SEATTLE — The last time a head football coach voluntarily left the University of Washington for another job was 1956, when Darrell Royal moved to Texas after one season as the Huskies’ coach.
In a sudden development that blindsided his UW players, Steve Sarkisian on Monday was named head coach at USC, leaving the Huskies after five seasons to return to his roots. In Los Angeles, Sarkisian, 39, could end up doubling his UW salary of $2.9 million.
Washington athletic director Scott Woodward said Monday afternoon he had already initiated a search to find Sarkisian’s successor. Sarkisian will not coach the Huskies in a still-to-be-determined bowl game later this month, and no interim coach has been named.
Sarkisian met with UW players at the Husky Stadium football offices at 2 p.m. Monday.
“At the end of the day, his family gotta eat,” UW senior quarterback Keith Price said moments after the meeting. “I’m sure if you were offered a lot of money to leave, I’m sure you would take that job, too. I’m not mad at him. It was just a business decision, and he made the right decision for his family.”
At 7 p.m., Sarkisian met with USC players in Los Angeles, then talked briefly with L.A. media.
“It’s been an emotional day or so for the players here and for myself,” Sarkisian said.
Among the coaches linked to UW’s search are UCLA’s Jim Mora, the former Husky and ex-Seahawks coach; Alabama assistant Doug Nussmeier, the former UW offensive coordinator under Sarkisian; Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, a former UW assistant under Don James; Boise State coach Chris Petersen; and popular UW defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, who would likely follow Sarkisian to USC if he doesn’t get the UW job.
“I will work hard in the coming days to find the absolute best fit for the University of Washington but I will not comment on or speculate about the process,” Woodward said in a statement. “We have tremendous tradition, fan base and a world-class institution, and I am confident we will find the right man. We will compete for Pac-12 and national championships and we will do so with class, integrity, sportsmanship and a commitment to our student-athletes.”
USC, a private university, did not disclose terms of Sarkisian’s contract, but the Trojans had reportedly been willing to pay a new coach upward of $6 million per year. Sarkisian made $2.9 million at the UW last season.
Sarkisian’s departure comes just three days after the Huskies ended the regular season with a 27-17 victory over Washington State in the Apple Cup on Friday. That left the Huskies with an 8-4 record, the best season of Sarkisian’s tenure.
“It hurts a little. A little bit of shock,” UW defensive end Hau’oli Kikaha said. “(But) we’re fine with everything that’s happened. We gotta move on, all together, and stay tight as a team and continue to persevere with what’s next.”
Sarkisian spent seven seasons as an assistant coach at USC under Pete Carroll in the 2000s. He was 34 when he landed his first head-coaching job with the Huskies in 2009, taking over a UW team that finished 0-12 in 2008.
“First, I’d like to thank the University of Washington and athletic director Scott Woodward for the opportunity they gave me five years ago,” Sarkisian said in a statement. “I believe the Husky program is in a better place now than when we arrived, and I am proud and thankful of the players for that.
“That said, I am extremely excited to be coming home to USC and for the opportunity that USC presents to win championships. I can’t wait to get started.”
USC fired Lane Kiffin in late September, and Sarkisian’s name soon emerged as a potential replacement. But, in the two months since, USC was linked to a number of other, more high-profile coaches, and Sarkisian seemed to fall off the radar.
It appears that the offer to Sarkisian emerged suddenly over the weekend. In an interview with KJR-AM on Monday morning, Sarkisian confirmed that he had had a talk with USC athletic director Pat Haden over the weekend, but Sarkisian said it was not a formal interview.
Several hours later, just before 11 a.m. Monday, reports surfaced that Sarkisian had accepted the USC job.
Right about then, Price learned via social media that Sarkisian was leaving. Several other UW players took to Twitter to express shock at the news.
“It was surprising,” Price said. “I think I heard it right when I got done lifting (weights) this morning, and I turned on ESPN and that was like the top story. So that was strange.”
One UW player, who asked to remain anonymous, told The Seattle Times that Sarkisian planned to bring several Washington assistant coaches with him to L.A., including Wilcox.
In the short term, the coaching staff shake-up could have the biggest impact on the UW’s recruiting efforts. Already Monday, one recruit who had given a verbal (nonbinding) commitment to UW recanted that commitment via Twitter. That leaves the Huskies with just seven committed recruits heading toward national signing day Feb. 5, the fewest among any of the schools in the Pac-12 Conference.
Sarkisian is scheduled to be introduced at USC at a 2 p.m. news conference Tuesday. He takes over for interim coach Ed Orgeron, who resigned Monday after learning he wouldn’t get the head-coaching position.
“We are delighted to welcome Steve Sarkisian back to the Trojan Family,” Haden said in a statement. “We conducted a very exhaustive and thorough search, pinpointing about 20 candidates and interviewing five of them. We kept coming back to Sark. He is the only one who was offered the job. I believe in my gut that he is the right coach for USC at this time.”
Sarkisian, a Torrance, Calif., native, played baseball briefly on a partial scholarship at USC for one season before landing at BYU as a quarterback. He joined Carroll’s USC staff in 2001.
“Steve Sarkisian has done a wonderful job in bringing our football program back to respectability and mentoring the young men in the program as they pursue their educations here at the UW,” UW President Michael K. Young said in a statement. “We thank him for his efforts. He has worked hard and with dedication to the program. There is more work to do, and it will be up to the next Husky football coach to do it.”