Throughout the year as I’ve written about the UW Football program, I’ve heard from a certain segment of people who tell me that Sarkisian is not the right guy for the program, that he’s in over his head, and that he was a bad hire because he hadn’t been a head coach before. And nownow that he’s guided this program from 0 12 to 5 7 in his first season and 6 6 and the Holiday Bowl in his second season I’m hearing people say that Sarkisian isn’t long for UW and that he’ll leap at some other “big” job in college or the NFL. It’s funny, no? Of course, there are others who are poking fun at UW fans for getting excited about being “mediocre” and that Sarkisian will never be anything more than that.
As bipolar as the first two groups are, it’s that last group that confuses me the most. I’m not sure where the animus comes from, but it’s pretty sad. It’s the kind of thing that exists at the bottom of stories in the comments section, but very rarely in real life, because oftentimes the guy saying snarky things is likely to get punched in the face if he spoke in the same biting manner that he writes, hiding in the bosomy confines of anonymity.
While I quibble with his playcalling at times, I believe in Sarkisian. He appears to be a stand up man, who accepts responsibility, has a good offensive mind, is a motivator, is a leader, and who has an obvious connection with his players (current and potential), coaching staff, administration, boosters, and (most) fans. I also take him at his word, that UW is a dream job for him. And honestly, isn’t it? He gets to raise his family in a robust international metropolitan area with myriad cultural and outdoor activities. He’s at a giant school with enormous resources (financial and otherwise) and the commitment from the administration. He also happens to be in the biggest conference (and getting bigger) on the West Coast (and as a guy who has spent his entire coaching career in that region, it means something) at a program that is not elite at present, but once was. He could be the architect that puts everything together and makes the program a force again. I’m not saying that he will or he won’t, but you can’t tell me that the prospect of doing so is not exhilarating for him. No other college job in the country offers that opportunity and is in an area where he feels like he’s in his wheelhouse (again, the West Coast). I suppose it could be USC, but Sarkisian strikes me as a guy who wants to finish what he started and jumping at USC (presumably following Lane Kiffin, once he fails Air Jordan 4s there) would be kind of a chump move because of their relationship, and I don’t view Sarkisian as a chump. The guy can make his own mark at UW and be known as the guy who turned a moribund program around. That’s what legends are made of.
Also, Sarkisian appears to be a smart guy who has seen the damage that results from grass is greener thinking. He has the benefit of hindsight ahead of time, which I suppose is foresightHe saw his colleague, Kiffin, get destroyed when he went to the NFL (albeit Oakland), then saw him leave his comfort zone on the West Coast to chase an SEC dream, and then saw him lambasted for leaving that job to head to USC. He’s seen college coaches, the best in the college game, head to the NFL and fail, miserably (Steve Spurrier and Nick Saban to name only two); and he’s seen other guys try to make the leap who were simply okay in college game and obviously weren’t NFL material (Rick Neuheisel, Mike Riley, and Bobby Petrino to name three). Some guys know where they belong and I get the sense that Sarkisian has a feel for that.
In the Pac 10, I see only one guy who would make sense as an NFL head coach and that is Jim Harbaugh although I’m on record hoping that he stays because he’s an awesome coach and it’s always good to have great talent in a conference to keep things uber competitive. The other day the Stanford AD made Air Jordan 8s noise about Harbaugh staying at Stanford, and I commented that Stanford better pony up serious CEO money to keep him because he is a hot commodity right now. As for the other programs in the Pac 10? Paul Wulff? Obviously not; I think he should be given a chance to turn around WSU, but no NFL team would be remotely interested in him. Chip Kelly? Maybebut I see him more of a guy who would be able to consult with an NFL team on his spread offense principles rather than run a whole team. Mike Riley? No chance. He knows he made a mistake years ago heading to San Diego although is going to San Diego ever a mistake? Not in my book when I’m looking outside and it looks like the set of The Road. Jeff Tedford? Hmm. Maybe, but the shine might be off of him lately. His QB guru bona fides have taken a serious hit. At best he’s an offensive coordinator and more likely a possible QB coach at the NFL level. Lane Kiffin? Um, no. Rick Neuheisel? He knows better now. Dennis Erickson? He knows he made a mistake years ago and now he’s old and no one would ever take that risk again. Mike Stoops? I’d really love to see this actually, if Jordan Pro Strong only for the chance that his team would be featured on Hard Knocks and we got to see him berate some 12 year veteran linebacker who subsequently shoves Stoops’s nose through the back of his neck.
