During game week, Steve Sarkisian and Lane Kiffin were tightly intertwined.
This time it wasn’t their common coaching past — stops at USC and the Oakland Raiders for each. Or their age, Sarkisian 36 and Kiffin 35. Or even the fact they previously split play-calling duties together at USC earning the moniker “Sarkiffian.”
No, they both spent the week prior to their first meeting as opposing head coaches holding a common party line: This game isn’t about us.
Well, it is.
Each is in their current position because of disaster. The young duo is tasked with reviving their programs from recent maelstroms.
Kiffin is at USC because Pete Carroll scampered north. Sarkisian is at Washington because Tyrone Willingham’s effort was inept. Neither would remain in college football were it not for Al Davis’ well-populated belfry.
The two talk the same. You wouldn’t think it since Kiffin’s comments so often feel like a face scratch and Sarkisian’s a pat on the back.
But it’s Sarkisian who crowed “it’s not going to take long” following the Huskies’ win over USC last season. It was Sarkisian, albeit at a booster event, who said the Huskies would go undefeated at home this season. Sarkisian is the one who called Reggie Bush an “idiot” in front of ESPN people.
Sarkisian’s assessment of Kiffin’s personality:
“Confident. I think Lane has a real belief in his knowledge of football, not only offensively but defensively. I think he’s creative. I think confident/aggressive. Lane goes for it, which is a great trait to have in this business.”
The two talk often. Kiffin launched himself into another countrywide burn when he poached running backs coach Kennedy Pola from the Tennessee Titans in late summer. His approach irked Titans coach Jeff Fisher. It became a headline, one that ran in red bulbs in Times Square.
Kiffin may not have known if it wasn’t for his pal Sarkisian. The Washington coach was in New York for the Pac-10 East Coast Media Day. He took a picture of the headline on the famous electronic ticker, then texted it to Kiffin. Landing at New York’s JFK for the same media event, Kiffin saw the photo soon after turning on his phone.
“It’s a good friendship,” Sarkisian said. “It’s one that keeps us healthy in the profession. Because so much of this profession is keeping things in close and in tight and you can’t share with anybody. The ability to share with Lane different thoughts, different ideas, different frustrations that maybe you don’t want everyone else to see, but you can bounce it off him and he understands. So it’s been a good relationship that way.”
Sarkisian typically pulls in his less savory thoughts. Kiffin has them dribble out of his mouth. Two columnists have called Kiffin “college football’s most hated man.” Sarkisian? Well he’s energetic Sark! Woof!
Washington had a brief dalliance with Kiffin when the head coaching position opened. He came in for an interview but it never led to serious discussions.
This Saturday the brash, competitive duo will face a flood of hypotheticals. It’s a unique situation. Knowing another coach is one thing. Having shared play-calling duties? Recruited a large chunk of the players in a common base system? How the venue plays? Neither needs the film room for tendency confirmation.
During the week Kiffin has been the more playful. He zinged Sarkisian on the Pac-10 conference call.
“I’ve sent him a couple the last 24 hours and he has not responded so I don’t know what trick he’s up to,” Kiffin said. “Trying to pretend he’s really busy. He’s probably trying to show how busy he is.”
When asked about this, Sarkisan delivered a flat response, appearing to miss the intended opportunity for banter: “That’s not true.”
To open the week, Sarkisian said USC had the most depth and was the most talented team from top to bottom in the Pac-10.
“He’s going to make his comments up there about how deep we are, that’s a trick he learned from Lou Holtz or something,” Kiffin said. “Obviously people who follow us know we’re not very deep.”
Sarkisian also used the media to produce a likely inside joke when he was asked what’s different about facing Kiffin as opposed to Carroll.
“I think there’s something about when you are facing your mentor, in a weird way you want to make him proud,” Sakrisian said. “I felt like that going into last year’s game going against Pete. At the end of the game, whether we won or lost whatever happened, I was hoping that Pete would just be proud of how we played, the style we played. Going against Lane, his opinion of us doesn’t concern us nearly as much.”
All this leaves Papa Pete proud in Seattle.
“These two guys come from directly the same source and itll be interesting to see how the game goes,” Carroll said. “Those guys kind of grew up learning our style and our system. They became kind of real products of it. Theyre much different, not the same individuals, but they got along well.”
Saturday is about them. It’s about young coaches elbowing into college football. It’s about their common knowledge. It’s about this game meaning a bundle to their coaching futures.
Sarkisian could add another haymaker to the resume by winning at USC, bolstering his likelihood of departure from Washington when a bigger job opens.
Kiffin can move to 5-0 with his sanctioned crew, another step toward rebranding the program and possibly staying put in one place.
Each is shaping the future of Pac-10 football. Will Washington ever re-emerge as a contender? Will the crack in its base cause Troy to crumble?
What will they tell us about each other on Saturday?
We’re about to find out.