He could have said no, flat-out. But that would make Steve Sarkisian an idiot or Rick Neuheisel, either of which would be disappointing to discover after a 4-0 start and two large games pending against Stanford and Oregon. The man is in play, as any knowledgeable fan knew when he came from USC five years ago.
The Huskies coach did the dodge-ball drill Monday at his weekly presser that all big-conference coaches do when big-time jobs come open. He took the initiative about what he called the “giant elephant” in the room by expressing loyalty to the current employers and vowing to be no distraction, virtually reading from the script provided in the Steppingstone 101 class that all successful college sports coaches seem to have taken.
“I’m extremely thankful for the opportunity I have to be the head football coach at the University of Washington,” he said. “It’s an awesome place to be. I have never once, and I will never, comment on hypothetical scenarios. I know that that’s the world a lot of us in this room (reporters) live in, and that’s your job to do. I understand that. I’ve never done that in the four and a half years that I’ve been here, and I won’t do that.
“I have great respect for USC and the rich history and tradition that they have . . . ” and blah, blah, blah. He even said that he brought up the firing Sunday morning of Trojans coach Lane Kiffin at a team meeting so players would hear from him right away, in order to put away the topic quickly. But he never said never about taking, if offered, the USC job.
A coach on the short list for a big-time vacancy needs to avoid creating a trail of paper or pixels for media and fans that leads to the ah-ha! moment of varmint-hood, especially in college, where boosters often are intoxicated with the belief that their alma mater is somehow special.
Nor is it wise to talk loudly about a candidacy on a cell phone at an airport gate where a newspaper columnist can hear the conversation. Then lie about the candidacy publicly for three days.
That’s what happened to Neuheisel, Huskies coach from 1999 to 2003. In February of ’03, my former colleague at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, John Levesque, was waiting at the San Francisco airport when he, along with others, could hear the Slickster talking on his cell to several people about several things, while waiting to board the same flight to Seattle. Then more quietly, Neuheisel, with Levesque sitting nearby, told Mom that “the interview went very well.”
Turned out Neuheisel was both wrong and a liar. He didn’t come close to filling the head coaching vacancy with the 49ers, for which he interviewed. Nor was he honest when Levesque introduced himself at the gate and asked if Neuheisel interviewed for the Niners job. Of course not, he said, claiming he was on a golf outing with some frat brothers, and produced a golf ball from his pocket as proof. The game of golf produces more than its share of lies, but that surely is a top 10 nominee for the Hall of Shame.
Neuheisel persisted in the lie publicly for three days until the second of two columns by Levesque figuratively pantsed him sufficiently that he confessed to the university, which made him grovel for forgiveness in public.
Neuheisel’s later infractions regarding a March Madness betting pool that cost him his Huskies job — and even more later, his successful wrongful termination suit against UW and the NCAA that won him $4.7 million — so dwarfed his lying about a job interview that the episode is marginalized in the rich legacy of misdeed that populated his regime.
But dusting off the stink-up is instructive in illuminating the awkward path Sarkisian now walks. As with any worker, he’s entitled to improve his station. As an eight-year employee at USC and a Los Angeles native, every college football observer understands the gravitational pull the job exerts on him. So everything he says and does until after the Apple Cup will be seen by many through a prism of cardinal and gold.
The worst thing he can do now is say what many Washington fans would want to hear — “No way would I go to USC.” Because if he takes the Trojans job, he ends up forever on the Neuheisel/A-Rod end of the credibility continuum, where if he says night is dark, a second opinion is always sought.
The most awkward part is that because the firing of Kiffin comes at mid-season — a rare happening for a major program — the rumors will be constant, stirred mainly from other programs’ boosters and their media outlets that would like to disrupt Washington’s recruiting. Sarkisian will want to put a stop to it, but the only way to do so is declare with words he dare not say — unless USC athletic director Pat Haden does him the courtesy of saying he’s not on the short list.
But how would Haden know that now, before the hirings-and-firings landscape shakes out in the NFL and college? And if he did know, why would he do a favor to help a rising rival like Washington?
Sarkisian won’t be alone in the awkwardness. Other college head coaches’ names are already in the mix for USC: Chris Peterson of Boise State, James Franklin of Vanderbilt, Kevin Sumlin of Texas A&M, plus a couple of Pac-12 competitors: David Shaw of Stanford and Mike Riley of Oregon State.
The NFL has three former USC players who are well-regarded coaches: Jeff Fisher of the Rams and assistants Jack Del Rio (Broncos) and Greg Roman (49ers). Plus everyone’s favorite for every opening: ESPN analyst Jon Gruden.
Since another storied program, Texas, is losing its AD, DeLoss Dodds, to retirement, and probably its coach, Mack Brown, to a bad season, musical chairs will be a light-speed game in college football.
From Washington’s perspective, losing Sarkisian wouldn’t be a disaster; he is, after all, only 10 months removed from losing to Washington State, and he has finished the hardest work of pulling the Huskies out of the 0-12 competitive hole of 2008 (another part of the Neuheisel legacy, although he had much help). Now that the remodeled stadium is up and running, his successor, whenever that day comes, will not start in a facilities hole, either.
From a personal standpoint, the rationale among Huskies fans would probably accept the idea of Sarkisian going back home for a salary that will be considerably in excess of the $2.85 million he is scheduled to receive in 2015, the final year of his UW contract. AD Scott Woodward certainly has the resources to engage Haden in a bidding contest, but at what point does the same money buy someone as good, maybe better?
No one knows much now, probably not even Haden. All Sarkisian can do is manage the distraction — and it will be a distraction — for another seven weeks and hope he doesn’t lose too many recruits.
And he might consider investing in a lead-lined booth from which to make his phone calls.