The coincidence of Washington’s worst game of the season and the death of its iconic coaching figure made for one of the more miserable weekends in the career of Steve Sarkisian. Huskies followers seemed to realize anew the team still isn’t completely clear from the debacle of 2008, nor is Sarkisian Don James.
Neither of these developments should have been a surprise, but this is college football, where rationality is as rare as a fifth down.
In the 21 years since James quit, the Huskies have had five coaches, and as many Rose Bowl appearances as 0-12 seasons. Only three months ago did Washington resolve its biggest problem — outdated, inefficient and unattractive facilities. The lake is nice, but to a 17-year-old kid from Compton or Medina, bling is the thing.
But most fans don’t fully understand that in the arms race that is NCAA big-time football, a high-end stadium and football operations plant is the industry’s mandatory minimum for success. It’s not everything, but even if James were able to have coached in his prime to 2013, the program would have fallen behind.
What most fans believe is that James would have never let happen a game such as Saturday’s debacle in the desert against Arizona State. Easily forgotten is that in what should have been the mid-prime of his career, James in 1987 and 1988 had seasons of 7-4-1 and 6-5. But by 1991, the Huskies were co-national champions.
I’m not saying Sarkisian’s career arc will or should follow James’s. I’m saying that the hole that Sarkisian stepped into in Montlake — a post-scandal, septic pond of bad teams and bad house — was deeper and more toxic than most imagined, difficult for any coach, particularly one who never before had been a head coach at any level.
Even Sarkisian failed to grasp the enormity of the task. Recall his quote during his first year after the Huskies unexpectedly beat USC: “(The turnaround) is not going to take as long as people think.”
I asked him at his weekly presser Monday whether he felt the same burden that successors to John Wooden’s UCLA’s basketball legacy must have felt. He said no; he came here because of the James legacy.
“We’re trying to live up to a standard that he set, but that’s the reason I chose this job,” he said. “I came here to win championships. Coach James set the standard. That’s the beauty of coming to a place like the University of Washington — you’re here and everybody involved in our organization is doing everything in our power to win championships.
“It’s not just to play football games. It’s not just to be on TV. It’s not just to put people in the stands. It’s to win championships.”
But the national and conference landscapes have changed enough to question whether winning a championship is still possible at Montlake, particularly with the 2013 results in — three conference losses in a row to three good teams. To be fair, Sarkisian hasn’t had a chance to recruit to the new facilities. The last couple of classes knew the cool stuff was coming, but one or two years’ time to a teenager is what a light year is to an astrophysicist.
Then, when questions turned to the status of quarterback Keith Price, he of the abused throwing thumb, Sarkisian said something revealing. He said he caught on TV Monday morning the resignation press conference of Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland, who talked about sticking with his key players despite their diminished capacity to produce.
Sarkisan quoted Leyland as saying, “I probably protected my players to a fault,” which he said “hung with me” a moment, knowing he was getting criticism for sticking with Price too long.
“Not that I’m protecting Keith Price, but I have belief in that guy,” Sarkisian said. “I’ve been in some knock-down, drag-out games where I’ve seen that guy get knocked down and get up and fight and compete. I think that that trait that he possesses resonates with our entire football organization. Not just the players, but the coaches, our staff.
“I think his ability to stand tall in the most adverse times, whether it’s on the field or off the field, is really something that is really cool, that we can all see. That’s how you respond. I wanted to give him his chance to fight and compete in a game in a tough environment. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out. But if that’s to a fault of mine, then it is, and I’ll take it for that, knowing our players know I’m going to be there with them.”
Certainly such esprit-de-corps rhetoric arouses much noble sentiment in players and fans. But the question is: Does it win championships? If James were to be asked the question, my guess is, after being around him as a beat writer and columnist, he would say no.
For all the affection and respect given to James by his former players, they knew he had high standards for performance. If a player was unable or unwilling to deliver, James would not stand on sentiment. He would make a change. Even at quarterback.
In the 1984 season, Hugh Millen started eight games, then was pulled by James and replaced by backup, Paul Sicuro, simply on the basis of performance. Millen was shocked and hurt. Then came the Orange Bowl against No. 2 Oklahoma, when Sicuro faltered. James did not hesitate, in the middle of game that might decide the national championship, to replace Sicuro with Millen. It worked. The Huskies won.
The decisions, undoubtedly tough, were made because James saw his charge as Sarkisian put it Monday: To win championships. To do that, sometimes feelings get hurt. Sometimes, the coach is wrong. But James was never one to worry about whether players liked something he did; his decisions were based on what would give the Huskies the best possible chance to win the moment, the quarter, the game, and ultimately the championship. No playing of favorites, no appeal to sentiment.
Sarkisian noted Monday that Arizona State was ahead only 15-7 with 3:48 left in the second quarter. Imagine if then or earlier, he recognized what most everyone else could see: Price’s thumb was seriously affecting his passing accuracy, and thus his confidence.
I’m not saying backup Cyler Miles, a redshirt freshman, could have entered at that point and won the game. But he would have given the Huskies a better chance at the next first down, and the one after that. Maybe the game stays a one-score deficit at halftime. Then . . . who knows?
What was knowable was that Price wasn’t going to get any healthier as the game wore on. Sarkisian misinterpreted the impact of the QB change. Most players, most observers, would have understood that the coach wasn’t quitting on Price as much as giving his team the best chance to win at that moment.
Sarkisian is right. He protected his player to a fault.
Maybe in the wake of an awful weekend at Montlake, the reflections on the legacy of James provides a last little gift, to one of his successors who is the same age as the old coach when he took over the Huskies program: How to win championships, one tough decision at a time.