SEATTLE — During his first press conference after being named head coach of the University of Minnesota football team in 1984, a 47-year-old up-and-comer named Lou Holtz made a promise to the state.
“The body and soul of this football team will be from Minnesota,” Holtz vowed. “Of course, the arms and legs will come from somewhere else.”
New University of Washington football coach Steve Sarkisian has made no such promises, but his background and recent actions can be interpreted as Holtz-esque tendencies.
His first recruiting class included 18 players, and only two of them were from the state of Washington. While eight of the 16 verbal commitments for the Class of 2010 are from this state, most of the top prospects from that group are from California and Oregon. Sarkisian’s best ties are in Southern California, which is considered one of the prime hotbeds of prep talent in the nation.
If the Huskies are going to get back on the national map, it’s likely that they’ll do so with national recruits.
But an ever-dwindling group of current Huskies who grew up in driving distance of the UW campus are doing everything they can to bring their hometown team back to prominence.
“For all the local guys, we want to represent as the top school in our state,” said junior safety Nate Williams, a graduate of Seattle’s Kennedy High School. “We want to work harder to get us back to where this program was in the ’90s. To be from this state just makes us play with more pride.”
The Huskies’ projected, 22-man starting lineup includes 13 players from the state and 10 from the Seattle area. That number is likely to dwindle over time, should the Sarkisian era prove to be successful, and so some of the local Huskies are feeling the pressure to represent their hometown and bring back some glory days.
“We grew up in Washington, watching these guys over the years,” said sophomore defensive tackle Alameda Ta’amu, who went to Seattle’s Rainier Beach High School. “The Huskies were the powerhouse team, with (quarterback Marques) Tuiasosopo and all them. We want to get back on that map and get back to winning national championships.”
Tight end Kavario Middleton, a Lakes High School product who was ranked the 57th-best prospect in the Class of 2008 by Rivals.com, said it was “shameful” for the local players to go through a winless season in 2008. Middleton added that they’re more determined than anyone to turn things around.
“When it’s your hometown,” he said, “you take a little more pride in it.”
Some of the school’s best-ever players have come from the state — from Everett’s George Wilson in the 1920s, to Cheney’s Steve Emtman, to Seattle’s Corey Dillon, to Tacoma’s Lawyer Milloy, to Woodinville’s Marques Tuiasosopo. It’s been a pipeline of success, but the recent years have shown a few leaks.
Top-line recruits from this state have often chosen other schools (Timberline’s Jonathan Stewart, to Oregon; O’Dea’s Taylor Mays, USC; Bellevue’s Stephen Schilling, Michigan; and Skyline’s Jake Heaps, BYU) or other sports (committed quarterbacks Grady Sizemore and Matt Tuiasosopo opted to play professional baseball).
And some of those top in-state players who committed to UW, like Jackson’s Craig Chambers and Ferndale’s Jake Locker, have not lived up to expectations, serving as proof that the state’s talent might not be what it once was.
Further proof comes in recruiting Web sites like Rivals.com, which has included only two players from Washington — Middleton from the 2008 class and Heaps from 2010 — among its past four annual top-100 lists. By comparison, the previous three years included eight in-state players on the list.
Locker, who was part of a talented national recruiting class of quarterbacks that also included Georgia’s Matt Stafford and Florida’s Tim Tebow, said he feels no more pressure to turn things around than, say, a Husky who might be from Portland.
“Everybody came here to play college football, and we all have the same goal: to win football games,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where you’re from, where you grew up, whether you have two brothers and sisters or eight. It doesn’t matter. We’re all part of this team now, and we all have a common goal.”
Linebacker Trenton Tuiasosopo, a sixth-year senior from Mariner High School, said that the Huskies will turn things around, regardless of where they find their recruits.
“It doesn’t matter how much talent we have here or elsewhere,” he said. “It’s just about how much we want it.
“… We’ll get some wins and then, in return — because everything’s related — we’ll get some recruits. I feel like what (the coaches) have been doing, they’ve been doing it really well. And the recruits will come.”
If the early returns are any indication, Sarkisian’s staff has shown that it can recruit. Wide receiver James Johnson, a true freshman from Valley Center, Calif., has been one of the stars of the current camp. Sarkisian lured Orange County quarterback Nick Montana, the son of Joe Montana, away from schools like Alabama, Notre Dame and Ohio State. Just last week, UW pulled in a trio of Southern California-based recruits that impressed ESPN analysts enough to inspire a short write-up.
If Seattle-area players are going to lead the Huskies into prominence, their window of opportunity might be closing.
“I remember watching the Rose Bowl, so I’ve seen the best and the worst,” said cornerback Justin Glenn, a redshirt freshman from Mukilteo. “I definitely feel like we have a responsibility to get this back where we belong.”