BY Art Thiel 12:49PM 11/19/2013

Thiel: Sarkisian rates a stay; churn not worth it

His shortcomings in the UCLA loss were evident, but Steve Sarkisian deserves a chance to mature and to recruit to the new facilities. Football coaching churn is a killer UW habit.

Steve Sarkisian has done much to improve Washington, but is it enough in the impatient world of college football? / Drew McKenzie, Sportspress Northwest

No, I don’t think Steve Sarkisian should be fired, even if the Huskies lose Saturday at Oregon State. But if he loses the Apple Cup for a second year in a row, he will leave himself open to the dark forces of college football over which even his patron, Washington athletics director Scott Woodward, has no control.And the issue of control is at the heart of Sarkisian’s coaching future: Can he control his game-day team, and even himself?

Both matters were exposed Friday in Los Angeles, where the 41-31 loss to UCLA was a significant setback in Sarkisian’s argument that the Huskies (6-4) are taking the next step. In his weekly presser Monday, Sarkisian was quick to point out, unprompted, that the Huskies’ four losses have been to teams ranked in the polls’ top 20.

That was as obvious to fans as the need for Washington to win at least one of those games, something the Huskies did a year ago against Stanford, to demonstrate progress. Wins over OSU and WSU will not move that needle, but a loss in either will complicate his coaching life.

Against UCLA, a couple of his biggest play-calling decisions, as well as the continuing plague of penalties, showed he and his team have not mastered the art of the big-time game.

Sarkisian made the point himself when he talked about the Huskies’ inability to rescue themselves from their own mistakes, which could have meant victories against either Stanford or UCLA.

“When you play good teams and make mistakes, good teams capitalize on it,”  he said. “We’re not in a mold yet to handle making mistakes and always being able to overcome those mistakes. We need to go out and play a good, clean football game. When we do, we’re pretty good. That’s the goal for Saturday night.”

After five years, an inability to overcome mistakes is not a sign of progress, especially with a fifth-year senior quarterback. Nor is leading the FBS nation in penalties with 89. Another 11 flags Friday pushed the season total to 793 yards  — think of it as about a game-and-a-half worth of lost ground — to make the Huskies No. 1 in something.

Yes, there is a mitigating circumstance — Pac-12 Conference officiating. It is fair for anyone who has watched a game to ask whether conference football officials have, as day jobs, the launch of the Affordable Care Act. It’s not just bad calls, it’s the frequency of fouls that is puzzling too. After Washington, UCLA is No. 2 nationally with 88, and Cal, Oregon and USC are in the top 10.

Another ghastly example of failure was Friday, when Huskies OG Dexter Charles in the second quarter was charged with a personal foul for hands to the face of a defender. Replays made it plain that it never occurred. But the judgment call is not subject to review despite the fact that the foul occurred during a 38-yard touchdown pass from QB Keith Price to WR Damore’ea Stringfellow. The potential game-changing scoring drive was converted into a punt.

Even the Pac-12 saw the foul as sufficiently ludicrous to acknowledge the error and apologize to Sarkisian.

“It’s tough, because we already get penalized a lot,” Sarkisian said. “We get a lot of penalties and probably the majority of those, deservedly so. When you get one that isn’t, and not only is it not a penalty, it takes seven points off the board for you in a critical ballgame, it’s hard.

“But the reality is that one play is not the reason why we lost the game. Sure, would we have loved to have that touchdown? No doubt about it. But there’s other plays in there too, that we could have helped ourselves better.”

Sarkisian always says the right words days after the injustice, but the impact in the moment is what counts. As does the week’s preparation in preventing penalties. Asked why the message isn’t getting across, Sarkisian sounded bewildered.

“Y’know, I don’t know,” he said, “. . . those are self-inflicted wounds that we don’t need to do to ourselves. We’ll continue to work at it. Again, I’ve looked at every area and every aspect of this thing, and (it’s) one thing that is a little frustrating on our end.”

