When Steve Sarkisian held his first news conference of the season prior to fall drills, the University of Washington football coach used the wrong word.
Attempting to describe the eagerness with which he, his players and their fans approach the season, he said, “The best word is anxious.”
An anxious person is someone under mental distress or uneasiness because of fear, danger or misfortune. A greatly worried person.
I don’t mean to schoolmarm the guy, but, as do so many in the jock world, he confused anxiousness with eagerness.
But they don’t mean the same thing. They are nearly opposite.
Unless, of course, Sarkisian really meant he was anxious.
Suppose the boxcar-loads of optimism that he and his fellow coaching refugee from USC, the Seahawks’ Pete Carroll, have been unloading are camouflage for despair? Suppose Sarkisian does The Full Wakamatsu — following an unexpectedly good rookie season with an epic cratering?
Sure, every coach talks the same happy talk this time of year, the oh-and-oh-and-oh-boy phase of the schedule. Sometimes it works, goading players into believing they’re a little bit better than they are.
I don’t think Sarkisian is faking his rhetoric. The Huskies are better. But a lot is riding on this season and the opener Saturday at, of all the God-blessed places, BYU. If Sarkisian said he was anxious, I might take him at the correct meaning of his word.
All that’s at stake is resurrecting swiftly a seriously damaged legacy; ending a 12-game road losing streak; scoring a long-lost bowl bid; justifying a Heisman Trophy campaign for one of the game’s highest-profile players who has yet to experience a winning season in four previous years; exploiting a stellar recruiting class in hand and impressing another good one in the pipeline.
Then there’s that $250 million planned stadium renovation with private funds that needs an emotional spike to get the fat cats to shake loose for a program nearly a decade in the dumper.
While it’s doubtful that players are looking at that checklist and diving under their dorm beds all a-quiver, they are under a strong impression they must do something they have never done in purple — win often.
And they must do it starting in Provo, Utah. Despite all the jokes about buttermilk keggers and ankle-length cheerleader skirts in perhaps America’s most conservative town, Provo is no laugh for visiting football teams.
BYU fans are as torqued as the most addled fans of the Southeastern Conference, and they do it largely without alcohol. How, I don’t know. I haven’t read the Book of Mormon well enough to know how many sections are devoted to sober smiting.
I went along for the Huskies’ first visit in 1985 — that was the season after BYU finished first and Washington second in the national polls, a miscarriage of gridiron justice that haunts longtime Huskies fans to this day — and marveled at the raucous belligerence following the Cougars’ 31-3 rout of the Huskies.
As Washington left the field under a verbal shower of mockery, I recalled thinking, “How can so many nice people be so mean, without swearing?”
Some things probably have changed, but the scariest change for Huskies fans is that BYU and the Mountain West Conference are on equal football footing these days with the Pac-10.
The 85-scholarship limit over the last couple of decades, and the diffusion of TV revenue across the landscape, has spread talent around the West, so much so that the Pac-10 was willing to poach the University of Utah to join their august collegiate chancellery.
The Huskies have a modest 4-3 lead in the series against BYU, which includes a 28-27 loss at Husky Stadium in 2008, the margin of difference being a blocked PAT. The outcome was the beginning of a seasonal unraveling unlike any in the college’s football history — 0-12, in case Huskies fans hadn’t recently rubbed that scar.
Now Washington must attempt to repay the shame against a team that was 11-2 last year — another episode in Washington’s habitual overscheduling of the nonconference games that has played at least a small part in the school’s long-term decline. It’s overscheduling because Washington already has another “A” game against Nebraska, a national title contender, on the docket.
As if the season-opening stakes weren’t already sufficient, BYU recently announced it is plotting to leave the Mountain West Conference to become an independent. School officials, armed with a sophisticated national TV broadcast system, imagine themselves as the Notre Dame of the West — a religion-based school with a national following that doesn’t need a conference to fill a schedule or share revenues with.
To compensate for the potential loss, the MWC recently announced a poaching of Nevada and Fresno State, irritating members of the Western Athletic Conference.
One can argue that none of this has anything to do with Saturday’s game. But BYU’s attempt to separate and elevate itself from its brethren has riled up the critics who already believed BYU to be as rich in hubris as it is in donations.
So for the Provonians, it just wouldn’t do for the Y to open a pending season of tumult with an L at home to a team that was 5-7 the past season. The Cougars have something to prove too.
Maybe Sarkisian didn’t misspeak when he said he was anxious about this season. Where is Washington State where the Huskies really need them, at the front end of the schedule?