A literal and figurative rebuilding job is well underway in Seattle.
Steel rubble was strewn everywhere. Wooden seats were shredded into kindling. The artificial playing surface was ripped out of the ground in chunks. This was Husky Stadium just weeks after the 2011 season ended, gutted and subjected to massive renovation. Once stately and sacred, the place was a mess.
This also aptly described the University of Washington football program during the darkest period of its 122-season existence: Specifically, an agonizing seven years through 2009 bereft of postseason games and winning records. Among the low points of the fallout, a near whiff (a 1–10 finish in ’04) and a complete whiff (an 0–12 showing in ’08).
While contractors are now busy reshaping Husky Stadium into something decidedly smart and high tech, aiming for a 2013 unveiling, fourth-year coach Steve Sarkisian has been remodeling everything else. By all accounts, with consecutive winning records (both a modest 7–6) and bowl trips (Holiday, Alamo) as the barometer, the youthful and energetic leader has a Husky resurgence well under way.
“I like him,” former Huskies coach Don James says. “I think he’s a competitor. It’s real solid looking. I think he does a lot of things real well.”
After leaving his USC offensive coordinator post to come to Seattle, Sarkisian gained immediate credibility by beating a third-ranked Trojans team in his first season. In his second season, he enhanced that credibility by upsetting USC and Nebraska, including toppling the Cornhuskers in the Holiday Bowl. Sarkisian has brought life to a program that had been sadly mishandled, and he put fans back in the seats, even if those seats were old and worn.
Yet for every two steps forward for the UW newcomer, there has been a stumble. After it was noted repeatedly how Sarkisian had kept his staff together and consistent for three seasons, he was forced to replace five of his nine assistant coaches this past winter, firing three on his defensive staff following Baylor’s 67-point outburst against the Huskies in the Alamo Bowl. And after signing the state’s top five prospects for his second recruiting class, in effect closing down the borders, Sarkisian landed only one of the five best locally produced players this past February, his home territory duly compromised.
“Steve realizes he has to continue to grow and get better,” UW athletic director Scott Woodward says of the staff turnover.
No one said it was going to be easy. While the legendary James brought the Huskies a co-national championship in 1991, countless pro football-bound players, and 14 bowl games in his 18 seasons, Sarkisian represents the fifth coaching successor in the 19 years to have followed the James era. The other four were fired. Plus, the talent level was extremely worrisome when Sarkisian inherited the Huskies: In the two NFL drafts preceding his arrival in Seattle, no UW players were selected.
Sarkisian, 38, has used his enthusiasm and a UW checkbook flush with Pac-12 TV money to restock the coaching staff, pulling touted defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and linebackers coach Peter Sirmon, both former Oregon players, away from Tennessee; offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau and defensive line coach and ace recruiter Tosh Lupoi from California; and reputable secondary coach Keith Heyward from Oregon State.
“The challenge for myself is to not just incorporate these guys to our staff, but we need to really get this camaraderie, this cohesiveness, and I think we can be there,” Sarkisian says.
Adds Woodward: “It was obvious there needed to be a change. There’s a case to be made for continuity, and (a) case to be made for new blood coming in.”
The UW coach also has used his considerable charm and energy to compile recruiting classes steadily ranked among the top nation’s 25, landing such 5-star players as tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, wide receiver Kasen Williams and safety Shaq Thompson.
“I could have gone anywhere, but I wanted to come make my mark where you could do something special,” says Seferian-Jenkins, who picked the Huskies over Texas and a host of others. “You could go to a lot of places that have won national championships. I wanted to do something different, and that’s build this place from the ground up.”
Usually when a college football program collapses to such epic depths, severe NCAA violations are involved. In this case, the erosion began when the Huskies fired Rick Neuheisel in 2003 for casually betting in an NCAA Tournament basketball pool. The erosion gained serious momentum when offensive coordinator Keith Gilbertson reluctantly replaced Neuheisel and couldn’t hold things together, and it became epidemic with the hiring of Tyrone Willingham, whose old-school demeanor never connected with recruits, fans or media members.
Some righteous alums have pointed out that this disastrous period could have been avoided: Gary Pinkel, the successful Missouri coach and former UW offensive coordinator, was passed over when Neuheisel was hired to replace a fired Jim Lambright. Instead, a coaching carousel resulted, and lopsided losses in front of diminishing crowds became commonplace.
“We were on the cusp of it getting a lot worse,” says Ron Crockett, Emerald Downs horse racing track owner and a leading UW athletic donor. “If this had gone one more year, we would have lost a significant (portion of the) fan base. And the fans don’t come back right away.”
The Huskies have everyone on board now as the recovery process picks up steam. Players and fans are caught up in Sarkisian’s enthusiasm. Alums have supplied the necessary funding to overhaul Husky Stadium. There is a rampant impatience to restore UW football to its past glory — hence the recent mass coaching casualties, which included defensive coordinator Nick Holt, someone whom Sarkisian had brought with him from USC.
As a new Husky Stadium rises from its lakeside location, and the team is temporarily housed in the Seahawks’ CenturyLink Field across town, UW fans have purchased most of the 3,200-plus premium seats seen only on websites and in drawings, up from 550 in the old stadium configuration. Among them are 45 patio suites, which have sold out and drew nearly double the necessary number of people or groups willing to purchase them.
Stadium renovation was debated tediously without resolution for six years before Woodward stepped up and said it was time to get it done. He challenged others to jump on board, and they did. Everyone understands the commitment involved now.
“I feel like they know what they’re doing, all the way down,” says Seferian-Jenkins, only a sophomore and an All-America candidate. “To have those coaches replaced, it was sad to see them go — I loved all of them. But it’s a business, first and foremost, and you don’t forget that. I’m happy where we’re headed.”
— by Dan Raley
This article appeared in Athlon's 2012 Pac-12 Preview Annual.
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