In the third quarter came more bewilderment. With Price out and freshman Cyler Miles in at QB, as well as Ben Riva in as substitute left tackle, Washington had a third-and-short at the Washington 42. Sarkisian called a rare Wildcat play, with RB Bishop Sankey taking the direct snap. UCLA nailed him for a two-yard loss.

Sarkisian decided to go for it on fourth down, electing to have freshman Miles throw to fellow freshman Stringfellow on a slant route in the biggest moment of the game to that point. UCLA had it covered, broke up the play, took over on downs and scored a touchdown on the next play. Talk about a pivot point, right between the eyes.

Sarkisian said the Wildcat play worked earlier in the game with Sankey, and they saw the same defensive look.

“We had a bit of a miscommunication, where we didn’t execute it the way it was executed earlier,” he said. “Obviously it was a new quarterback in. it was a new left tackle.” Obviously. So why call for an unusual play?

On fourth down, the Huskies saw the man coverage matchups they liked, and the play had three receivers, with the choice left to Miles on the best option.

“Damore’ea was having a fantastic game,” he said. “Maybe not (Miles’) best throw. There was a little bit of contact and the ball went incomplete. But I think it was a play (where) we gave the quarterback some options to go to the best matchup, and their guy made the play.”

The view here is that with so much on the line on those two plays, and with so much inexperience in the lineup, the nation’s No. 3 rusher, Sankey, should have been given the ball either or both times in a manner with the least risk. Sure, it’s an easy second-guess, but how difficult would it have been for a first-guess? As he had in earlier situations in his tenure, Sarkisian couldn’t resist the impulse to be clever, and the immaturity blew up on him.

But every coach has plays he wants back. Every coach has weaknesses. Sarkisian has done an admirable job of bringing Washington back from the depths, with some splendid wins. Coming back from 0-12 is a harder job that he or most fans want to admit, particularly with UW so far behind in the facilities arms race.

But Husky Stadium has caught up, and the school did it without burdening the taxpayer. Sarkisian deserves the chance to recruit to the improved scene. Besides, coaching churn is a large reason Washington found itself in such a deep ditch. Another change now is ill-advised, particularly since he and his staff have proven to be competent recruiters.

Woodward and his advisors knew five years ago they were taking a chance on a 34-year-old who had never been a head coach at any level. His mistakes of inexperience and immaturity are part of the price. He’s not Don James, but no one else is, either.

If fans must have change that they can count on, start a petition drive to get Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott to dedicate 10 percent of his increasing salary to hire service dogs for officiating crews.


  • James Anderson

    If any of the other “Facilities” are behind, hopefully the boosters get those where they needto be as well. Not trying to be greedy. If we want the blue chip horses, we’ll need it. I’m tired of watching other great in state kids leave the state. No matter who the coach is long term, they need all the help they can get in recruiting. Especially when it comes to facilities! Couple yrs for Sark IMO. If he can’t take the “next step” by then in the win column, and recruiting wars for the state’s best players, he’ll have had plenty of time IMO. We all understand what Sark came into, and appreciate what he’s done. It’s nothing personal, just a bottom line IMO. Hope he can do it. Go Dawgs

    • art thiel

      For football recruiting, all the bling is in place. In 2-3 years, that excuse will be in the past.

  • ll9956

    Regarding the fictitious penalty on Dexter Charles, it’s good to know that, “Even the Pac-12 saw the foul as sufficiently ludicrous to acknowledge the error and apologize to Sarkisian.” An apology is better than no apology, but it doesn’t reverse the atrocity committed by the official. This raises a couple of obvious questions: 1) Do coaches grade officials, as in the NFL (I think)? 2) Are there consequences for officiating errors, especially potentially game-changing errors? On a purely emotional level, the guy should be publicly flogged Singapore style. On a slightly more civilized level, how about not being allowed to officiate in any bowl game or a few weeks suspension without pay with the proviso that if there is another blown call this season, the official will not be invited to return next season? It’s curious that no other officials questioned the call. Perhaps none of them saw it?

    • Proud75Duck

      Before the season began, the Pac-12 office said there would be evaluators at every Pac-12 football game. As they are no doubt retired former Pac-12 officials, they would be very reluctant to harshly grade their buddies. (It’s how it works on all levels and in all sports.) So the weekly horror of Pac-12 officiating mistakes continues. It’s been that way for decades and Larry Scott’s “promise” to make it better are just empty words.
      If the league cleaned house and brought in different officials, rated them tougher, and actually held them accountable, then it would be the Pac-12 office admitting its refereeing was bad and the league hadn’t done anything about it for so long. And none of the stuffed shirts in the SF Bay Area are going to ever admit that! GO DUCKS!

    • art thiel

      Accountability for officials has always been kept in-house for most leagues. For reasons of safety, no league wants fans to know which refs are in the bottom third. But the coaches are entitled to know because their jobs are affected. They are the catalysts for change.

  • jafabian

    No, Sark isn’t Don James and it’s unfair to draw comparisons between the two. He quickly brought the team out of it’s 0-12 doldrums but the question is: is the program advancing? Is it growing? Or is it holding steady now? Is it stagnating? Some of the coaching errors have been painfully obvious and occasionally are repeated. Not sure if that’s coaches ego trying to make their plans go through no matter what or just plain oversight but as a fan that can be frustrating. Especially when you see a former Husky leading UCLA to a solid season.

    Though I’m satisfied with Sark I still let myself wonder what it would be like if Mora, Mike Leach, (who UW tried to hire) Gary Pinkel or even Jim Tressel were dressed in purple. But I’m confidant Sark will get the Dawgs playing in January at some point.

    • Dawgs4ever

      UW didn’t try to hire Leach. They flew him out for an interview and he showed up in sweat pants. UW dropped him as a candidate immediately after that interview.

  • Eric K

    The wildcat worked earlier because they ran it on 1st down, on 3rd and 2 you might as well be telling the D what the play call is by lining up in it

    • art thiel

      Good point Eric. No Bruin was worried about Sankey passing.

  • WestCoastBias79

    You think the Pac-12 could afford better refs with those few billion their TV deal is worth. I don’t know if it’s a nod to amateurism, but it’s ironic that those on the field actually playing and officiating the game, creating the entertainment that’s worth the billions, are either playing for scholarship or are hobbyist refs with day jobs. I was at the game on Saturday, and am tired of spending my time and money on this. I realize that refs aren’t perfect at any level (i.e. the end of MNF), but at the Pac 12, the blunders are so common, it’s only a controversy when a school from another conference is screwed, because they’re not used to it.

    • Pixdawg13

      Hm. What game were you at on Saturday? I only ask since the UW played on Friday night, in LA.

      • WestCoastBias79

        Sorry, I screwed up my days. I can show you a picture as proof. I MUST PROVE MYSELF TO ANONYMOUS INTERNET PEOPLE!!!

    • art thiel

      No refs are full-time. It’s part-time work. That said, it’s the P12 coaches who are most affected by insufficient training or weak rules interp. Those 12 need to make their voices heard.

  • No Past Experience Necessary

    Steve Sarkesian was a bad hire for the University of Washington. Given the way the former athletic director and football coach were evaluated and shown the door with a season yet to coach. The 0-12 season is squarely on the resume of Mark Emmert and Scott Woodward.
    Now all of the “formers” have been fired or have sputtered as the NCAA President. On a side note- Willingham should have been hired as the NCAA President. He would have thrown the book at Oregon, Miami and the SEC snake pit.
    Now back to the “Glorified Offensive Coordinator” commonly known as Coach Sark.
    The U.W. needed a HEAD COACH with a Vitae that included: Past work experience with Offensive and Defensive Coordinators who do not have 5 star recruits at their disposal; Recruiters and Assistants who understand the importance of winning the line of scrimmage; and lastly, someone who conducts his public speaking more like Bill Belichick than Bob Barker. The Press loves Sark but he needs to just STFU sometimes. Speak softly and carry a big stick…
    Coach Sark only had 3 years of coaching experience as a Quarterback Coach and 1 year as a Offensive Coordinator and QB coach combined. Basically, a cup of coffee with the Oakland Raiders and back to the 5 Star refuge of USC – All Hail Pete Carroll.
    Scott Woodward took a big gamble when he hired Coach Sark. Woodward basically rolled the dice with the University of Washington’s money and hired someone with no past head coaching experience running a D-1 Enterprise Football Program.
    The past 4 plus years at Washington has been on the job training. The hiring and firing of Nick Holt given his pay can only be viewed as a “rookie mistake”. His firing of the entire Husky staff when he took over included-Randy Hart. Did he even interview the 2012 Defensive Line Coach of the Year winner? Stanford could care less and is benefiting from Sark’s “rookie mistake”.
    The past 4 plus years have been painful to watch as a Husky Alumnus who knows better. Sark’s key playmakers and NFL draftees have been Willingham recruits. Once Keith Price and Gregory Ducre leave it will be Sark’s roster. Some would argue that Kasen Williams and ASJ have been under utilized given the New High Speed Broadband Offense. These kids could have gone anywhere but chose the U.W.
    This is just symptomatic of Sark’s obsession with Oregonizing Washington’s offense.
    Sark should try to emulate Stanford not Oregon. Stanford players have longer NFL Careers and usually graduate.
    That’s all Dawg Fans.

    • art thiel

      Sark has made multiple on-the-job mistakes, but I doubt many seasoned coaches would want have wanted to pick up the 0-12 wreckage with no new stadium in sight (at the time).

      And he chose to switch to the uptempo with athletes recruited for another style. The transition takes time, as does recruiting to the new stadium. Sark doesn’t get the job for life, but churning to another coach now isn’t yet the answer.

  • oldfan

    Got to say, Art, I said the same thing… going into Willingham’s last year. Wish I could take THAT back. No one’s ever let me forget it.

    • art thiel

      Willingham’s growing failure as a recruiter really hit home his final year. I said that all coaches deserve four years, but Willingham was already circling the drain.

      • Daniel Luechtefeld

        Sarkisian’s in-state recruiting success is on the decline since 2011. He has one in-state signee to this point, and every indication is that he is going to lose out on the state’s blue chip linemen again this year. Banner, Garnett, now Baker.
        The growing hostility between in-state recruits (i.e. Myles Jack) and the UW is a giant red flag. That it is linemen we are losing is all the more problematic. Positively Willingham-esque.

  • Don

    Regarding the bad calls: From what I see it looks like most of these bad calls (both pro and college) go against the visiting teams. I think officials simply don’t want to alienate the home team fans. I’d like to see someone do a study of the percentage of bad calls that go AGAINST the home team vs the visiting team.

    • art thiel

      That’s a fan’s standard belief, Don. As someone who isn’t professionally invested in game outcomes, I haven’t seen much bias at the big-time college or pro level. Incompetence, yes. Not bias.

  • AZ Husky Fan

    Great article, Art.

  • Dan

    Coaching Churn?

    Sark is in his 5th year.

    Who has more years as head coach of his team?

    1. Mike Riley @ OSU (11 years), and

    2. Kyle Whittingham @ Utah (9 years).

    In his 9 years as head coach, Whittingham has had 3 seasons in the Pac-12. Making Sark 2nd in seniority in the conference.

    Every other program has a coach in their 1st, 2nd or 3rd year. Many of those coaches are running circles around UW, including: Oregon, 1st year coach. Stanford, 3rd year coach. ASU, 2nd year coach. UCLA, 2nd year coach.

    Ed Orgeron is 5-1 @ USC. Rich Rod is 14-9 in two seasons.

    Five years is enough time, and provides enough of a sample size, to come to a decision. UW is a program that should demand better and shouldn’t be afraid to make a change when it is stuck in mediocrity.


    • art thiel

      The newer coaches at Stanford and Oregon are inheritors of success. Washington comes from a 20-year history of blunderings from the presidencies to the athletics directors, leading to a succession of head coaching hires that didn’t work. The job and the stadium were terrible when Sark took the job. Your belief that five years is enough time is arbitrary because every program is unique in its history and problems.

      The choice is to see in through a while longer, or churn it again. Sark has made enough mistakes to leave him vulnerable, but the greater good in the program is not served now by another change.

      • Dan

        Art, you are forgetting that Stanford churned through Buddy Teevens: (2002-2004) and Walt Harris (2005-2006) to get a guy named Jim Harbaugh. Did Jim Harbaugh inherit a juggernaut at Stanford? How many winning seasons in the 20 or 30 years before Harbaugh? I bet you could count them on two hands.

        4 years after going 1-11, firing Harris and hiring Harbaugh, Stanford was 12-1 and finished 4th in the Nation.

        Sark is finishing up year 5. Never in the national title race. Never in a BCS bowl. Never in the division / rose bowl race. Never even ranked in the Top-25 at the end of the season.

        Next year under Sark we will be hearing another set of excuses: New QB, New RB, Lost an All-american TE, yadda, yadda, yadda. Again it will be, “he just needs more time”.

        • art thiel

          Remember, you are talking about a coach who could finish the year 8-4.

          Regarding Harbaugh, he finally turned a perceived liability, high entrance standards, to an asset by recruiting to a much smaller pool of good athletes who also cared about grades. Regardless of the anti-Harbaugh sentiment in Seattle, he is a very good coach, and would be an upgrade over Sark. So would another 20-25 more experienced top-tier coaches. But they weren’t interested in Washington then.

          They might be now. But I can’t say for sure, just as you can’t say for sure that Sark won’t be successful next year. Firing is the easy, knee jerk thing to do and Washington has been doing it for so long that it might be worth doing something different.

      • 1coolguy

        Sark will never bring the Huskies to a top 25 team status, so I say keep him on for a few more years and if we don’t get to a 10 win season, but the program has progressed, then bring on the coach who can achieve a top 25 program.
        I think Mora has already done this, but he has very intelligently tapped into the LA high school coaches for great talent. UCLA will now rival USC going forward for SoCal talent.

  • Adam Lewis

    Pac-12 officials regularly embarrass the league, but they had no effect on the final outcome of the game. UW punted after the phantom call on Charles, then UCLA turned the ball over inside the five. UW scored a few plays later. Sarkisian’s point is moot.

    • Effzee

      No. You simply can’t tell what would have happened. The momentum would have been completely different. The emotion on the sidelines would have been different after hitting that big play against their defense. Instead of frustration, there would have been confidence. Had the play not been wiped out, we would have been kicking off to them just as we punted after the phantom call. Who is to say that UCLA would not have still turned the ball over in their territory, leading to another score, and putting us ahead? Then maybe the play calls are different going forward, and KP does not get hit in the same way he did, etc. You can’t just state that it had no effect on the outcome. Its totally unknowable. Your point is moot.

      • Adam Lewis

        To presume the emotion on the sidelines would be different when in either scenario they scored the exact same number of points (7) is a strange argument to make. One might say it’s “totally unknowable.”

        • Effzee

          My point exactly.

          • Adam Lewis

            You could use your argument for any play in the game. And it’s weak for Sarkisian to complain about one call in a game where the Huskies deserved most of the penalties they received. You don’t become the No. 1-penalized team in the nation without routinely breaking the rules.

            If he wants sympathy when the Huskies do get jobbed, then clean up the rest of the mistakes… Just my opinion.

  • Tian Biao

    I keep thinking old Moneybags Scott, the Pac 12 commissioner, will fix the conference’s penalty problems. After all, it’s bad television! bad for revenue! and revenue is all that matters to Scott.

