BY Art Thiel 06:57PM 12/04/2013

Thiel: Sark was transition; now for the real deal

Often forgotten is that five years ago, no sitting D-1 coach would touch the Huskies football job. Now, it’s embraceable — by a big-timer.

Steve Sarkisian was destined for USC as soon as he took the Washington job. / Drew McKenzie, Sportspress Northwest

For those who lament the departure of Steve (“Washington is my dream job”) Sarkisian to conference rival USC as evidence of the increasingly depraved state of college sports, it is worth recalling that the Huskies benefited from a similar naked grab for cash.

But it was men’s basketball. The Huskies won big, and the Cougars lost big. The coach was Marv Harshman. The year was 1972. The point is that the stakes may be higher, but little has changed in college sports. Or in life.

Despite the howls in Pullman over his departure, Harshman became one of the state’s most revered, respected sports figures, yet Sarkisian is seen by some as a carpetbagging prevaricator. But they both executed the same maneuver — in an industry that places no value on loyalty, they lit out for the better deal while they had leverage.

Dismaying as it was to some fans and players, Sarkisian did what I and others forecasted after his first press conference five years ago: If successful at Washington, he would return to his hometown and the more prestigious program at his first opportunity. A few more completions by Washington State’s Connor Halliday in the Apple Cup, and the opportunity may not have been there — unless, of course, UW athletics director Scott Woodward made him a free agent by firing him, as a minority of fans fervently wished.

It’s worth keeping in mind the conditions under which Sarkisian was given the job: Woodward couldn’t find a plausible Division I head coach to take the fetid mess. Huskies fans will never forget the 0-12 season under Tyrone Willingham, but they often fail to connect the dots to years of scandal, probation, controversy, mistakes and mismanagement that contributed mightily to the 2004 hiring of Willingham, whose reputation as a law-abider trumped everything else in his faded skill-set.

From the university presidency through misbegotten coaches down to miscreant players, the Huskies sports programs generally were an unhealing canker sore, complete with a decrepit stadium with no clear future.

Woodward filled the football job with a 34-year-old who had never been a head coach at any level, and had only seven years as a Division IĀ assistant.

Then and now, it was a reach. Then and now, it was a transition hire.

Woodward knew what success would look like: If the gamble worked and the Huskies became respectable and competitive, with a few bowl trips to pacify the party hounds among the donors, Sark, at his first opportunity, would take his buffed resume to USC.

The week that the Huskies went to 4-0 and 15th in the polls was the same time his Trojans counterpart, Pat Haden, fired coach Lane Kiffin. Woodward is way too savvy not to have started building his short list that day.

Much remained unknowable — the Huskies’ subsequent failure to beat the Pac-12’s elites, the openings in other programs, the lust of other coaches seeking a much more attractive UW job than five years ago — but the permutations were not so many that he couldn’t imagine Sarkisian on the phone to his agent and USC boosters to make clear his potential interest.

By the time he took hold of the Apple Cup Friday night at Husky Stadium, Sarkisian and some of his assistants knew the real game was on. In less than 48 hours, they knew he had his real dream job.

Understanding the Sarkisian saga is useful in informing the process of selecting his successor. A return to a younger coach, or assistant coach, would mean a return to the training wheels Sarkisian bore throughout his tenure. For anyone who remembers the third-down direct snap to Bishop Sankey that the UCLA defense crushed, you will see training wheels the size of Portugal.

The pursuit will be for a veteran coach, probably one who is secure and considered a fixture. Woodward will have in his argument the strength, stability and vast wealth of the Pac-12 Conference, the dynamism of a big city on the edge of world-class status, a premium stadium and years of distance between the corruptions and ditherings of the past.

And probably a $4 million or so annual income. Although that may be a little light.

Woodward will need to disrupt a strong program with big buyout money for the coach’s contract, and predictable wails will be heard from an aggrieved constituency. It will be a cutthroat maneuver, but that is hardly a big deal — even former AD Barbara Hedges had the guts to stealth-poach Rick Neuheisel from Colorado. And two years later, the Huskies were back in the Rose Bowl, where they haven’t been since.

Most of the big boys and girls who formed the private portion of the stadium renovation will be all in behind Woodward. They will tell him this is not another transition hire, and will insist that Washington not be a steppingstone.

