I’m wondering how long the honeymoon between Husky fans and head coach Steve Sarkisian will last. Living in the middle of Husky country and listening to local sports talk radio, I feel like I have a pretty good pulse on expectations and attitudes surrounding the football program and the general feeling still seems to be that Sark has the team on the right path and they are *this* close to taking the proverbial step to the next level.
There is no doubt that Sarkisian inherited a huge pile of Husky crap when he arrived at Montlake in the wake of the Tyrone Willingham fiasco. The team had just completed the first 0-12 season in Pac-10 history and the program was in the dumps. Sarkisian was a savvy hire by the Huskies at the time. He had credibility after serving as USC’s offensive coordinator under Pete Carroll and also had an easy-going and likable personality – which was a huge (and welcome) change after the notoriously personality-lacking Willingham.
I’m actually not sure who was more excited about Sarkisian’s arrival to UW: the fans or the local media.
Sarkisian has done a lot to win over the fans and media alike. And he’s clearly no dummy – he understands the power of personal PR and how building goodwill in advance can help you for times when waters get choppy.
But for a moment, I just want to consider the football side of the current Huskies program and wonder how patient Huskies fans and the local media will be with him over time. He’s now in his fourth season so he has had four full recruiting classes – many of which have been highly ranked (if you go by such things). But the Huskies now sit with a 3-2 overall record with a big game coming up against USC. They were thoroughly outclassed and outmanned in two tough road games at LSU and Oregon, and squeaked out close wins agains San Diego State and Stanford (the latter counting as the signature win of the season to date since Stanford was coming off of its own upset win over USC).
And this is something Sarkisian has done well in each of his four seasons at Washington: come up with one “signature” win that gets the fan base (and media) excited that the Huskies are back among the conference elite…or at least *this* close to it. But the fact is that his overall record is 22-21 to date, and it will be interesting to see if the Huskies can finish the season above .500.
Rebuilding a program after it hits such low depths is an incredible challenge – but its not unprecedented in the Pac-12. Just for fun, I thought I’d do some research to see how other conference coaches who recently inherited terrible teams fared in their first four seasons. And the results are interesting.
Jeff Tedford took over a Cal football team that had just concluded a horrendous 1-11 season – its 7th straight losing campaign. Tedford performed a minor miracle in his first year: the Golden Bears actually had a winning season, going 7-5. Overall, Tedford’s first four Cal teams compiled a record of 31-17. Cal elevated itself to the point where it was considered a potential title contender by Tedford’s fourth season.
Jim Harbaugh was hired to coach Stanford after that team also suffered an 1-11 season. The Cardinal had losing years under Harbaugh the first two seasons, but by the third season it went 8-5 and in year four (with Harbaugh’s recruits and system firmly in place) went 12-1, culminating with an Orange Bowl win.
I’ve been reading articles about the drop off in QB Keith Price’s play compared to last year – and most critics are quick to point out that he lacks play-makers around him after the departure of their top RB and WR last season. But my question is: why aren’t there more play-makers around him by now? Given his offensive background and focus, wouldn’t you think that Sarkisian would have the Huskies loaded with talent on that side of the ball? Maybe they do and they’re all too young to contribute, I don’t know.
But what I do know is that Sarkisian isn’t feeling much heat and likely won’t if the Huskies manage to finish above .500 and make it to a bowl game again. Even if they finish with a losing record, he’ll get a pass based on the previous improvement of the team.
Don’t get me wrong, as a Ducks fan I am happy about the current state of Husky football and am not advocating any kind of change that may boost UW to the serious challenger level. But based on performance and what I see on the field, this is not something Ducks fans will have to worry about for a long time – and the Seattle media and Huskies fan base will do their part by embracing .500 ball (because Sark is such a good guy).