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December 8, 2008 10:04 PM

Steve Sarkisian: Not as big a gamble as advertised

Posted by Jerry Brewer

When the Mariners hired Don Wakamatsu as their rookie manager, GM Jack Zduriencik interrupted talk about his lack of seasoning to offer a different view.

"He's a new manager, but he's not inexperienced," Jack Z said, citing his yeoman's work in various coaching jobs throughout baseball. "Don't discredit what he's accomplished just because he hasn't had the top job."

The words were appropriate coming from a man who waited until age 57 to get his GM gig. And those words can be applied to the new Husky football coach, Steve Sarkisian.

I know he's only been around for one press conference, but I think he's going to be a hit.

For certain, Sarkisian will have an adjustment period as a first-time head coach. It's a different world being in charge of everything, instead of just the offense. We will see his weaknesses, especially early on, but ultimately I believe he will grow into an incredible success here.

Why? Because he respects the Husky tradition and craves the opportunity to build upon it.

Because he embraces the pressure of expectations.

Because he understands the culture of winning.

Winning is the only thing he knows. He experienced it as a player, and while at USC, he's been part of a standard so ridiculously high that bad quarters almost seem like defeats.

The Huskies took a risk hiring a coordinator over a sitting head coach, but it's not as big a gamble as previously thought.

"This wasn't some guy we threw deep on at the end of the process," athletic director Scott Woodward said. "This is a guy we thought about from the beginning."

I asked Woodward to detail the Thanksgiving night interview that he and president Mark Emmert had with Sarkisian. It's been hailed as the night Sark turned from a candidate to the candidate.

"I canceled a trip to go back to Louisiana and see my family," Woodward said, laughing. "I wasn't happy about that, but it had to be done. By the end, I was thinking, 'Man, that guy is special.'

"It was like he got a perfect score. We were checking off mental boxes about everything we wanted from a coach, from toughness to attitude to the belief in the University of Washington to passion to leadership, all the tangibles and intangibles we were looking for."

By the end, Woodward and Emmert were convinced that age and inexperience didn't need to be major factors when thinking about Sarkisian. When it came time to make a decision, they chose the USC offensive coordinator over at least two sitting head coaches they could've gotten, Texas Tech's Mike Leach and Fresno State's Pat Hill.

And, no, money wasn't the deciding factor.

Woodward was prepared to spend up to $3 million, if need be. But he liked Sarkisian better. And to prove Washington didn't try to save every penny it could, look at the five-year, $10 million deal the Huskies offered, one that makes Sarkisian one of the four highest-paid coaches in the conference before he even signs his first recruit as the head coach.

"I don't think it's about age," Sarkisian said. "I think it's about the way you approach it."

On his first day, Sarkisian approached it perfectly. All press conferences are grin-and-talk-big affairs, but his message resonated. He understood exactly what to say to excite Husky fans. And he has the talent to back it up.

Yes, this job will be a challenge. There's no getting around 0-12. But the Huskies aren't as down as they seem, and with 17 returning starters (18 if linebacker Trenton Tuiasosopo returns for a sixth season), this team will have some experience. It's going to take quite a coaching effort to restore these players' confidence and fix the flaws in their fundamentals, but Sarkisian has some talent on this roster.

That said, this is far from a roster that could compete for a Pac-10 title right now. He'll have to maximize the talent of his returning players and recruit like crazy to get this roster where it needs to be.

His recruiting philosophy: Win the wars within the state and become a major factor again in Southern California.

"The top players in this state should never leave," Sarkisian said. "This is too good of an institution, too good of a program for a kid to want to leave. There's no question, we're going to put a wall up around the state of Washington, around Seattle and the surrounding areas and these kids are not going to leave any more. We're going to keep them here, and we need to do a good job when we get out of here of identifying the top talent on the West Coast and go after it and go get it."

Time will tell how successful he can be, but I've got a good feeling about this guy. He's too smart, too hard a worker and too well-groomed by star coaches to fail. He could very well be the next Bob Stoops or Mark Richt, a rising assistant coach given a major job at a BCS school who catches on quickly and thrives.

"I think he's a fearless guy," said John Featherstone, the El Camino Community College coach who persuaded Sarkisian to return to football after he stopped playing baseball. "And quarterbacks really have to be fearless. There's no doubt in Steve Sarkisian's mind that he's going to win there.

"I can guarantee you that, mentally and physically, he will have the team ready and confident that they can win every game. That's what he knows, what he's always been around. I know he'll take that same flavor right to the Huskies."

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