Saying he didn’t sleep for the 48 hours prior to filling Washington’s defensive coordinator vacancy Jan. 2 with Justin Wilcox, Huskies football coach Steve Sarkisian said he had to put on his “CEO hat” to fire his longtime friend Nick Holt.
“It was extremely difficult,” Sarkisian said in a teleconference with reporters Friday during a dead period in recruiting. “You try to take your personal emotions out of it and do what’s best for the organization. I think the world of Nick Holt as a person and as a coach.
“It just didn’t work out.”
Sarkisian declined to explain the details of Holt’s firing (also fired were linebackers coach Mike Cox and safeties coach Jeff Mills), whether he interviewed others besides Wilcox, and the specifics of salaries for the new coaches.
Wilcox was reported to be making $750,000 in his second year at Tennessee, $100,000 more than was Holt was receiving, a source of some of the heat surrounding Holt and the worst defense statistically in Washington history. In losing 67-56 in the Alamo Bowl, the Huskies gave up 777 yards to Baylor.
The salaries “are the state of college football, if you want to get a top-tier coordinator,” he said. “It’s almost the going rate. With the TV money, you see it in head coaching salaries, and it trickles down to the coordinators.”
The final vacancy on the defensive staff, which had no changes for three years until Demetrice Martin left Dec. 14 to join Jim Mora’s new staff at UCLA, will be filled by a line coach “hopefully sooner than later,” Sarkisian said, although he mentioned patience, which might mean there are candidates from teams in the NFL playoffs.
Media speculation has included Cal Bears assistant Tosh Lupoi, a former Cal player who has developed a big reputation as a recruiter in his six years as a coach. Sarkisian made it sound as if Johnny Nansen, the current line coach, will be spend more time with his other duties as special teams coach and recruiting coordinator.
He said Wilcox and new linebackers coach Peter Sirmon, who were teammates with the Oregon Ducks teams in the late 1990s and coached together at Tennessee, will switch the Huskies defense from a 4-3 alignment under Holt to a 3-4 with defensive ends upright to better pressure the quarterback.
He sounded proud of the fact that Wilcox, who had an offer a year earlier to coach at Texas, chose to return to the Northwest and Washington. Wilcox, son of pro football Hall of Fame member Dave Wilcox of the San Francisco 49ers, went to high school in Junction Ciity, OR. Sirmon grew up in Walla Walla.
“He had a chance to go to other places,” he said, “so tao have him come back the Northwest speaks volumes about where we are headed and our perception around the country.”
He had no time for Huskies die-hards who question the coaches’ Ducks heritage.
“I don’t even care about it, quite honestly,” he said. “Because I went to BYU, no one’s upset about it. At some point we have to be grown men. I think boosters are more concerned about winning.
“I’m excited about his pedigree. He’s a fantastic football coach. I’ve embraced his personality, his ability to teach and to communicate. He has a wealth of knowledge, and a real sense of energy and excitement. Deep down he’s a Northwest guy; he likes the lifestyle. Ultimately he sees himself as a head coach, and this job hopefully will lead to bigger and better things. We want to give him the opportunity to do that.
“Sirmon is younger, but is a guy who knows (Wilcox’s system) and played seven years in the NFL and knows the Northwest. We couldn’t be more excited.”
Sarkisian also gushed about his new defensive backs coach, Keith Heyward, who played and coached at Oregon State.
“He knows the West Coast really well — played, coached and recruited in the conference,” he said. “He went to high school in Los Angeles (Woodland Hills), which is a critical area for us. At Oregon State, he had some players who got to be pretty special.”
In player news, Sarkisian said he will be pursuing a placekicker because Nick Folk was denied another season of eligibility by the Pac-12 eligibility committee. But another year was granted to sophomore-to-be James Sample, a safety injured in the season’s second game, as well as senior tailback Johri Fogerson, a running back.