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Steve Sarkisian takes the long view in Washington

Former USC assistant coach, now in charge in Seattle, knows turning around the Huskies program won't happen overnight. He celebrates the small victories while getting ready to face his former team.

September 15, 2009|David Wharton

SEATTLE — An early-morning sun hits Lake Washington just right -- silvery, glittering -- as Steve Sarkisian guides his Mercedes onto a long bridge that stretches west.

The moment could not be more perfect, not with a large iced coffee in the cup holder at his side and boats dotting the water as if placed there by an artist's hand. He points to a spot a mile or so ahead.

The University of Washington's iconic football stadium comes into view at the far side of the lake, as if rising from the depths, its cantilevered steel roof catching the first light of day.

"Check that out," Sarkisian said. "Beautiful."

It's funny, because you'd think the new Huskies coach might be too busy to notice the scenery.

Sarkisian left the comfortable, established, winning environs of USC, where he grew up as a young assistant, to assume command of a badly listing program that sank to 0-12 last season. He attacked the job with the same fire that marked his days as an undersized, overachieving quarterback at Brigham Young, the same optimism that saw him shoot up the coaching ranks.

And, so far, the results have been promising -- a close loss to ninth-ranked Louisiana State followed by a victory over Idaho that finally, mercifully, ended the nation's longest losing streak.

But the road ahead could be bumpy for a team picked to finish near the bottom of the Pacific 10 Conference. On Saturday, Washington is a heavy underdog against the third-ranked Trojans.

"It's not a sprint," Sarkisian keeps telling his players. "It's a marathon."

And that's where his 6:30 a.m. commute comes in.

The right choice

From the start, working his way up the USC staff from graduate assistant to quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator, Sarkisian was pointed toward having his own team.

His keen grasp of Xs and O's was only part of the package. When he and Lane Kiffin took over the Trojans' offense after Norm Chow left for the NFL -- fans dubbed them "Sarkiffian" -- it was Sarkisian whose casual, upbeat manner meshed so naturally with players.

Mark Sanchez, now with the New York Jets, recalls the "in-between moments" they spent in Sarkisian's office before meetings and on the sideline after offensive possessions.

"He's a phenomenal coach and an even better friend," Sanchez said.

The Oakland Raiders offered him the head coaching job two years ago -- he was an assistant there in 2004 -- but Sarkisian turned them down, leaving it open for Kiffin to take.

Washington was clearly a better fit. Though it lacked NFL glitz, it also lacked Al Davis peering down from the owner's box.

"You get to do it your way," Sarkisian said. "You don't feel like it's partly your way and partly you're getting told what to do."

At his introductory news conference, he used the phrase "no question" nine times, as in: There was no question he could turn the Huskies around. He was equally confident addressing the team.

"Coach Sark has this winning vibe about him," cornerback Quinton Richardson said. "That first meeting he told us, 'We're a bus and it's going to start rolling. Anyone who isn't along for the ride, you'd better get off now.' "

But the players were beaten down, mentally and physically, from losing. Shortly after arriving here, Sarkisian watched them slog through the snow during an off-season run.

"Our guys were out of shape," he recalls. "We could see that we had a lot of work to do."

Day by day

Twenty-one hundred miles to the southeast, Kiffin had taken over at Tennessee and hurriedly assembled a top-10 recruiting class. There was no quick fix at Washington.

There were, however, minor NCAA violations for allowing a reporter and a high school junior to attend a recruiting meeting and using a fog machine as recruits entered the stadium.

Alarm bells sounded among fans still sensitive about UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel's previous, controversial tenure as Washington's coach. Sarkisian attributed his mistakes to inexperience.

"That was my first taste of 'people are watching,' " he said. "It was actually good for us to know that, hey, we've got to do things the right way and there are no shortcuts."

The early stumbles did not dampen his enthusiasm. If the Huskies faced a long haul back to respectability, he was determined to have fun along the way.

The first step? Forget about their 12-47 record over the last five seasons and the debacle of a winless season last fall.

"I don't talk about it," Sarkisian said. "I don't let the staff talk about it."

Players noticed a change in the spring, with fast and hard-hitting practices. Fans were invited to watch as U2 and AC/DC pumped from loudspeakers.

"There's a lot of excitement," quarterback Jake Locker said. "It's everything we were hoping it would be."

Locker's return from a serious thumb injury provided reason for optimism -- he poses a threat running and passing -- but Washington needed more.

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