LOS ANGELES — Steve Sarkisian worked the various venues of Pac-12 football media days here Wednesday, walking a fragile line between diplomacy and bombast.
“I wake up every day,” said the University of Washington’s former coach, “and I kind of pinch myself.”
Then, in reference to his new team, he was saying, “They’ve been closer together to me than probably any team I’ve been around.”
And on the Pac-12 Networks set, there was this: “I’ve always said there’s something unique about wearing this shirt into a high school, when you have that SC interlock on your chest, that talks about 11 national championships and six Heisman Trophies and more NFL draft picks and more NFL Hall of Famers than any other school.”
In Seattle, though the Huskies seem to have made out famously by hiring Chris Petersen, there’s at least a little blood boiling at the thought that Steve Sarkisian turned the place Don James built into a way station, not a destination. (I’m hearing “I’m Not Your Steppingstone,” the old Paul Revere & the Raiders tune, but maybe that’s just me.)
Sark is at USC now, and he’s set up to do well, having apprenticed five seasons at Washington.
With two months to recruit, Sark and Co. pulled in three five-star high-school prospects on signing day in February, braking some of crosstown UCLA’s momentum. It’s tempting to say this is a place that wins on autopilot, but then you remember that Lane Kiffin mucked it up royally, and before Pete Carroll’s dynastic run from 2000-09, the Trojans fired four straight coaches.
Fact is, Sarkisian ought to be perfectly positioned to win big here. He worked seven years under Carroll. Then he cut his teeth as a head coach at Washington.
And, at long last, USC is out of jail.
Reggie Bush’s family’s agent connection cost him the 2005 Heisman, and it wasn’t until 2010 when the NCAA’s tortured, and highly dubious, investigation brought the hammer down on the Trojans. They soldiered through bowl sanctions and a three-year loss of 30 scholarships.
Forgive the Trojans for gagging on the comment by Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby this week that “cheating pays, presently.”
But Sarkisian’s buddy Kiffin bore that hardship for him. Now, even though Sark says the program has a scant 65 scholarship players, there’s still a passel of primo talent and the promise of clear waters ahead.
So Sark is the girlfriend who dumps the hard-going linebacker for the handsome quarterback. There’s unmistakably some antipathy for him around Puget Sound, evidenced in a Seattle Times poll (with 12,000-plus respondents) upon his departure in which 31 percent said they were “glad he’s gone,” 23.5 said they were “mad he lied” and only 28 percent said they “don’t blame him.”
“It’s never easy,” he said. “You try to be upfront and honest.”
To be sure, Sark was a little less than that when he went on KJR-AM for a regular Monday morning chat with Mitch Levy last December and danced around the semantics of whether he had interviewed for the USC job as reported. Before noon, he was gone for USC.
When I asked him about it Wednesday, he said, “Quite honestly, I probably shouldn’t have done that radio interview that morning. There was nothing done. I hadn’t accepted the job at USC yet.
“In those moments, you probably should stay out of interviews and cameras. Hindsight is 20/20. Unfortunately, it didn’t come out the best way I would have liked, but that’s life. You keep moving forward.”
Sark had already taught a lot of fans to be wary. He was a modest 24-21 in Pac-12 games. Ten times, his UW teams got waxed by 28 points or more. He never got closer than 17 vs. Oregon.
I asked how he’d like to be remembered in Seattle.
“Umm, that I was a guy that, from the day I came in, until the day I left, that the program is in a much better place today than it was six years ago.”
Hard to argue that. But since the Huskies were 0-12 before he got there, you could call that damning with faint praise.
Now he’s at a place where they expect to win big. Thanks in part to the Huskies, he can.
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