At the Pac-12 Poker Table, is Washington's Sark an Easy Mark?

If Husky fans think back to September 2009, they'll remember Steve Sarkisian's first game as head coach. Washington was coming off an 0-12 season and morale was at an all-time low. Sarkisian had been hired off Pete Carroll's USC staff and was well versed in the winning ways of Troy (I like to refer to USC as Troy; It's what I like to do).

In Sark's debut, Washington hosted the mighty LSU Tigers at Husky Stadium. Nobody knew what to expect, but most Husky fans braced themselves for a possible blowout loss. But that didn't happen. By the fourth quarter the game wasn't in doubt, as LSU would get the road win. But the Huskies showed some good things, got a late touchdown in garbage time, and lost by a respectable 31-23.

In the aftermath, Husky fans unleashed a torrent of enthusiasm toward Sark that startled many -- including Sark himself. In his press conference the following Monday, an incredulous Sarkisian shook his head while smiling and said "I've never been congratulated so much for losing a game."

Right there was a critical moment. Sarkisian probably didn't realize it, but he was at a crossroads. Would he be the one to reshape Husky Nation? Or would Husky Nation reshape him?

He could have made it clear that losing is losing and warn the fans of Washington not to fall into the trap of moral victories.

Two games later, that concern seemed moot, as Husky fans rushed the field in the wake of a shocking 16-13 win over USC. In the papers was a winsome picture:  Sark and defensive coordinator Nick Holt exiting the field in ecstasy. Sark's proclamation of Holt being "the best defensive coordinator in the country" could not be argued.

Nor could anyone argue with Sark's post-game claim that the rebuilding at Washington "isn't going to take very long."

But the USC loss proved to be a flash in the pan. Momentum wasn't sustained. Washington went on to lose 6 of its next 7, as many observers held Sark as responsible for three of the losses (Notre Dame, ASU and UCLA).

In the three intervening seasons since then, the Huskies have gone 7-6 each year. And each season has featured head-scratching verbal gaffes from Sark, leading some followers to wonder if he's an "easy mark" at the proverbial poker table of the Pac-12.

To wit:

In August 2010, Sarkisian publicly guaranteed the Huskies would go undefeated at home. That only lasted until mid-September, as Nebraska came to town and humiliated the Huskies 56-21. The website sponsored by the UW to promote quarterback Jake Locker's Heisman candidacy would soon be shut down in mid-season. Meanwhile, the Huskies would lose 3 times that year at home. And a head coach of a conference team confided that he liked Sark personally a great deal, but considered him a sub-par coach. 

In 2011, Washington's season got off to a gangbusters start, going 5-1 against an admittedly light schedule. However, optimism abounded -- and rightly so. But then Stanford obliterated the Huskies 65-21, decimating the Dawgs in every facet of the game. The following week, the Huskies rebounded with a win over Arizona. After this, Sarkisian expressed relief that the team had reached six wins for the season, stating that the team was playing the rest of the year with "house money".

That appalling comment seemingly represented Sarkisian's demeanor toward the team and his general worldview. The Huskies played with no urgency in losing 3 of its last 4 games in withering fashion. The UW defense, led by Nick Holt -- the man Sark once called "the best coordinator in America", surrendered 67 points and 777 yards in a bowl game loss to Baylor.

In 2012, the head scratchers continued. In recruiting, the top three in-state players spurned Washington to go elsewhere -- for the second year in a row. On the field, LSU humiliated the Huskies on national TV  41-3, before Washington rebounded to beat #8 Stanford in exciting fashion. Sarkisian proclaimed at a press conference that the rest of the Pac-12 wasn't giving his team enough respect. An odd comment from someone who hadn't won more than 7 games in a season. But then came an epic collapse in the fourth quarter of the Apple Cup to the woeful Wazzu Cougars. That was followed by a late game fade in the Vegas Bowl against Boise, leaving UW once again at 7-6. Not exactly chest-thumping material.

Now, as we head into year 5 of Sark's tenure, the NFL Draft just concluded. Aside from the heartwarming hoopla surrounding cornerback Desmond Trufant being selected in the first round, no other Huskies were drafted. Trufant aside, an entire class of players that spent the past four years under Sarkisian were deemed unworthy of being drafted. A troubling pattern that has not changed since the Willingham days.

In poker and in life, there are "tells", where someone does something that gives insight into the bigger picture.

Two tough coaches in Seattle's past are Chuck Knox of the Seahawks and Don James of the Huskies. Knox used to scare the hell out of his players, or least set a serious tone. Said a lineman about one day at practice: "Nobody was charged-up. Nobody but Chuck Knox, that is. There's this pile up and we see him running toward it, then we see his clipboard fly, and... suddenly all we see are the bottoms of his shoes. He jumps right into the damn pile and starts head-butting people. What a crazy son of a gun."

Hearing that little detail, would it be any surprise that Knox's teams were regarded throughout the league as tough?

Don James told a story years ago that bespeaks of the big picture. In the winter of 1987 he was training for a marathon while in the heart of recruiting season. James' work ethic in recruiting -- and everything else -- is well-known. But amid his job, he was going to train for the marathon come hell or high water. "I had to do it during recruiting season, which was December, January and February," he said. "No matter where I was I'd get my run in -- sometimes in the morning, sometimes late at night."

Hearing that little detail, would it be a surprise that James was regarded as someone willing to do whatever it took to succeed?      

But Sarkisian stories often exude a different tone. There are dozens of yarns, like this one: When recruiting in Southern California, Sark showed up at the front door with an assistant coach wearing Husky helmets. When the recruit opened the door, Sark and his assistant started barking like a couple of frat boys. And back at home, in the Husky locker room the day before a game, that same mentality reigns. Gone is the Don James 48-hour rule of putting on a serious game face. In the Sark era, a radio blasts music while Husk y players joke and whoop it up with little sense of somberness.   

Given that kind of lenience, is it any surprise that QB Keith Price was smiling at midfield during the overtime coin flip of last year's Apple Cup, after the fourth quarter collapse?

This brief summation gives voice to the concerns that Sark isn't the genius so many believe him to be. In fact, he may be an easy mark. That's why many who yearn to see Husky Football return to dominance struggle to accept him as head coach -- because we don't want Husky Football to embrace mediocrity.   

As our friend and colleague Scott Eklund of Dawgman.com likes to say of us, "they want Sark to fail so they can say they were right."

Of course, that misses the mark. But in our eyes, what does constitute success for this season?   

Here's how some of us see it.. 

1-5    wins disaster
6      wins extremely disappointing
7      wins mediocrity defined, time for a new coach
8      wins decent season, time for a new coach
9      wins modestly successful season, Sark probably deserves another season 
10     wins successful season, Sark would deserve another season 
11-13   wins Spectacular season; Sark would deserve extension and healthy raise