But truth be told, almost every college coaching job is. Think about it: USC (Pete Carroll), Oregon (Chip Kelly) and Stanford (Jim Harbaugh) recently were steppingstones. But Washington now has most everything it didn’t have when Sarkisian was hired.

Especially money. Practice your sticker-shock face.


  • Mort McSnerd

    So, when Sark lifts USC to the level of “Above Average,” like he did here, will they fire him and he’ll bolt to, say, Oregon State?

    • Nicholas Rose

      Nah, the Beavs already have a legit Pac-12 coach in Riley. That would be a step backward, LOL!

      • oldfan

        So… do we canonize Riley for his loyalty and love of small town life, forgive his bolt to the NFL, or label his return to OSU a “step backward?”
        (FWIW: I really like Riley as a coach and think he’s a good fit there.)

        • art thiel

          If Riley moves, it will be back to the NFL.

    • art thiel

      He’ll succeed Carroll with the Seahawks (kidding; don’t want our servers to blow).

  • Matt

    Sark was just above average. Liked his work ethic and “CEO” abilities, but his teams couldn’t get it together enough on the road. Hope to get someone with same work ethic and leadership qualities but with more snarl and nasty to him, and someone who actually recruits Washington would be a bonus too. I appreciate the CA kids but think more WA kids would add a deeper pride to the program.

    • art thiel

      ASJ and Sankey I believe were state players. And the talent pools of the two states make almost mandatory that the majority of kids come from Cal. Pure demographics.

      • Matt

        True, but counted up roster and 33 from WA, 52 from CA, and 11 of those 33 from WA I believe are local walk-on’s running the scout team. Curious what disparity was in Coach James’ time. Gotta think we can put more than 22 quality in-state players (over 5 yrs time) on the UDUB roster. Like UDUB hoops when locals Roy, Robinson, Conroy, Watson, Jenson, etc were on the roster, they fought and clawed with a good ‘ol nasty Seattle chip on their shoulder. Has a little more meaning to it if you grow up a Dawg fan, and local fans love to follow a local kid as well, IMO.

        • Matt

          Okay Art, just nerded it out and found the following: According in 1991 31 players were from WA, 32 from CA, and 17 from other states. Current roster is 33 WA, 52 CA, 17 other. 39% WA in Coach James’ time, 33% WA now.

  • Will

    “the dynamism of a big city on the edge of world-class status” … that’s a rather provincial assumption … assuming you’re referring to Seattle, where some downtown parking lots close at 10pm.

    And Sark didn’t just leave, he bolted for Southern California! … NorCal’s evil twin … that’s Babylon, Sin City, Tinseltown, Smogville. No doubt Sark will be seen wearing high fashion stunnas in Dodgertown, double ick.

    • dinglenuts

      True enough. However, compared to most big-college outposts (Pullman, Eugene, Corvallis, Tempe, pretty much any of the schools in the Big 10 or SEC), Seattle is downright cosmopolitan. World-class? Not on a global basis, but certainly in the context of big-time college football.

    • art thiel

      I said on the edge, not “is.” This city is changing fast and dramatically, to the lamentations of some, but there’s so much tech activity that economic activity is the among the best in the country. I would guess that’s an asset.

      And since Sark grew up in LA, I doubt any of your characterizations will surprise him.

  • jafabian

    Every coaching job IS a stepping stone. I’ve always been surprised at how Husky Nation was so insulted that Rick Neuheisel dared to interview for the 49ers. He was young enough and successful enough so quickly that had to be expected. They’d have to be naive not to have seen that coming. Even Don James flirted briefly with the Seahawks before they hired Chuck Knox.

    If UW truly wants a coach who doesn’t have aspirations to go to the NFL and minimal (lets be realistic here, no such as none) aspirations to go to a bigger program then a coach over 50 should be looked at. Possibly one who’s already achieved the big time and maybe got burned for it. I’ve said it before that Jim Tressel would fit that but I don’t see Woodward even approaching him. They won’t admit it but I don’t think UW believes in second chances with him. But if they did he would be for UW what Leach is for WSU.

    If UW goes for a young coach again (40 and younger) they run the risk of a Sarkian departure all over again. Maybe that’s a non-issue with them or they believe they can tack on a big buyout clause onto a contract that would scare off any school.

