By Todd Dybas The News Tribune
SEATTLE — There’s plenty that should deter this groan and shift from Steve Sarkisian.
The bursting sun outside. The fact that he drives a 27-foot 262 Cobalt boldly named “Noah Sark” to work three times a week. The supple brown leather couch he’s sitting on in his spacious office.
He’s the state’s highest-paid employee at its preeminent school. He has three healthy kids stepping through the beginning of their education. His youngest is off to kindergarten this year.
Yet, Sarkisian, leaning forward for most of an interview with the News Tribune, is spurred by exasperation to change his weight from right to left.
“God. … It kills me … It still kills me,” he says.
Three games. The 2011 Alamo Bowl. And, more intensely, the final two games of last season gnaw at the fifth-year coach’s guts.
Those three losses have dispelled belief of progress. The Huskies were 7-6 last season, just like they were the prior two years under Sarkisian. He went to the defibrillator to go 5-7 in his first season after inheriting an 0-12 debacle.
Those three losses leave him just a game over .500 in his four years at Washington after delivering proclamations upon his arrival that the revival won’t take long.
It’s those three consecutive 7-6 seasons that have turned Sarkisian’s coaching seat from comfortable to warming. A clear line of ascension would have been established if those three games — all of which Washington led late — had flipped: 7-6, 8-5, 9-4.
Instead, Sarkisian, 39 — hired in a process so secretive his friends and family figured he was just putting in extra time at USC when he was absent from Thanksgiving, though he was really in Seattle — has the three matching seasons. He also has increasing demand that this year, weighted with a harrowing road schedule, shows further progress.
“None of us came here to be 7-6,” Sarkisian said. “We came here to win championships. That’s why I took this job. To come out of the year feeling like it was a success (at 7-6) and go to another bowl game, I think that point’s over, you know? We’re over that. We’re here to win championships.”
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Sarkisian’s lower jaw takes the lead when he bursts into football speak. Talking about the “chip on the shoulder” of his guys, the “different look in their eye,” puts him into a wound-up mode where the words start to come faster — he seems to drag in breath as an afterthought — the bottom row of his teeth flash and most nouns are prefaced by “football.” Football team, football game, football, football, football.
Trying to head a resurrection following 2008’s 0-12 vault into the abyss, has forced Sarkisian to rebuild the back-end of the Washington roster.
When he came to Washington there was high-end talent. Mason Foster, Chris Polk, Donald Butler, Devin Aguilar, Jake Locker, Jermaine Kearse. All went to the NFL. The supplemental players were the issue.
“I think the most difficult fix for us has been putting our roster in place to where we have the depth across the board to withstand injuries,” Sarkisian said. “I think that’s been the hardest part. To develop depth to where the discrepancy between the 1s and the 2s isn’t so distinct.
“It’s not, hey, here’s Mason Foster, then the next guy in is a true freshman and weighs 205 pounds playing linebacker for us.”
This year, there is heft in the junior and sophomore classes, which combine for 43 players, 31 of which have redshirted.
“We have a team built on depth that if a guy goes down, the next man up might be more physically talented, just does not quite have the experience yet,” Sarkisian said.
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Sarkisian first worked with Nick Holt in 2001 at USC. He fired him from the position of Washington defensive coordinator in 2011, two days after the Huskies’ defense made Swiss cheese look solid with its Alamo Bowl performance against Baylor.
The dismissal was warranted. That Huskies team gave up the most points in school history. The fact that Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III was running the shredder in El Paso, Texas, was neither here nor there. It was a season-long problem. Change had to come. It hurt.
“That one was obviously extremely difficult for me,” Sarkisian said. “You come in as a staff, you’re trying to put the best staff together and there’s obviously so much excitement and enthusiasm of bringing the staff together and when it just didn’t work out the way we all wanted it to work out, that one was really difficult for me, in that, you know, you get so close.
“We spend how many hours a day together? You talk about things and when they’re good people and good families and that stuff is really hard. Again, I go back to put on the hat of University of Washington head football coach, that was the right decision in my opinion to make at that time for our program to move forward.”
It worked. The Washington defense rose to 31st in total defense under new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox. The difference between Wilcox and Holt is dramatic on all fronts. Holt hot-stepped around, as a gold chain bounced off his chest below his gravely voice, goatee and shaved head. Wilcox is just north of disheveled most of the time. He’s casual, but has bite when necessary. The upshot of the offseason for him is he has more time to watch film, feeding his preparation addiction.
“Last year was great,” Sarkisian said. “Justin and the guys did a good job, hopefully we can continue to build.”
Players’ failures are also an internal blow for Sarkisian. When he was the offensive coordinator at USC, that was head coach Pete Carroll’s problem. Off-field trouble led to answers from Carroll. On-field errors did the same. Now, Sarkisian is sought after transgressions like tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins’ DUI arrest or star wide receiver Kasen Williams being pulled over after drinking. Sarkisian has to answer for missed kicks, bewildering throws and dropped passes. He sees the missteps contorting the faces of his players. It troubles him.
“Because it has a sense of failure in me, right?” Sarkisian said. “Because those are my guys. That’s my job is to have those guys perform, no matter what arena they’re in, no matter what circumstances they’re in. And, so when they fail and when there is that criticism of them for that failure, I take it much more personally now than I ever did before when I was an assistant coach.”
Sarkisian is aware that the University of Washington football brand is the brand of Steve Sarkisian. He has direct involvement in messaging and even editorial influence on the school’s Website that covers athletics, GoHuskies.com. He signs off on everything from the language in recruiting letters to high school freshmen to public explanations that the school is aware a player just screwed up. The school has revamped its media relations department and much of its approach since Sarkisian arrived. That change that has also coincided with the hiring of Athletic Director Scott Woodward a year before Sarkisian.
“I think at the end of the day, if something gets messaged a certain way, whether I like it or not, the perception is that it came from me,” Sarkisian said. “So, it might as well come from me. If I don’t have a great feel for what I want that messaging to be, I am going to lean on the people we have in our organization that I can count on and I trust their opinion to help me through the process of it.
“But, the end result, whether the message was from me or not, when there is something that comes from the University of Washington football program, my face is on it and I want to make sure that messaging is something that I can relate to and is something that represents me well in how we do it.”
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It was former quarterbacks coach Doug Nussmeier who taught Sarkisian boating basics. That first year, Nussmeier would take the Sarkisians out on the lake. The following year, Sarkisian acquired his vessel.
The maiden voyage with Nussmeier was not long after the band played and cheerleaders kicked as Sarkisian took a podium for the first time as Washington’s head coach. Today, Sarkisian is the second-longest tenured head coach in the Pac-12. He’s also the highest-paid head coach in the conference, based on schools that have to make salary information public. USC is not one of those schools, and most contend that Trojans head coach Lane Kiffin earns more. Sarkisian says with a smile he finds his prominence in tenure and money, “unbelievable.”
His son is going into third grade and will start tackle football this year. Being able to drive the boat to work or make a quick trip out of Montlake to home — it’s about eight minutes, traffic pending — allows Sarkisian to be at some practices.
“Seattle has been very good to us,” Sarkisian said. “My wife and I talk about it all the time. This community has been awesome. I don’t know if I want to call it a change of pace, but it’s definitely a different lifestyle than living in LA. I think it’s been good for us as a family.
“I’m grateful to Seattle for that.”
This year, the city waits on him and the group he often refers to as his “105 sons.” The rippling mantra is seven wins is not acceptable. Subsequently, he’s expected to head the change before change comes for him. Never has seven been deemed so unfavorable.