The death of Raiders owner Al Davis last week prompted an outpouring of mostly affectionate reminiscences about one of the most influential contrarians in the history of pro sports. His wacky decision-making also turned out big at Montlake.
An intriguing reflection came from University of Washington coach Steve Sarkisian, who was offered by Davis the chance to become the Raiders head coach in 2007 until he told Davis to, well, drop dead.
Not in those terms, of course, but when he announced on Jan. 20, 2007 he would remain as a USC assistant coach under Pete Carroll, eyebrows arched across the industry. Here was a guy, then 32, with no head coaching experience, who would have become the youngest head coach in the NFL at one of its most storied franchises, and he said no?
Yow. How screwed up must the Raiders have been?
Sarkisian politely dodged the question Monday when reporters brought up his history with the man for whom the adjective “eccentric” barely gets past the door of Davis’s parallel universe.
Sarkisian said the job interview with Davis was “the most unique experience of my life,” the word unique here used as polite camouflage for a variety of responses likely including, “This guy is crazier than burlap jammies.”
“There is no manual to get ready for an interview with Al Davis,” Sarkisian went on about his three separate talks with the Raiders. “You cover everything from A to Z in an interview. But you never go A to Z.
“It might go Q. Then K. Then A. Then X. Then L. It’s all over the place. And I think that’s what makes him unique. I think he had a unique way of seeing who you are as a person.”
Notice the use of the word “unique.” He didn’t say wonderful, insightful or clever. Just a neutral term that conveys no criticism.
Early in the interview, Davis startled Sarkisian by asking what he would serve as a pre-game meal. “Chicken parmesan,” Sarkisian said. Apparently it was a good answer. Remember that, job applicants — when in doubt about cuisine during the interview, go simple, and hold the arugula.
Sarkisian, who served a single year, 2004, as Raiders quarterback coach under Norv Turner before returning to USC as offensive coordinator, obviously picked up from the inside what was already visible on the outside: Davis, whose teams won Super Bowls after the 1976, 1980 and 1983 seasons, seemed to have crossed the always-thin line between genius and madness.
By 2009, the Raiders became the first team in NFL history to lose 11 or more games in seven consecutive seasons.
Five days after Sarkisian turned down Davis, he hired another USC assistant, Lane Kiffin, who, at 31, was even younger than Sarkisian. Davis seemed in desperate search for the next Jon Gruden, the youthful coach who took the Raiders to a 10-6 record in 2001, then had a fallout with Davis and was “traded” to Tampa Bay for cash and draft picks. Gruden the next season took the Bucs to Super Bowl XXXVII, where they beat the Bill Callahan-coached Raiders 48-21. Bad ju-ju.
After Callahan came Turner, then Art Shell, then Kiffin, who was fired after 20 games in a mutual exchange of public insults of unusually heavy ordnance. Snohomish native Tom Cable was elevated from the Raiders staff to the wall in front of the Raiders firing squad. He is now the Seahawks assistant head coach, replaced in Oakland by the head man of the moment, Hue Jackson, the fifth coach in seven years and the one who Wednesday traded for the Seahawks’ overwhelmed and underperforming linebacker, Aaron Curry. At least they can’t stick that maneuver on Addled Al.
The strange thing about these maneuvers is that Kiffin, after a tumultuous 14-month stretch at the University of Tennessee that ended ugly, somehow wound up with Sarkisian’s dream job: Head coach at USC.
In turning down Davis in 2007 to become Carroll’s top assistant, Sarkisian, a Los Angeles-area native, figured if he did well, he would be in good position to succeed Carroll, then 57. But Washington came calling with a huge contract for someone without a day of head coaching experience on his resume. He headed north, figuring, at 34, how bad can the rain be?
But not long after Sarkisian came to Montlake, the NCAA investigation of wrong-doing at USC grew hot. Carroll surprised the football world by leaving the Trojans for the NFL Seahawks. The Trojans fired their own stun gun, replacing Carroll with Kiffin, who left his previous two jobs aflame and was taking over a program being pantsed by the NCAA, who well knew that Kiffin was around when USC was doing its rules misdeeds.
Bewildering as these coaching maneuvers are, perhaps few would have happened had Sarkisian said yes to Davis. The guess is here that Sarkisian is much more adept at house politics that the volatile, impulsive Kiffin, and could have chicken-parmed (football-speak for charmed?) Davis.
That would mean someone else would be coaching at Washington. And that could mean thousands of fans currently barking for Sark would be whimpering in the corner.
Which is not to say that another competent coach wouldn’t have had results similar to Sarkisian’s tenure. But that is the unknown. The knowable is that Huskies fans of a religious persuasion might offer a blessing for the soul of Davis, thanking him for, well, being who he was — unique. If you know what I mean.