Everything about Steve Sarkisian’s early days at Washington was loud and designed to attract attention to a program that had lost its way. Everything he did was made to feel bigger than it actually was.
His introductory news conference in the Don James Center had the feel of an inauguration speech. The only thing that was missing was a Bible and a solemn oath to uphold the values of Enoch Bagshaw, Jim Owens and Don James.
The arrival of Sarkisian’s first defensive coordinator Nick Holt called for another full-house news conference. You would have thought Pete Carroll, not Holt, was leaving USC for Washington.
Every tweet was an exclamation point. Every announcement was breaking news.
Even the signing of every early recruit was reason for hyperbole. How many of those first players in that first class seemed to have all-conference, All-American, NFL draft potential?
Sarkisian came to Washington loud and just a little brash. He was heavy metal for a program that had become easy listening.
He wanted fans, recruits, other programs to listen to the Huskies again. He couldn’t afford to be meek or mild about it. He was the coach-as-bullhorn.
“I probably was a bit brash early on,” Sarkisian said, sitting on a couch in his office, finding a few minutes to talk before the beginning of a recent practice. “We probably did a few things to keep our name in the news so that people were talking about our program. I wanted us on the 11 o’clock news. I wanted high-school kids to see Washington football around. And I also wanted our current kids to know that we were here to win championships. I wanted them to understand that.
“When I got the job I felt like the perception of this program had fallen off. I wanted to make sure that I was taking this job because of what this program once was and was going to be again. To do that, we had to get our name out there. We had to get people talking about Washington football again.”
And when Washington upset the Carroll-coached Trojans 16-13 in Sarkisian’s third game as a head coach, the new Washington coach proclaimed that rebuilding this once-moribund program wasn’t going to take very long.
“I felt like we had a group of guys that year who wanted to do something in their careers that they hadn’t done before,” said Sarkisian, who came to Washington from USC, where he was Carroll’s offensive coordinator. “They were kind of downtrodden and beat up and they wanted to do some things that year for the reasons that they came here for. Win big games. Be on national television. And that game was indicative of how far we’d come.
“Those kids knew what that game meant to me and I really felt like that was the first time our team had a chance to really celebrate and embrace the moment together. That moment allowed us to really come together and I think we’ve been apart very few times since then.”
In the beginning, everything was orchestrated to feel bigger than life for this program that had been near death.
“The first press conference, you come in and, at the time you’re hired, it’s you. You don’t have a staff. You don’t know who’s here. You don’t know people’s names,” Sarkisian said. “And the feeling is, ‘I need to do this myself. I’m going to conquer this myself.’ You’re just plowing through things. Now, four years later, I feel fortunate to be surrounded by really good people.”
Dramatically, Sarkisian has changed Washington’s culture. He said, in his fourth year, he “feels different.” Feels as if he can rely more on the people surrounding him. That he can relax more, be more connected to his players and enjoy the experience more than he could when he arrived.
The remodeling of Husky Stadium is, in part, a testament to the improvement he has engineered. The lack of ballyhoo when defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox was hired to replace Holt, or when recent four-star recruits have been signed, speaks to his belief that people are paying attention.
In the four seasons before Sarkisian arrived Washington was 11-37. The Huskies are 19-19 in his three seasons. They’ve been to consecutive bowl games and Sarkisian is working on his fourth straight top-25 recruiting class.
Now we hear the quiet that comes with success.
“I think we’re at a point now, we’re on the map,” he said. “I don’t think we need to do things anymore to create publicity. We’re here and now it’s about staying power. We don’t need to generate that buzz, whether it’s through comments that I make, or through hires that we make or through recruits that we sign.”
Back in the days of Don James, Sarkisian got a letter from the University of Washington. James didn’t sign the letter. His signature was stamped at the bottom. Still, Sarkisian said, the letter and that name at the bottom gave him goose bumps.
Now it’s his turn to take the next step in the building process, turning the buzz about Washington football into goose bumps again.