Claiming he and Steve Sarkisian never spoke about the vacancy at USC following the Sept. 30 firing of Lane Kiffin, Scott Woodward nevertheless moved, swiftly and with a mastery of the obvious, to fill the University of Washington vacancy when Sarkisian bolted Dec. 2. In the smarmy business of the college coach poach, he scored a five-star recruit and broke no rules except for speed.
“Steve and I talked, but not about (USC),” Woodward, the Huskies’ AD, said Monday, the day Chris Petersen wowed many in the Huskies constituency as an appointment of rare aptitude. “We all knew (USC) was his dream job.”
The dream job. It’s a phrase tossed around frequently during poaching season. If you’re scoring at home, Washington used to be Jim Mora’s dream job — and was fired from his NFL gig partly for saying so on the radio. But now it is not. He is being handsomely rewarded for staying at UCLA.
Sarkisian said Washington was his dream job. So said Nick Saban about Alabama. But so many reports have surfaced about Saban succeeding Mack Brown at the University of Texas, the Alabama Board of Regents is meeting Thursday to give him a raise from his $5.62 million salary to keep him with his “dream.”
Now, Petersen says Washington is his dream job. But that was what he said about Boise State, where he stayed for 13 years as an assistant and a head coach, and had almost everyone there believing it.
So let’s all do ourselves a favor and agree to retire the expression “dream job” to the closet with the rotary phone and the “Refuse to Lose” Mariners posters. Some things no longer have meaning.
Instead, let’s look upon the Petersen hire for the business decision that it is — his 92-12 record that includes a 2-0 record against the Oregon Ducks. While his dreams and Northwest roots make for nice story lines, they are irrelevant. He was best available big-time coach, who also happened to be an easy, instant sell to all constituencies, including the two most important.
“For the athletic director and the president, his record gives you something to buy,” said Jim Lambright, a former Huskies player, assistant and head coach who knows a little something about the sports politics around Montlake. “There’s no reason in his record that suggests he won’t take the step up and produce at the Pac-12 level.”
While that may seem obvious after the fact of his hire, the post-Don James history of UW football coaching hires suggest that Petersen is a unique break from the tradition of tumult that almost always came after failure and/or scandal.
Petersen was a hire on the uptick instead of on the down-low.
Lambright himself was a default hire, the senior assistant succeeding James in 1993 after his resignation two weeks before the season to protest sanctions against his program. When AD Barbara Hedges fired Lambright after a 6-6 season in 1998, she and boosters who didn’t trust her judgment took three weeks to poach from Colorado Rick Neuheisel, who delivered a Rose Bowl winner in 2000 — and more scandal, culminating in his firing for gambling.
Hedges and the boosters overlooked the fact that Neuheisel was a high-maintenance corner-cutter. His controversial exit and litigation helped expose other department problems. To replace him, UW again defaulted to another senior assistant, Keith Gilbertson. He lasted two years, until AD Todd Turner needed to show the public that Washington could run a clean program free of past people and practices.
In hiring Tyrone Willingham, Turner found a coach who was splendid with compliance and puzzled with third down and four. After the 0-12 season of 2008 completed the 15- year tumble from the James era, Woodward, succeeding Turner, was unable to hire a veteran Division I coach. So he settled on Sarkisian, a 34-year-old USC assistant who had never been a head coach at any level.
Despite his inexperience, Sarkisian restored the program’s competitiveness. Despite his local critics, Sarkisian’s eight wins and Trojan roots returned him to his dream . . . er, USC.
That was a week ago Monday. By Friday, Petersen was the new Washington coach. No firing, no scandal, no defaulting, no lying, no dithering. In a college sports world pickled with embarrassments and deceits, it was about as surgical a strike as could be imagined.
Yes, hearts were broken in Boise, in the community and in the locker room. But Petersen did so many good things for so many that nearly everyone understands and wishes him well. That may be the best personal endorsement of all.
There is another business aspect to consider, which has little to do with the $3.6 million annual salary, believed, for the moment, to be tops in the Pac-12. The college football industry is about to pull apart and re-form. Many have speculated what that will look like, such as four 16-team super-conferences, but there is little speculation that the Pac-12 will do anything but flourish.
As the distortions begin, it is good to be in Seattle, with a new stadium and national TV contracts, and not Boise.
“I think that’s why he was ready to move,” Lambright said. “He’s done everything he can do at Boise State. He could stay there and set records until he retires. Instead, he’s taking the next step to a bigger conference and bigger challenge, and he loves the Northwest.”
Woodward and Petersen never met until their teams were invited to the Las Vegas Bowl a year ago.
“I was blown away,” Woodward said. “Soon as I met him, he had my sole attention. He’s just exudes genuineness. I realized, ‘This is someone I can do a deal with.'”
“(As an athletics director) you are always prepared for your coaches to leave. You always keep a mental list.”
Sarkisian’s bolt to Los Angeles caught many off-guard. I suspect as soon as Woodward shook hands farewell to Sarkisian, he closed the door to his office and punched into his cell phone area code 208.
Sometimes, dreams come true.