Sarkisian, Huskies ready for next step

SEATTLE — A couple of weeks into his tenure as Washington’s head football coach, Steve Sarkisian sat in his new office and told a story from his childhood that helped shape the coach he would become.

As the youngest of seven children, Sarkisian was on the wrong end of more than a few scuffles growing up, and early on, he would go crying to his mother when his big brothers and their friends gave him a hard time. Rather than get in the middle of things, Sally Sarkisian told her youngest child that he could either stay inside with his mom and cry, or go back out and stand up for himself.

“I learned right then that it wasn’t always about physical toughness, it was about mental toughness and dealing with some adversity if you want to do the things you wanted to do,” Sarkisian said in December of 2008. “I just wiped away the tears and got back out there. And from that moment on, I always told myself, ‘I’m not going back inside, I’m going to stay out here, I’m going to fight and battle and compete and do whatever it takes.’”

It may not have been intentional, but Sarkisian seemed to be laying out the perfect metaphor for a coach taking over a program fresh off an 0-12 season. He knew the Huskies would take their lumps early on, but he believed they would someday be better for it.

Fast forward a few years, and Sarkisian is heading into his fourth season at Washington, the preparation for which begins this week with spring football. As expected, there were some tough times. Unquestionably the good — back-to-back bowl games, dramatic wins over USC, three straight Apple Cup victories — has far outweighed the bad since Sarkisian has taken over, but it hasn’t been all smooth sailing either. There have been prolonged skids, blowout losses, especially to Oregon and Stanford, and enough inconsistent play that showed two things — how far Sarkisian had brought the Huskies from their 2008 depths, and also how much room they had to improve.

Back in that 2008 interview, Sarkisian made one thing clear: mediocrity won’t cut it. He understood fixing the Huskies wouldn’t be easy, but Sarkisian also knew that seasons like these last two, while amazing accomplishments considering where the program was, aren’t the long-term goal for Washington.

“We’re striving for greatness here, because that’s what this place was built on,” he said. “We won’t settle.”

Which brings us back to this week, and the start of Sarkisian’s fourth spring in charge of the Huskies. For the past two seasons, mediocrity, or something marginally better, represented a major step forward for the Huskies, but beginning with the next four weeks of practice, now is the time for Washington to move closer to Sarkisian’s ultimate goal of greatness.

The cleanup is done. The roster is made up almost entirely of Sarkisian’s recruits now, and no one doubts that Washington can compete and is a program on the rise.

After two straight winning seasons, simply earning a bowl berth will no longer cut it for Husky fans. Given the depths from which this program has come, appearances in the Holiday Bowl and Alamo Bowl the past two years were big accomplishments, but now starting with spring ball this week, the Huskies need to be building towards something more. They need to be a team that no longer takes drubbings from their “big brothers,” and instead be a team that competes for conference titles.

“There’s excitement in the air, sure,” Sarkisian said Friday. “I’m pumped about it. I think that this team has had a great offseason. There’s a little bit, still, of a bad taste in their mouth from the bowl game, which is not a bad thing. What they had to work on to get right, to get better. There’s a lot to prove on people’s minds right now in our building, as far as coaches, coaches to coaches, coaches to me, me to our players, our players to each other. There’s a lot of ‘I want to go out and show who we are and what we’re about.’ That’s a great feeling to have.”

Sarkisian is excited not just because he’s a coach eager to get to work, but because he knows he has the makings of a very good team, particularly on offense. Like any college program, the Huskies have big holes to fill, but they also have an elite quarterback in Keith Price, a stud tight end in Austin Seferian-Jenkins, and a rising star at receiver in Kasen Williams.

“This team is probably athletically, one of, if not our most athletic team at a lot of our skill positions,” Sarkisian said. “Now we have to get the discipline to go from being just an athlete to become a really detailed football player, a physical football player and a physical football team.”

There are more questions on defense than offense — no surprise considering that Sarkisian overhauled his defensive coaching staff in the offseason — but Sarkisian is confident new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox can help turn the defense around quickly. Sarkisian also pointed to the taller, athletic pass rushers his staff recruited in recent years as a reason for optimism on that side of the ball. And with what should be an explosive offense, even a mediocre defense would be enough for the Huskies to win a lot of games in 2012.

The Huskies have matured under Sarkisian, and like he did as a kid, they’ve taken their lumps. This year, Washington should be ready to hand out a lot more beatings that they receive.

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

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