For those who lament the departure of Steve (“Washington is my dream job”) Sarkisian to conference rival USC as evidence of the increasingly depraved state of college sports, it is worth recalling that the Huskies benefited from a similar naked grab for cash.
But it was men’s basketball. The Huskies won big, and the Cougars lost big. The coach was Marv Harshman. The year was 1972. The point is that the stakes may be higher, but little has changed in college sports. Or in life.
Despite the howls in Pullman over his departure, Harshman became one of the state’s most revered, respected sports figures, yet Sarkisian is seen by some as a carpetbagging prevaricator. But they both executed the same maneuver — in an industry that places no value on loyalty, they lit out for the better deal while they had leverage.
Dismaying as it was to some fans and players, Sarkisian did what I and others forecasted after his first press conference five years ago: If successful at Washington, he would return to his hometown and the more prestigious program at his first opportunity. A few more completions by Washington State’s Connor Halliday in the Apple Cup, and the opportunity may not have been there — unless, of course, UW athletics director Scott Woodward made him a free agent by firing him, as a minority of fans fervently wished.
It’s worth keeping in mind the conditions under which Sarkisian was given the job: Woodward couldn’t find a plausible Division I head coach to take the fetid mess. Huskies fans will never forget the 0-12 season under Tyrone Willingham, but they often fail to connect the dots to years of scandal, probation, controversy, mistakes and mismanagement that contributed mightily to the 2004 hiring of Willingham, whose reputation as a law-abider trumped everything else in his faded skill-set.
From the university presidency through misbegotten coaches down to miscreant players, the Huskies sports programs generally were an unhealing canker sore, complete with a decrepit stadium with no clear future.
Woodward filled the football job with a 34-year-old who had never been a head coach at any level, and had only seven years as a Division I assistant.
Then and now, it was a reach. Then and now, it was a transition hire.
Woodward knew what success would look like: If the gamble worked and the Huskies became respectable and competitive, with a few bowl trips to pacify the party hounds among the donors, Sark, at his first opportunity, would take his buffed resume to USC.
The week that the Huskies went to 4-0 and 15th in the polls was the same time his Trojans counterpart, Pat Haden, fired coach Lane Kiffin. Woodward is way too savvy not to have started building his short list that day.
Much remained unknowable — the Huskies’ subsequent failure to beat the Pac-12’s elites, the openings in other programs, the lust of other coaches seeking a much more attractive UW job than five years ago — but the permutations were not so many that he couldn’t imagine Sarkisian on the phone to his agent and USC boosters to make clear his potential interest.
By the time he took hold of the Apple Cup Friday night at Husky Stadium, Sarkisian and some of his assistants knew the real game was on. In less than 48 hours, they knew he had his real dream job.
Understanding the Sarkisian saga is useful in informing the process of selecting his successor. A return to a younger coach, or assistant coach, would mean a return to the training wheels Sarkisian bore throughout his tenure. For anyone who remembers the third-down direct snap to Bishop Sankey that the UCLA defense crushed, you will see training wheels the size of Portugal.
The pursuit will be for a veteran coach, probably one who is secure and considered a fixture. Woodward will have in his argument the strength, stability and vast wealth of the Pac-12 Conference, the dynamism of a big city on the edge of world-class status, a premium stadium and years of distance between the corruptions and ditherings of the past.
And probably a $4 million or so annual income. Although that may be a little light.
Woodward will need to disrupt a strong program with big buyout money for the coach’s contract, and predictable wails will be heard from an aggrieved constituency. It will be a cutthroat maneuver, but that is hardly a big deal — even former AD Barbara Hedges had the guts to stealth-poach Rick Neuheisel from Colorado. And two years later, the Huskies were back in the Rose Bowl, where they haven’t been since.
Most of the big boys and girls who formed the private portion of the stadium renovation will be all in behind Woodward. They will tell him this is not another transition hire, and will insist that Washington not be a steppingstone.
But truth be told, almost every college coaching job is. Think about it: USC (Pete Carroll), Oregon (Chip Kelly) and Stanford (Jim Harbaugh) recently were steppingstones. But Washington now has most everything it didn’t have when Sarkisian was hired.
Especially money. Practice your sticker-shock face.