SEATTLE — Lane Kiffin had barely gotten his airport pink slip in the wee hours of Sunday morning — yes, his USC coaching career became terminal in the terminal — when the name Steve Sarkisian began to be tossed out as a replacement candidate.
Let’s back up a step. Sarkisian’s name didn’t just emerge out of the ether a few days ago. Kiffin has been a “dead coach walking” since the Washington State loss, and it didn’t take a genius to realize that Sarkisian, with his USC ties, would be linked to the job if and when it opened.
So Sarkisian, on Monday, wisely addressed what he called “the giant elephant” in the room, hoping to manage the message before it engulfed his team.
In fact, with a showdown against fifth-ranked Stanford looming Saturday, Sarkisian even turned the rumors into a teachable moment during Monday’s team meeting.
“We’ve been on this zero-distractions kind of mantra since the offseason, getting ready to open up Husky Stadium,’’ he said at his weekly news luncheon. “I’ve been talking to them about it, so this was a cool opportunity for me this morning to go into our team meeting and use it from a personal standpoint.
“For them, too. Those kids are sitting at home in their dorms or their apartments watching ESPN, too. This is a great chance for us to really show and prove that there are zero distractions. We are focused on the task at hand. And the task at hand is a big one this week, and that’s playing Stanford.”
Here’s the irony: the Huskies have the capacity to make Sarkisian one of the hottest coaching commodities in the land if they can upset the Cardinal for the second consecutive year.
Imagine the buzz surrounding the Washington program — already on the rise with an unbeaten, 15th-ranked team, powered by the nation’s leading rusher in Bishop Sankey — should they prevail again on The Farm.
With mighty Oregon on deck in two weeks, the potential boost to Sarkisian’s reputation is self-evident. Ratchet up the success, and the coach will have to do some serious soul-searching, because he will be the flavor of the day, a target of every downtrodden team — including, most likely, the Trojans.
Back in January 2010, when Pete Carroll was lured away by the Seahawks, the first whispers began to be heard of a possible marriage with USC. Sarkisian shared tremendous success on Carroll’s Trojans staff.
But Sarkisian, who at the time was just one year into his Huskies tenure, told The Seattle Times he didn’t view Washington as a steppingstone.
“I love my job,’’ he said. “People don’t understand it, but this is my dream job.”
Flash forward nearly four years, and Sarkisian still is saying all the right things. He began Monday by expressing empathy for Kiffin — a close friend from the days they coached together at USC — and his family.
“We are real people,’’ he said. “We’re figureheads in a sense because we’re coaches, but our wives and our kids lead real lives. They deal with it more on a day-to-day basis than we do. My first thoughts are to them.’’
Sarkisian expressed thanks to the man who hired him (former UW president Mark Emmert) as well as athletic director Scott Woodward and current president Mike Young.
“This is an awesome place to be,’’ he said. “And I have never once and I will never comment on hypothetical scenarios. I know that’s the world a lot of us in this room live in, and that’s your job to do. I understand that. But I’ve never done that in the 4½ years I’ve been here, and I won’t do that.
“I have great respect for USC and the rich history and tradition that they have. But I am proud to be the head football coach of the 15th-ranked team in America right now, and all the hard work that we’ve put into this program for the last five years to get to this point. To be in an awesome matchup on national television Saturday night against a national-championship contender in Stanford, that’s where my focus is.”
It was a well-crafted statement that hit all the proper notes, while not closing the door to anything. Later, Sarkisian went on his KJR coaches show and said his initial coaching goal with the Huskies was to use Don James’ standards as a jumping-off point. Sarkisian said he wanted to stay at Washington one year longer than James (who coached here 18 years), win one more national title (James had one), and one more consecutive Rose Bowl (James appeared in three in a row).
Those don’t sound like the words of a coach with wanderlust. But again, the more the Huskies succeed, the more his Husky loyalty will be put to the test.
Sarkisian said one goal of his team meeting was to remind players what a good thing they have going now, compared to the turmoil of a few years back.
“I really feel we’ve built this program the right way, and we’ve come a long, long way to get to this point.’’
Far enough, in fact, to let an elephant into the room.