When it comes to head football coaches, you gotta know when to hold 'em, and know when to fold 'em. Regarding the Steve Sarkisian era at Washington, the time has come to walk away... Or maybe even run.
The 2012 Husky football season concluded with epic collapses against Washington State and Boise State, crapping out in the Vegas Bowl with a 7-6 record, the third year in a row for that win total. Now that Sarkisian has four seasons under his belt, his teams have a track record: Bi-polar confidence, poor discipline and a lack of attention to detail.
Everything about the Husky program feels like the "lite" version of what great programs are like. When you watch Oregon play, or even UCLA under coach Jim Mora, you see a hard-hitting, intense team that executes well. There've got gravitas. You can even feel it come through the TV screen.
But if you were a fly on the wall of the Husky locker room the day before a game, you would not see gravely serious players solemnly preparing for battle. Your little fly ears would be jarred by rap music blaring off the walls, and you'd witness players laughing and joking around.
Former UW coach Don James had his "48-hour rule". That meant that for the two days before any game, he didn't want his players focused on anything but school and Saturday's game. No joking, no horseplay, no screwing around. It represented an overall culture geared toward an intense focus on winning.
The lackadaisical approach to Sark's version of Husky Football shows itself on a regular basis. The Huskies trudge onto the field, sleepwalk through most first halves, commit dumb penalties and usually wilt amid pressure-packed moments. Against LSU, Oregon, USC, Arizona, Cal, Colorado and even Washington State, there was a disturbing lack of fire from the Husky players. A lack of motivation.
When they did show motivation it often felt propped up and artificial. This was illustrated late in Saturday's Vegas Bowl loss to Boise. When UW placekicker Travis Coons hit a 38-yard field goal with 4:09 remaining, Washington went ahead 26-25. Along the sideline, Husky players and assistant coaches launched into dance troupe mode: a juvenile-looking, vaguely effeminate dance routine of bouncing all around, followed by a move of reaching toward the ground and making a pulling motion. Even seasoned ESPN announcers Brent Musberger and Kirk Herbstreait were taken aback and made light of it. They said it looked like the players and coaches were yanking the pull cord on a lawnmower.
Of course, this display was immediately followed by a line drive kickoff directly to Boise State's Shane Williams-Rhodes, who promptly zipped through Washington's porous coverage for a 47-yard return into Husky territory. This prompted Herbstreit to quip to a national audience, "maybe Washington ought to keep the lawnmower in the garage until the game is over!"
Boise State went on to kick a game-winning field goal and beat Washington 28-26.
In the 48 hours following the massively disappointing Vegas Bowl loss, local commentators of Husky football all sang the same old, pro-Sark song. Everyone put the blame on quarterback Keith Price and his poor performance. Steve Kelly of the Seattle Times and Hugh Millen from KJR, called for open competition at the QB position in the spring. Kim Grinolds of Dawgman.com even blamed the season's failures on Price, saying this team would win 10 games without him.
However, none of them put any blame on coach Steve Sarkisian. None were calling for open competition at the head coaching position. Fans won't either. To varying degrees, most everyone in Husky Nation insists Sark is a great coach and will turn things around.
Nagging questions should plague the minds of everyone who care about Husky Football. Why did quarterback Jake Locker regress the longer he played under Sark? Why has Keith Price regressed horribly under Sark? Why is it, after four years, that Price is Sark's only option at quarterback? Why is it, after four years, that the offensive line is still overwhelmed in pass protection against a Mountain West Conference team? Why is it that the upper body physiques of the Husky players remain so underdeveloped compared to the likes of Oregon, USC and UCLA? Why is Washington continually plagued with turnovers and penalties?
Off-the-field, some questions are equally disturbing. Why is it, for the second season in a row, that the top three high school recruits in the state of Washington are leaving to play for other Pac-12 teams? Where's the outcry and criticism toward Sark for these big-time whiffs? Especially when, armed with assistant Tosh Lupoi, he's supposedly an awesome recruiter?
No, there are only excuses. Even from Sarkisian himself, who seems exceedingly comfortable and secure in his position. It seems just a few rah-rah speeches to the media and boosters are sufficient to nourish the illusion and keep it alive. His performance at Washington would not cut it elsewhere where the bar's set higher.
For example, last Friday Sarkisian referred to the mediocre 2012 season as being "gratifying" and credited his players for playing hard. It was no difference, really, from a year ago, when following his sixth win of the season, Sark expressed relief to be bowl eligible and proclaimed that the Huskies were playing the rest of the season "with house money."
What kind of message does this send to his players?
Over the past two days, I've been astonished by many friends and acquaintances. In one breath they express growing disappointment in Husky football, admitting their enthusiasm for next season is low, and that they've become numb to all the losing. But in the next breath, they'll say "but Sark's a great coach. He'll get this team turned around. He just needs more time."
I've said to them, "Sark has been here four years now and yet you're telling me you're not looking forward to next season.... Doesn't that tell you something?"
Their response, by and large, has been to tell me that I make a valid point. But after a moment of reflection, they return to the comfy mantra: "Sark's a great coach... He'll get this thing turned around."
Here's the grave new reality of Washington football: In Steve Sarkisian, the Huskies have the next Mike Bellotti. Or "Mediocre Mike", as Oregon fans used to call him. Always winning 6-8 games, just enough to reach lower tier bowls and not get fired. That was before the Oregon administration got smart. They located a better coach in Chip Kelly, smoothly kicked Bellotti upstairs into a front office position, and elevated Kelly to head coach.
And now the Ducks are a dominate force. It wouldn't have been possible without the change of coaches.
Does Washington athletic director Scott Woodward have the foresight and wiles to make such a ballsy move? The alternative is too bewildering to contemplate: Endless years of 6-8 wins a season and more dance troupe demonstrations along the sidelines of various bowls such as Vegas, Sun and Kraft Fight Hunger.
As Kenny Rogers once crooned: "Every gambler knows that the secret to survivin' is knowin' what to throw away and knowing what to keep."