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Holding Sark's feet to the fire
Rich Linde, 12 January 2009

Now that the newness of having a new head coach on board has been with us for a little over a month, the question of goals and a timetable for reaching them emerges through all the hoopla and euphoria of Steve Sarkisian’s hiring.

Getting a new football coach is like buying a new car. It seems to drive better than the old one and it looks shinier, but can it live up to all the hype we saw on TV and heard from the dealership? In this case, the Trojan football factory.

It’s time to look under the hood, to see what we’ve got and make some projections.

Fortunately for our new model (the 2009 Sarkisian), the old car was totaled -- that is, the 2008 Willingham -- to wit: the Huskies are coming off a 0-12 season and finished 100th or higher among the 119 teams in 25 of the FBS’s statistical categories.

At his introductory news conference, with that in mind, Sarkisian said “There is only one place to go but up.”

Sarkisian says he knows Husky football and knows what Husky Stadium can be. “I know it's something that's attainable for us. It's going to happen quickly, it's going to happen fast, it's going to take the support of everyone involved.”

"The top players in this state should never leave. This is too good of an institution; this is too good of a program for any kid to want to leave so there is no question. So we're going to put a wall up around the state of Washington, around the Seattle and surrounding areas. We're going to keep them here. And when we get out of here, we're going to do a good job identifying the top talent on the West Coast and go after it and go get it."

The first and second goals: building a wall around the state and bettering Willingham’s recruiting record.

Signing 5-star quarterback Jake Heaps and other State of Washington blue chippers to the 2010 recruiting class is an achievable goal and one that will provide a measure of Sarkisian’s progress relative to building a wall around the state.

Scout.com ranks Willingham’s recruiting classes as follows: 2005: 55; 2006: 35; 2007: 29; and 2008: 14. The 2009 class, Sarkisian’s class, is currently ranked 77th in the nation. See Bob Condotta's article on this topic.

Tracking Sarkisian's recruiting rankings will be an early indication that an improving won/lost record is in the works or vice versa.

The third goal: improving stats:

Along the road to Sarkisian's success at Washington, an improving set of statistics will be a necessary goal. See the statistics from last season. They can't get any worse than that.

The fourth goal: looking for a benchmark.

An improving won/lost column is Sarkisian's last measure of performance.

How about getting the Huskies back to a bowl game? The Huskies’ last bowl appearance was in the 2002 Sun Bowl, when they had their last winning season.

Is there a Rudy story in conference lore for Sarkisan to emulate, to give us fans hope for a return to a winning season and a bowl appearance?

In 1957, Jim Owens took over a 5-5 UW team from Darrell Royal. He parlayed it into a 10-1 team in 1959 and a winner in the 1960 Rose Bowl. Besides taking over a better team, in relative terms, than Sarkisian is inheriting, Owens had the “death march” and the limited substitution rule to pave his way.

So, throw the early Owens’ era out as a paradigm (do you have a pair of dimes for a quarter cup of coffee?) 

In 1975, Don James took the reins from Jim Owens and went 6-5, bettering Owens’ 5-6 record from the previous year. James’s Washington team beat Michigan in the 1978 Rose Bowl, 27-20. His illustrious career was helped along by NCAA scholarship reductions that began in 1973, not to say James couldn’t have done it on his own.

Toss James’s record out as a comparator, as Cal, Oregon State, and Oregon are all more formidable competitors now than during James's time.

How about looking around the league for another model?

Like Sarkisian, Cal’s head coach Jeff Tedford was a former offensive coordinator that provides another potential role model.

In 2002, his first year at Cal, Tedford went 7-5, which was a marked improvement over the previous year when the Bears finished 1-10 under Tom Holmoe. The Bears hadn’t had a winning season since 1993, and Tedford was named Pac-10 coach of the year in 2002. In his amazing story, Tedford is now 59-30 overall at Cal, has a 5-1 bowl record and is 36-23 in the Pac-10.

