become head coach of the Seattle Seahawks. If he is to be believed, even Carroll said he wouldn’t have believed it.

Some critics say Sarkisian didn’t make Locker look as good as the kid should have. But with one more win, Locker can make Sarkisian look quite appealing.


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