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Chow Down to Washington 2009
Indian Wells, California, 17 March 2009

It was bright and serene with clear blue skies and just enough warmth in the air to suggest the searing desert heat of late spring was on its way.

Speaking of heat, hot seats, that is.

As we checked into the Renaissance Esmeralda Resort & Spa, my wife and I remembered former coach Tyrone Willingham and his wife Kim, who had led our way to the lobby the year before. We had been hopelessly lost in the large hotel, meandering near some elevators from where they suddenly emerged and acted as our tour guides.

Last year, the expectation was for Willingham to win at least half of his games and take the Huskies to a bowl. After the 0-12 season, expectations for the 2009 season have been considerably lowered -- however, Husky enthusiasm is skyrocketing thanks to the new, ebullient coach.

The dinner, “Chow down to Washington,” concluded a Washington alumni function called "Dawg Days in the Desert," which consisted of a lunchtime keynote address by coach Steve Sarkisian at the Desert Dawgs Golf Tournament on March 16. Sarkisian was also the guest of honor at the 20th annual Chow Down to Washington banquet on the 17th.

The banquet was held in the Emerald ballroom, which is located in a separate building apart from the hotel, just north of the pool area. In the ballroom itself, the dinner tables surrounded a raised speaker’s platform that was setup in the middle of the ballroom, giving everyone in attendance a ring-side view of the two speakers, University president Mark Emmert and Sarkisian.

As we ate dinner, a slide show played on the large screens that were arranged on three sides of the large room. The slide show consisted of photographs showing old buildings on campus, former students and faculty members, student activities – and one photo of Gil Dobie, the sad Scott.

Emmert talked about the high quality of students attending the university, saying that their grade points are getting so high that half of us here would be Cougars. He said anyone concerned about the future of this country should come to campus and strike up a conversation with any of the students at random. You’ll go away, he said, and feel optimistic about the future.

Coach Sarkisian followed Emmert to the speaker’s platform. Sark spoke for 37 minutes, which included a session where he answered questions from the audience.

He said we are going to get back to competing for conference championships and national championships. Those are our goals. In this regard, he drew the largest applause of the night when he acknowledged the presence of former coach Don James, who was seated at his table.

Sarkisian said that football nowadays is about speed and space: changing direction and speed, speed, speed.

This year is not to be remembered as being a transition year, he added.

We start spring practice March 31, he said. We are going to practice so intensely that we won’t have any physical workouts at the end of practice. I hope by that he meant bear crawls, too, which I think are demeaning to non-performing players. He encouraged all of us fans to attend the practices.

Asked if Locker might switch to another position, he said Jake Locker is going to be our quarterback. He added that Locker is a football player, not a baseball player, intimating he won’t be playing baseball this summer.

One woman asked him what the alumni could do to help the coaching staff. He said buy tickets to the games, attend them and make as much noise as you can.

That reminded Sarkisian of the 1995 game with Washington in Seattle, when as a BYU quarterback, he was sacked 8 or 9 times, and later taken to a hospital for an MRI on his knee. BYU (14-1) suffered its only loss of the season, and he still remembers all the noise in the stadium that cost the Cougars numerous in-motion penalties. 

Another fan asked him about how the recruitment of a well-known, local athlete was going. Sarkisian threw a yellow flag at him, telling him he was being penalized for asking a question that NCAA rules don’t permit him to comment on. A bowl of yellow flags sat on the table, just in case.

After Sarkisian’s talk and the question-and-answer period – with fans, dignitaries, and alike mingling together in the emptying ballroom -- I asked Sarkisian how he felt about the offensive line and whether a few defensive players might be asked to help out on that side of the ball. He said the OL was in good hands with Dan Cozzetto and that some defensive players might switch sides.

Since I’d written an article about stopping the run, I asked him whether he thought his defense could stop the run this year. With uncertainty showing in his eyes, he told me his team was going to stop the run. What he meant, of course, is that the Huskies need to a better job than last year in stopping the run when they gave up 240.58 rushing yards per game, finishing 117th in FBS football. I put words in his mouth, so I'm giving him a break here, as it was also an off-the-cuff remark.

Several of us fans talked with Sarkisian about the personalities of past Washington coaches. I chimed in saying that Sark reminded me of Neuheisel. "Neuheisel!" he replied, his voice inflection implying that umbrage was being taken. Meekly I replied, "I meant your personalities," then realized I was being conned.

My wife told him that I ran a Husky website, and he replied that I'd already told him that -- which was at a time before the dinner started when we'd posed together for a picture. He has a good memory for faces.

One incident incurred with an alum showed me the coach has good judgment that go beyond his years when dealing with fans.

My wife asked former coach Don James how many games he thought the Huskies would win this year, and he replied, “a couple of games,” most likely thinking about games   with Idaho and Washington State. They should win a couple of games he repeated, not budging off the diminutive “a couple,” like say, winning several games, which I hoped he would say.

He said we could have won a couple of games last year.

And there were some minor goofs from the big pooh-pahs.

During his talk, Sarkisian referred to a 13-game season this year. Since there are only 12 games scheduled in the Huskies 2009 season, maybe he was talking about a bowl game, too. ;-)

Dr. Emmert referred to all those red-shirted Ohio State fans in town last year as part of his pitch for the tourist tax and the stadium funding issue. Those were Oklahoma fans, Dr. Emmert, so touché. ;-)


;-) means tongue-in-cheek. 

Richard Linde can be reached at malamute@4malamute.com

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