PROVO — In his final game in a BYU uniform, quarterback Steve Sarkisian rallied the Cougars to a dramatic victory over Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl, throwing a game-winning 28-yard touchdown pass to cap one of the best seasons in school history — a 14-1 record and No. 5 national ranking.
But since his playing days ended nearly 14 years ago, "Sark" hasn't been back to campus.
That will change this weekend when he and his Washington team visit BYU in the 2010 season opener Saturday (5 p.m., CBS C).
It could be an emotional homecoming for Sarkisian, but he's trying not to approach this game against his alma mater that way.
"It's a business trip, for sure," Sarkisian said Monday. "I'll take a few moments on Friday to walk through and kind of reminisce. I had some great moments, great wins there. But ultimately, my concern is about these 105 kids in our program and the 76 that will be traveling with us to Provo. This is their weekend, it will be their day. That will be my focus."
As it turns out, eight former BYU All-American quarterbacks, including Sarkisian, will be honored at halftime at LaVell Edwards Stadium Saturday.
"I've made a pact with myself that if we are up by 21 (points), I'll go take the picture," he said.
In his second season at the helm, Sarkisian, 36, is in the process of rebuilding a proud program. He inherited a team that posted an 0-12 record in 2008 and guided the Huskies to a 5-7 mark a year ago.
"I think he's doing a nice job. I think his program is growing, building and having success," said Cougar coach Bronco Mendenhall. "I also think it's a testament to the kind of education and preparation he received here as BYU's quarterback that's helped him go on and be successful, as it has with most BYU quarterbacks that have left here. They've gone on and done some really neat things. So it doesn't surprise me. I see a lot of concepts that are very similar to BYU concepts when I look at their offense."
Sarkisian arrived in Provo in the winter of 1995 as a junior college transfer after previous Cougar starter John Walsh declared for the NFL draft. Former BYU tight end Chad Lewis said Sarkisian made an impact right away in spring ball.
"He had a determination to be great. He wasn't afraid of anything. He was confident in his abilities," Lewis said, adding that he still remembers the first pass Sarkisian threw to him. "That pass let me know that he knew exactly what he was doing ... He was a leader. He was a non-Mormon at BYU who fit in seamlessly. That's not always easy to do. I loved my time with Steve."
Sarkisian was 21-5 as a starter in two seasons at BYU, then played for a few years in the Canadian Football League.
"We don't play many (JC transfer quarterbacks) here," said BYU running backs coach Lance Reynolds, who's entering his 28th season as a Cougar assistant. "It's an unusual thing for us to take a junior college quarterback and have him play right away. It was very unusual for us. He did a great job for us, no question."
In 2000, Sarkisian began his coaching career at El Camino JC, then became an assistant under then-USC coach Pete Carroll. He worked for seven seasons with the Trojans, interrupted by a one-year stint, in 2004, with the NFL's Oakland Raiders.
In December, 2008, Sarkisian was hired as Washington's head coach.
"He's definitely in his element as a coach," Lewis said. "He's doing what he was born to do."
Reynolds remembers Sarkisian as "a real enthusiastic, heady kind of player here. At that time, I didn't know he was going to go into coaching, but it's nice to see him be so successful and things go so well for him. He certainly fits the personality type for a football coach. He was knowledgeable when he was here — a smart, efficient quarterback who understood schemes and attacks. He's been to a lot of good places and had exposure to good things."
How will Sarkisian be received Saturday by BYU fans?
"I hope better than the first half of the 1995 (game) versus Utah, when they were booing me," Sarkisian said with a chuckle. "I don't know. I think all in all, it was a great experience for me at the Y. The fans were tremendous to me. The community was very good to me and my family. I think it will be cordial."
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Washington at BYU
LaVell Edwards StadiumSaturday, 5 p.m.
TV: CBS C Radio: 1160 AM