    • art thiel

      Revenue is all that matters to university presidents, who hired Scott. He works for them.

  • Effzee

    I basically agree with this column, though I am growing tired of waiting for the “real” breakthrough. I get the occasional glimpse of the mountaintop, and each time I trudge on, believing, until the clouds break again and I get that next glimpse… And it looks just as far away as the last time i saw it. Also, Gary Pinkel was about .500 during his first 5 years at Mizzou, then it clicked, and they have been good since then, and are in the SEC title hunt this year.

    We are just not paying enough attention to the details and focus. This is where Sark really needs to improve. This is why the fumbles, slow starts, etc. There is too much talk about how good we should be, and not enough mental preparation for the task at hand. We are simply unprepared to get hit in the mouth and then hit back. There is too much emphasis on the number of plays we try to run, and entirely too much emphasis on which uniform we are going to wear next.

    We are not Oregon. It’s sooooo a Nike marketing thing, and it sickens me that we follow that. We should be attacking it, as a school, ridiculing it for the gimmick it is. Their mascot is a Duck, for crying out loud. They *need* gimmicks to recruit to Eugene, and their colors give them ample reason to change their uniforms every week. We should have pride in our colors. Do you see Alabama changing their uniforms every week? Texas? Oklahoma? LSU? Florida? Florida State? Have some damn pride, Sark.

    • ducksrulepupsdrool

      You are why Oregon fans think washingten fans are a joke. Arrogant and foolish. If you want to be set free from your hate, just look up Oregon’s record for the last 20 plus years and while you are at it, show me who has a better record over the last 5 years than Oregon. You goobers live in ancient history and feel entitled to being superior when you aren’t. A decade of spankings by double – digits by “ducks”. Who is the loser program?

      • Effzee

        Did you hear me claim that we are currently comparable to the Fightin’ Green Quackers? Nope. I am acutely aware of the current reality. I hope you enjoyed that one Rose Bowl victory you had since 1917. I will enjoy watching your ride back down to the mediocrity from whence you came.

    • art thiel

      Actually, Oregon didn’t invent either the spread or the uptempo pace. They stole it from others. But they have mastered it, helped in no small part by Nike bling.

      Your point about Pinkel is a good one. Hedges chose Neuheisel over Pinkel based on personality, not on coaching skill. The mistake lives on, 13 years later.

  • Dawgs4ever

    C’mon Art. The least of UW’s problems is coaching churn. The biggest problem is complacency and folks like you arguing that we should keep around a coach that has proven he can’t get it done. You did it with Ty (, you’re doing it now with Sark.

    • art thiel

      The biggest problems were the 1993 violations that ended James’ tenure and the Neuheisel mess. So many Huskies fans are in denial about the long-term consequences of these huge setbacks.

      Sark did a lot to get Washington to tread water again, and he underestimated the degree of difficulty to start swimming. So did Woodward. But remember Nick Saban was 25-22-1 his first four years at Michigan State before finally breaking through. Pinkel was a slow start at Missouri. Lots of examples

      Deep hole.

      • 1coolguy

        Biggest problem with the 1993 violations is James QUIT! Helluva example that he set, 2 weeks before the season started for the kids on that team.
        The best thing he could have done was to stay on, whip the conference teams once again, announce his retirement and win the Rose Bowl. THAT would have been the right way to leave.

        • ll9956

          I couldn’t agree more with 1coolguy. When James left I was thinking how sweet it would have been had he stayed and won all the marbles. That would have been a most satisfying way to show the then-Pac-10 officials that they were totally misguided in sanctioning the Dawgs. Then he could have left in a true blaze of glory.

  • 1coolguy

    I think the Huskies would have been at least 11 points better in the second half with Price @ QB instead of Miles, so I don’t put this loss on Sark.
    The penalties are ridiculous – very indicative of a lax program.