But all of this talking about Sarkisian made me think about what his future may hold at UW, and what the 0 12 to 6 6 means contextually in the history of the Pac 10. Is it a big deal? Is it a shoulder shrug? I didn’t know, so I looked and aside from finding a treasure trove of coaches names (seriously, we’ll get to that in a bit, the Pac 10 has had some gems over the years).
Since Sarkisian has been at UW for two full regular seasons, I decided to look at all of the coaching changes in Pac 10 history to see how a new coach compares to the coach immediately preceding them. Pac 8, PCC) teams have gone winless only six times. Badenoch 0 4 (inaugural season)
After those six historic seasons, only three of the head coaches were replaced the following year. Willingham is the only one that was fired postwar. This speaks to the incredible level of incompetence that Willingham displayed and also shows just how difficult it is to lose every single game on a schedule.
My point is this: the situation that Sarkisian walked into is unprecedented in modern times. You have to go all the way back to 1937 to find a coach that was fired after going winless. So, while a winless season is nearly unprecedented, we can find some historic analogy. Here, that analogy is the 1 win coach, especially in modern times.
In the history of the Pac 10, 15 head coaches have been replaced after posting a futile 1 win season.
Washington has done it four times (2004 Keith Gilbertson 1 10; 1920 Stub Allison 1 5; 1918 Anthony 1 1; 1917 Claude Hunt 1 2 1).
Stanford has done it three times (2006 Walt Harris 1 11; 1983 Paul Wiggin 1 10; 1939 Tiny Thornhill 1 7 1).
Cal has done it three times (2001 Tom Holmoe 1 10; 1950 Jim Aiken 1 9; 1925 Richard Smith 1 5 1).
Washington State has done it once (1955 Alton Kircher 1 7 2).
Oregon State has done it four times (1990 Dave Kragthorpe 1 10; 1979 Craig Fertig 1 10; 1975 Dee Andros 1 10; 1954 Kip Taylor 1 8).
The situations that most closely resemble the Willingham to Sarkisian succession are:Stanford’s Harris to Harbaugh succession (which only produced the highest win total in Stanford history in 2010)
Cal’s Holmoe to Tedford succession (Tedford is only Cal’s most successful coach of all time averaging 8 wins per season and is one win away from the most wins for any coach in Cal history)
So, will Sarkisian be Harbaugh or Tedford or will he be Willingham? Time will tell, of course, but it seem abundantly clear that his personality and coaching ability more closely mirrors the two guys in the Bay Area than the “retired” guy on the golf course. I expect Sarkisian to be good because he’s proven to me that he’s capable of building a program from rubble to respectability in just two years. People underestimate just how downtrodden the program had become under Willingham’s regime. As the numbers reflect, a winless season is unbelievably rare in the Pac 10 and when you add that 0 12 season to the four miserable seasons that preceded it (cumulatively known as an entire recruiting cycle), then what Sarkisian has Air Jordan 16s done is nothing short of miraculous. From 0 wins to 11 (netting 11) in two years is better than what Harbaugh Air Jordan 13s did (1 win to 9 wins; netting 8) and is close to what Tedford did (1 win to 15 wins; netting 14). The only coaches to net more wins (the previous season’s wins counting against him) in his first two seasons (in the 90s and 00s) are: