September 18, 2009

SI - Steve Sarkisian Infusing Energy and Hope

He stumbled a bit, which was understandable. This was unfamiliar territory,
and no one was exactly sure how to proceed.

"It all felt new, I guess," Paul Homer remembered. "But we loved it."

It didn't matter to the Huskies senior fullback or his teammates
or anyone else that they forgot some of the words to the fight song,
Bow Down to Washington. Or that they dumped a water cooler on their
coach after beating, uh, Idaho.

Last Saturday's postgame scene was less surreal than the week before,
when the Huskies walked off the field after losing to LSU, tying a
Pac-10 record with their 15th straight loss -- and were congratulated
by everyone they encountered for days afterward.

Yeah, the Washington Huskies have been "starving to win," as new coach
Steve Sarkisian put it. And athletic director Scott Woodward.
And president Mark Emmert. And just about anyone else trying to
describe the good vibes emanating from the program that has long been
asleep in Seattle.

If it all seems a bit much in light of a 1-1 start and a game with
Pac-10 power USC this season, you haven't been paying attention.
Washington went oh-for-2008, the biggest insult coming when the
Huskies couldn't even beat rival Washington State, losing to the
Cougars in the Apple Cup after an improbable late touchdown.
Considering how bad Wazzu was, well ...
MANDEL: USC ripe for upset against Washington

Bow down to Washington? More like Beatdowns for Washington.
Going winless was the final humiliation for a program that began the
decade among the nation's elite and owns 15 Pac-10 titles, but heading
into this season had gone just 12-47 in the previous five years.
The last four seasons, under the dour, inaccessible Tyrone Willingham,
brought discouraging losses, and those losses marred the fan base
with frustration -- or worse, apathy.

"The program was not just losing," Emmert said. "It was almost moribund."

Thus, the handshakes and back-slapping after playing close to LSU,
and the Gatorade-dumping after beating Idaho (a game ball should
go to the scheduler, too).

"They see glimmers of hope," Woodward said.

Heading into the USC game, much buzz surrounds Sarkisian vs. Pete Carroll
-- protégé vs. mentor, and all that goes with it. Add Washington defensive coordinator Nick Holt, who formerly occupied the same role at USC,
and the connections run deep, and the compliments have been flowing
both directions.

It's only Sarkisian's third game as head coach, but local columnists
are already calling it a defining moment. That might be overblowing
things a bit, considering the scenario in which Washington wins involves
some reason for a USC letdown, and maybe a key injury or two
(Ohio State? Matt Barkley's shoulder?). The unspoken goal, though,
isn't really to upset USC, but to play competitively. More measurable

There's an undercurrent of very cautious hope. Beating USC? Maybe not.
But winning five games? Or six? Even going to a bowl? Emmert is
getting feedback that's "extremely positive -- almost worrisomely."
Given the immediate past, that's a big deal.

"There is a pulse," said Kim Grinolds, who runs the fan Web site "After Tyrone, there wasn't."

That's part of this, no doubt. Sarkisian, 35, has infused exuberance.
His sunny confidence -- USC lite -- has been contagious. His decision
to open practices to the public has energized the fans, especially after
four years of closed access. But part of the enthusiasm is because
Anyone But Tyrone has taken over.

Sarkisian -- "Sark," as he's affectionately and nearly universally
known -- wasn't the first choice, though no one will say it. Fans and
others coveted Seahawks coach Jim Mora Jr. Texas Tech's Mike Leach
interviewed, and some figured the shores of Lake Washington would
make an excellent place to dock a pirate ship.

But Woodward and Emmert said hiring Sarkisian was an easy decision
after the interview.

"What was it? It was everything," Woodward said. "He got what the
program was about. He knew what it would take to get back there. ...
He is the antithesis of the past administration."

Sarkisian's arrival in Seattle and Lane Kiffin's in Knoxville
represent interesting experiments: brash, young coaches spreading
Carroll's be-happy gospel to once-proud programs in decline.
But there might not be a bigger reclamation project than Washington
football, considering the depths to which the program had sunk.

The players' collective psyche, according to Sarkisian, was
"battered and bruised, emotionally, mentally, physically." Already,
that no longer seems to be an issue.

"Everybody's pretty excited," Homer said. "There's a lot of energy.
They're getting the best out of everybody."

On that subject, we shouldn't overlook the development of Jake Locker.
The junior quarterback might not be a household name yet, and ESPN
analyst Bob Davie got a little excited during the LSU game when
he suggested that, if Locker were left-handed, wearing blue and
orange and doing the Gator chomp, he'd be Tim Tebow. But the skill
sets aren't dissimilar.

Locker is big, strong and fast. His development suffered a year ago
when he missed most of the season with a broken thumb, but his
potential is tantalizing.

"I don't think there is a better player than Jake Locker that we play,"
Carroll said. "I've seen that since he was a freshman. He's a guy
that really carries the program."

Which brings us back to Sarkisian's job interview.

"The piece I liked most," Emmert said, "is he had a very good sense
of Jake Locker. He didn't gush, but he had a game plan to turn Jake
into a very good quarterback."

In the first two games, the Huskies have run USC's pro sets,
but also plenty of four- and five-receiver sets from the Spread,
the better to utilize Locker's potential as a running threat.
The early returns have been promising; Locker has made good decisions,
and passed well.

There's hope for the future, too. Sarkisian's enthusiasm has infected
high school kids. The commitments are piling up, including one from
quarterback Nick Montana, Joe's son, and Washington has climbed into
the national recruiting rankings.

Yeah, there's reason for optimism -- even though the Huskies clearly have
a long way to go.

Outplaying LSU in a loss and beating Idaho? That's fine. But USC is
something else, entirely. The remainder of the schedule isn't conducive
to a quick turnaround, either.

So while some are talking about going to a bowl game, more cautious fans
remember the Huskies started 4-1 in 2006, but finished 5-7, started 2-0
in 2007, but finished 4-9, started ... well, no one wants to talk
about last year; in fact, there's a semi-official edict in place prohibiting it.

Woodward's expectations for 2009 are simple: "For us to be better, and ...
for every opponent to walk off the field and know they had a competitive

Eventually, it's going to be about winning. But for now the battle is for respectability. In that arena, Sark's Huskies are winning.

"We're only two games into the season," Woodward said. "I don't want to
declare victory yet. But I like what I see."

USC is coming to town, and barring the Trojans' annual letdown,
Washington's winning streak will end at one. Could be, as they've
done to so many other teams so many other times, the Trojans will
puncture the aura. The good vibes will subside, skepticism will reemerge.

More likely, what we'll see late Saturday evening is the most energized
fan base of a 1-2 team, anywhere.

"People are excited about what we can do," Homer said. "We are, too."

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