    • NixBeeman

      They weren’t insulted that Slick Rick interviewed for the job. They were insulted that he blatantly lied about it. Big difference.

      • jafabian

        IIRC, he lied to the media but hinted at it with Barbara Hedges. I suppose that’s what Sark did but really, what ever happened to the days of “no comment?”

        • art thiel

          Sark should have never done the interview with KJR. Could have said he was recruiting, which he was. Just not for Washington.

      • Fleur

        Mr. Beeman is absolutely correct. Neuheisel. He flat out lied just as Sarkisian did on Monday about interviewing with Pat Haden and other SC staff members in Seattle on Sunday. Then he came out and said his bald faced lie was a misunerstanding of his commets. Apparently his parents nor his education at BYU talk him the difference between a “misunderstanding” and a bald faced lie!

        • Fleur

          Sorry about the typos. Several key fingers are bandaged. I meant “teach” not talk.

          • art thiel

            More precisely, Sark prevaricated. Neuheisel lied — for three days, on university letterhead.

      • art thiel

        All coaches typically have to lie at the critical moment of offer. It’s built into the system while straddling. Neuheisel told a full lie, Sark a half-lie. Are points awarded for that?

    • RadioGuy

      I’m beginning to think you may be on to something with Tressel, although the UW is less likely to take on a redemption project the way WSU did with Leach (frankly, I think what cost Tressel his job at Ohio State is small beans compared to some scandals that have busted out elsewhere since).

      Otherwise, Ed Oregeron showed a lot of people something with what he did in a short time at USC and it might be worth keeping an eye on Duke’s David Cutcliffe. I wouldn’t write Chris Petersen off, either, although he’d have to think twice about trying to raise a family in Seattle.

      • art thiel

        Orgeron got a happy bounce from not being Kiffin. He’s not head coaching material. Tressel is damaged goods. As far as Peterson, the Medina waterfront is not Seattle, and especially not Boise.

    • art thiel

      Every fan base, like every recruit, wants to believe the pabulum from coaches who talk about family, community, loyalty, history, tradition. It’s all crap. They are mercenaries, but aren’t allowed to tell the truth because it would kill recruiting.

  • Effzee

    Can you imagine being Woodward right now? He can have Nussmeier, Petersen, maybe Pinkel (remember Sark said he was staying at UW in the days leading up to the Apple Cup, just as Pinkel did this morning), and who knows who else? Babs pulled the super-double-secret whammy hire in Neuweasel, and Dan Quinn said on KJR that UW approached even him about the vacancy. This is such a huge hire. I mean…. I don’t know how in the hell to pick one guy from the field of reportedly interested candidates. I guess that’s why Woodward gets the big bucks. He obviously found the best (and only?) guy to take over for Losingham. Now its almost as if he gets his pick of the litter. My guy is still Nussmeier, because of the familiarity with the current roster and the success under DJ-disciple Saban. But who knows, maybe I’m not even thinking big enough here….

    • art thiel

      I think Woodward will wait until after the final games Saturday and make a play for someone not named Peterson or Nussmeier. If Woodward is turned down, he has those two for fallback.

  • wes

    Nobody seems to be talking about Gary Patterson at TCU…

  • huskygrad96

    Let’s see how Marques Tuiasosopo does as interim head coach. Is a permanent head coaching job a big step for him? Maybe. He’s been around Sark and seen how to run the program. He coached with and played for Rick Neuheisel. Both coaches think highly of him and his potential. Can he handle a head coaching job? Anyone want to bet against him? He was a leader for the UW when he was a player. Once a leader, always a leader. As a coach, he is well liked and respected by the team. Demanding. Smart. Focused. Passionate about the UW program. A good recruiter. A NW native from a football family. Crazy? Not so sure.

    • art thiel

      So much about head coaching is organizational management and delegation, which isn’t a mystery but needs to be experienced. He’s never run a program at any level, and it was a weakness in Sarkisian. Someday, maybe, but not this program now.

  • ll9956

    Although he doesn’t pass the “over 50” criterion, my pick for UW is still Justin Wilcox, if he can resist the courtship of Sark. His long term career prospects would be enhanced if he had some head coaching experience under his belt rather than a repeat gig as DC at USC.

    • art thiel

      Previous head coaching experience should be a mandatory minimum for this hire. Minimize the learning curve.