But it’s difficult to say which first-year coach — Washington’s Steve Sarkisian or Oregon’s Chip Kelly — has the tougher job.
Sarkisian took over an 0-12 Huskies program that had nowhere to go but up, and when his team barely lost its season opener to LSU, he got swarmed with congratulatory pats on the back.
Kelly took over a surging Oregon program and felt an entirely different reaction when his Ducks lost their season opener to Boise State. The swift kicks to the backside were meant to run him out of Eugene.
Seven weeks later, both coaches appear to have their respective programs headed in the right direction as they prepare to square off at Husky Stadium this Saturday afternoon.
“He’s done a heck of a job up there,” Kelly said of Sarkisian.
The Huskies’ coach had similar praise for his counterpart.
“It’s a real tribute to Chip and what he was able to do to keep that team focused,” Sarkisian said.
While Sarkisian came to the UW program with a leash about as long as I-5, Kelly had such an unforgivable start to his tenure that it looked like he might not even make it to this point of the season.
The former offensive coordinator showed little offense in a 19-8 loss to Boise State on Sept. 3, and the moments that followed the final whistle were even more alarming. When star running back LaGarrette Blount was caught on camera punching out an opponent in the postgame scrum, the U of O program appeared to be out of control.
But while the fans began swimming around his flesh, Kelly calmly suspended Blount, rolled up his sleeves and went back to work. His Ducks have won five games in a row since that fiasco.
“It’s actions and not words,” Kelly said this week when asked what the mood was like after the loss to Boise State. “Our guys went back to work after that Boise game and have been working hard ever since.”
Kelly, a former Ducks assistant, knew what he was getting into when he took over for Mike Bellotti in March.
“(The Ducks) were ranked No. 9 in the country when the season started, so expectations were pretty high,” he said. “This is one of the haves in college football. We’re trying to work our way to compete with the Floridas and the Oklahomas and the USCs of the world.”
With five consecutive wins, and a 3-0 mark atop the Pac-10, the Ducks have made their unceremonious start all but forgotten in Eugene.
And the same can be said for the Tyrone Willingham era in Seattle now that there’s a new sheriff in town.
Sarkisian has won over the masses despite a roster that is made up mostly of the same guys that couldn’t buy a single win in 2008. He snapped the Huskies out of their 15-game funk, provided one of the biggest upsets in school history with a win over USC, and still has the UW clinging to the thread of hope that is the bowl season.
“We’ve come a long way from a mental standpoint,” Sarkisian said. “We’re a mentally-tough football team. I’m very proud of where this team is halfway through the season.”
Unlike Kelly, who has spent two years learning about the Oregon-Washington rivalry as an assistant coach, Sarkisian has mostly had to learn about the interstate hatred through word of mouth.
“I was well-informed once I took the job, and then I did a little research, and I’m starting to get an understanding,” Sarkisian said earlier this week. “It’s one of a couple rivalries that we have here that people are very intense about — no question.”
On Saturday, while facing a fellow first-year coach, Sarkisian will get his first taste of what it means to be a Husky facing a Duck.
But to him, the game means much more than that.
“This game means a lot in our conference this year,” said Sarkisian, whose Huskies are 2-2 in the Pac-10 and 3-4 overall. “Oregon sits atop the conference, and we’re trying to get back in the race.”
At least this year, that’s not just hollow talk. A win Saturday might bring the Ducks back to the Pac-10 pack, leaving the Huskies within striking distance and able to entertain Rose-colored dreams for another week.
Starting defensive tackle Cameron Elisara (neck stinger) sat out another practice, and Sarkisian said he does not expect the junior to play against Oregon on Saturday. Everette Thompson is likely to start in his place. … Running back Curtis Shaw returned to practice Wednesday after missing Tuesday’s session because of illness. Wide receiver Anthony Boyles is still sidelined by illness. … Safety Victor Aiyewa is nursing a shoulder injury, defensive coordinator Nick Holt said. Aiyewa suffered the injury against Arizona State on Saturday and had an MRI. That will clear the way for freshman Nate Fellner to move back into the starting lineup this week, Holt said. … Receiver Jordan Polk had surgery on his knee last week and should be back for the UCLA game, Sarkisian said.
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