Since Tedford’s magic at Cal seems like a miracle more than a Horatio Alger story, I won’t hold Sark to Tedford’s unbelievable standard. Obviously, the Holmoe cupboard wasn't completely bare.

Then there is Mike Riley at Oregon State who has posted a record of 46-28 over his last 6 years with the Beavers. In 2003 when he came on board for his second stint with the Beavers, he inherited an 8-5 team from 2002, which hardly qualifies as a schlock. However, he is credited for laying the groundwork for the success of the Beavers during his previous stint at OSU during the 1997 and 1998 seasons. From 1971 through 1998, OSU had 28-straight losing seasons. The Beavers posted a winning season in 1999, when they went 7-5-0 under Dennis Erickson. Erickson went 11-1 in 2000 and finished with 5-6 and 8-5 seasons in 2001 and 2002.

The 85-scholarship rule was in full effect in the Pac-10 beginning with the 1994 season, and is the reason Erickson and Riley's successes wouldn't be appropriate benchmarks.

The table below lists coaches in the Pac-10 who produced a winner after taking over a perennial loser. Column 1 lists the name of the coach and the year he took over; column 2 lists the school's record in the year before he took over; column 3 lists the number of years before producing a winner; and column 4 lists the reason the coach's record either is not or could be a fair comparator for Sark's situation.

Coach  Record Yrs. Helped by
Owens, 1957 5-5 2 NCAA rules change; Death March
James, 1975 5-6 1 OSU, Cal, UO weren't factors; NCAA
Tedford, 2002 1-10 1 A miracle?
Erickson, 1999 5-6 1 85-scholarship rule
Riley, 2003 8-5 0 85-scholarship rule
M. Stoops, 2004 2-10 5 Himself; most apt comparator

But…there is a more apt benchmark in the Pac-10 that could directly apply to Sarkisian and become a timetable for getting to a bowl, and that is Mike Stoops’ success story at Arizona.

In his first year with the Wildcats in 2004, Stoops went 3-8, the ‘Cats having gone 2-10 the previous year, a year when John Makovic was fired at mid-season.. Stoops’ subsequent W/L record (2005: 3-8; 2006: 6-6; and 2007: 5-7) is capped by a winning season in 2008 (8-5) and a victory over BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl. The Wildcats’ previous bowl appearance was in 1998.

On December 23, Stoops was given a contract extension through the 2013 season by UA athletic director Mike Livengood. His previous contract ran through 2010.

Sarkisian’s (Washington’s 2008 record) and Stoops’ (Arizona’s 2003 record) starting points are nearly the same as shown by the table below.

Sark/Stoops' starting numbers UW -- 2008 UA -- 2003
Season's record 0-12 2-10
Scoring Offense 13.2 15.4
Scoring Defense 38.6 35.8
Total Offense 263.2 307.5
Total Defense 451.8 460.2
Pass Efficiency 89.6 93.8
Pass Defense Efficiency 155.6 150.8

Stoop’s five-year record at Arizona is a fair comparative and the one I’ll hold Steve Sarkisian’s feet to the fire with. In other words, I'm giving Sark five years to get to a bowl. (*)


(*) A comparative note: Arizona started off with three OOC patsies this year: Idaho (2-10); Toledo (3-9); and New Mexico (4-8). Arizona lost to New Mexico, 36-28, but won the other two. In Stoops’ other years at UA, he posted three wins over Northern Arizona and one win over Stephen F. Austin. Over that span of time (2004-2008) Arizona lost two games to Utah, one to Wisconsin, one to Purdue, one to BYU, one to LSU and another to New Mexico, this in 2007.

Sarkisian, likely, will have a tougher OOC schedule to hurdle. He will face LSU, Notre Dame and Idaho in 2009, for example.

Stoops first recruiting class at Arizona (the 2004 class) was ranked 64th in the nation by scout.com. After that his classes were ranked as follows: 15, 19, 49, and 39.

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

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