When the University of Washington trotted Steve Sarkisian in front of the cameras for the first time (Dec. 8, 2008), youd have thought the 34-year-old former Southern California assistant had just parted the waters of Lake Washington. At a news conference that doubled as a pep rally, UW boosters swooned, cheerleaders pranced, the Husky band played, and four shirtless students aligned themselves in the background with S-A-R-K painted on their bare chests. Someone even sported a t-shirt that read, Bark For Sark!
No one then had a clue as to how long it would take Sarkisian to eliminate all public discourse about Tyrone Willinghams unlovely parting gift — the first 0-12 record in the football programs annals. In fact, no one even knew if Sarkisian was capable of eliminating it.
Sarkisian skeptics questioned his youth, made much of his lack of head coaching experience, and even more out of the fact that Sarkisian, always a quarterbacks coach, had never tutored a receiver or a linebacker.
One columnist opined thusly: “If the Husky administration thinks Sarkisian will turn UW into what it was or if (Mark) Emmert somehow thinks hell turn it into LSU (Emmerts former school) then Sarkisian had better start tamping down expectations.”
Wrote Jim Moore of seattlepi.com: “After seeing some big names on their supposed wish list (among them Phillip Fulmer, Turner Gill and Dan Mullen), the Dawgs hire Steve Sarkisian. Steve Sarkisian? Are you kidding me?”
In response, Sarkisian used most of his remarks during his introductory press conference/pep rally to talk about the energy and passion he intended to import to a UW program reeling with ennui. Then he said:
Its the year 2008. Its time to get back to the Rose Bowl, to Pac-10 championships, competing for a national championship. Thats our goal, no question. I cant wait to get this thing going.
We now find ourselves 30 games into the Sarkisian era, a relative blip that spans 29 regular-season contests and one bowl game. Our assessment so far: Willingham’s name hasn’t spoiled a conversation in moons, and he now seems as remote and insignificant as predecessors Stub Allison and Pest Welch.
By any measurement, Sarkisian has the program headed precisely in the direction that he intended to take it when Emmert, infatuated with Sarkisians cheery enthusiasm, accepted the recommendation of athletic director Scott Woodward, who plucked him off Pete Carroll’s USC staff.
At the bye week of the 2011 season, Sarkisians Huskies are 4-1 and coming off a 31-14 road victory over 10-point favorite Utah. This week, the Huskies almost received enough votes (28) in the weekly Associated Press poll to crack the top 25 national rankings. This is remarkable for the moment, and even more noteworthy in the context of history.
Except for a one-week appearance at No. 24 early in 2009, days after Sarkisians Huskies shocked No. 3 USC on an Erik Folk field goal, Washington has not been nationally ranked since the fifth week of the 2003 season, when it roosted at No. 18 under Keith Gilbertson (currently a scout with the Cleveland Browns).
But Gilbertson lost five of his final eight that year and 10 more the following season (1-10) before ceding to Willingham, who seemingly had nowhere to take the Huskies but up. Instead, Willingham patiently, and with an utter lack of flair, coached and recruited the Huskies into athletic oblivion.
As we shall see, there are few escape routes, and none easy, from 0-12, making the job Sarkisian has done to date so impressive, especially considering how quickly he has made Washington competitive and entertaining.
When Jim Owens (1957-74) became head coach, he had the Huskies nationally ranked after 24 games — for the fifth week of the 1959 season — when UW appeared at No. 18 opposite Southern California. When Don James took over for Owens in 1975, it took James 32 games, or to the 11th game of his third year (1977), for the Huskies to achieve a national ranking — No. 19 for a season-ender against Washington State.
But neither Owens nor James had to crawl out of an 0-12 abyss the way Sarkisian has. Owens inherited a 5-5 team from Darrell Royal, who bolted after one season (1956) to coach the Texas Longhorns. Owens bequeathed James a 5-6 team that included some pretty decent talent, including two future first-round NFL draft picks (Doug Martin and Blair Bush), a future Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback (Warren Moon), and a dozen other players (such as Nesby Glasgow) who would spend time in the NFL.
From Willingham, Sarkisian inherited one future first-rounder (Jake Locker), a couple of No. 3s including Mason Foster) and precious little else. Given that Sarkisian’s Huskies are on the cusp of a national ranking at the 30-game mark (the Huskies will be favored to improve to 5-1 when they play Colorado Oct. 15) is an eyeball-popper worthy of Ralph Kramden.
Since college programs first started playing 12-game schedules in the early 1980s, only a handful have explored 0-12. Of the eight to take that dive, only one, a Hawaii team coached by June Jones, turned a dreadful dozen (0-12 in 1998) into a winning record (9-4 in 1999) in just one year.
All the others floundered for years. Colorado State went 0-12 in 1981, didn’t achieve a winning record until 1986, and then tumbled back to 1-11 (1987) and 1-10 (1988). The Rams didn’t launch a spate of winning seasons until the mid-1990s, meaning that Colorado State essentially required a 15-year recovery period after its 0-12.
Army, a program noted for three Heisman Trophy winners (Doc Blanchard, 1945; Glenn Davis, 1946; Pete Dawkins, 1958), went 0-13 in 2003 and didn’t inch above .500 (7-6) until 2010 (the Cadets are headed south again this season). New Mexico State went 0-12 in 2005 and hasn’t had a winning year since, in fact losing 10 times in each of the past two seasons.
Southern Methodist finished 0-12 in 2003 and went six years before producing a winning team (8-5). It took almost as long — eight years — for SMU to recover from the NCAA “Death Penalty” (1987-88) as it did for the Mustangs to recover from 0-12.
Duke, where the football program is as bad as the basketball program is good, went 0-12 in 2006, followed with a 1-11 record in 2007 and has yet to win more than five games in any season since.
It generally requires an 0-12 program (or 0-13) approximately eight years to recover sufficiently to become bowl eligible, if it does so at all. That Sarkisian made UW bowl eligible at the end of his second year (2010 Holiday), and that he has it on the precipice of a national ranking midway through his third, not only validates the faith Emmert had in him, but speaks to Sarkisian’s ability to lead a program.
Not even the “Dawgfather” himself, Don James, could have resurrected the Huskies quicker than Sarkisian has.