The Rebuilding Project Project - Introduction

Steve Sarkisian faces growing pressure as he enters year 5 - Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

With year five of the Sark era fast approaching, I thought it would be instructive to compare the situation he inherited with other BCS programs since 1970 and see how Sark compares to other coaches hired to rebuild downtrodden programs.

Year Five of the Steve Sarkisian era is quickly approaching, and it's no secret that many in the Husky fan base feel this is a make-or-break year for him - get the program definitively past the 7-6 plateau, or it's time to start looking for a new coach. In the ongoing debate about expectations and what we feel is "acceptable" in terms of coaching performance at the UW after five years, something that I think tends to get lost in the shuffle is a clear understanding of just how low the program was when Sark took over. It wasn't just the 0-12 record in 2008 - Husky football had been trending downward for a while, and the 5-year stretch that preceded Sark was the worst in school history and one of the worst in recent memory in the conference. Just to remind us of the ugly totals:

2004: 1-10

2005: 2-9

2006: 5-7

2007: 4-9

2008: 0-12

That's a 5-year stretch of 12-47, or a .203 winning percentage. Folks, that's really bad. To put into context how bad it is, and to see how Sark compares to other coaches that have inherited similar messes, I did a little research. I went through the College Football Data Warehouse (http://www.cfbdatawarehouse.com/index.php) and looked for:

  • BCS conference schools...
  • Since 1966 (i.e. since 2-platoon football has been the norm)...
  • That have had 5-year stretches prior to a coaching change that were worse than .300

Let me talk briefly about my criteria. I chose BCS conference schools to both limit the scope of the search as well as provide a somewhat more relevant comparison base for the UW. I chose to cut off the dates prior to 1966 both to limit the scope of the search, as well as to keep things somewhat similar in terms of comparison, i.e. "modern" football (2-platoon). And I wanted W/L records that were reasonably similar to what Sark inherited, so I applied a cut-off at a .300 record and above. Obviously there are some flaws with each of these criteria - you can certainly argue that football in 1970 was very different than it was in 2009 in terms of the college football landscape, i.e. scholarship limits, number of Division 1/FBS schools, changes in the rules of the game, etc. You can also argue that there's still a wide range of prestige even with BCS conference schools and their inherent advantages and disadvantages in finding success in football. These are all valid concerns, but for the sake of this study, I think the overall size of the sample provides some statistical significance despite the various inequalities inherent in the comparison.

Why 5 years? Two reasons - it's the precise stretch of horrible play that preceded Sark, and it's the amount of time coaches are generally awarded in their first contract. These days coaches are frequently not given the full 5 years to turn things around if success doesn't come fast enough, but Sark will get at least 5 years and it provides us with some metrics to think about what is a reasonable expectation for him by year 5.

My point with this study is not to try to prove anything conclusively, but to provide some data points for people to chew on. This article will discuss the raw numbers, and in subsequent articles in this series I'll dive into specific case studies that are interesting to me and look closer at the details and see how much similarity we can draw between them and Sark's situation.

With that out of the way, here's the data. There were 43 instances that met those criteria. In a number of cases, the same school appears multiple times, and sometimes with overlapping years (such as the string of ineptitude at Oregon State from 1971-1996). The total record of those 43 instances was 535-1802-33, or .233. That's slightly better than the record Sark inherited. In those 43 instances, the new coaches collectively went 852-1340-398, or .391 (note that a number of those coaches did not last 5 years at that school). As you'll note, collectively the new coaches improved things somewhat, boosting W/L records by .158.

How does that UW stretch from 2004-2008 compare? Well, it was the 12th worst such stretch of the 43, and the 2nd worst in the Pac-8/10/12, behind only Oregon State from 1980-84 (and marginally better than Oregon State from 1975-79). Let that sink in for a moment.

As noted above, collectively those new coaches improved things by .158; so far through year 4, Sark has improved things by .306. How does that stack up with the best rebuild efforts? It's the 9th best such turnaround by that measure. The best one was turned in by Jerry Claiborne at Maryland; in 1972 he took over a program that had gone 9-42-0 (.176) in the 5 years prior; under Claiborne, they went 41-16-2 (.712) and won the ACC in years 3, 4 & 5 of his time there. Claiborne stayed through the 1981 season, continuing to have success (though not winning another conference title) before leaving for Kentucky, where his success was more modest.

Of the 8 coaches ahead of him by that measure, 6 of them won at least one conference championship within that 5-year span, and one of them won a National Championship (Johnny Majors, Pitt, 1976). The 2 successful turnarounds that fell short of a conference title? Jeff Tedford, Cal (2002-6) and Bill Snyder, Kansas State (1989-93). Only one coach behind him won a conference title - Barry Alvarez, Wisconsin, 1993. Among the other notable coaches that didn't turn around the W/L record as well as Sark has so far are Jim Harbaugh (Stanford), Larry Smith (Missouri), Dennis Green (Northwestern) and George Welsh (Virginia). For good measure, here are some other coaches that inherited 5-year stretches better than .300 that didn't improve their program's W/L percentage within 5 years as much as Sark has in 4 years: Bill McCartney (Colorado), Hayden Fry (Iowa), Howard Schnellenberger (Louisville), Jackie Sherrill (Mississippi State), Butch Davis (North Carolina), Les Miles (Oklahoma State) and Lou Holtz (South Carolina).

My main take aways from the raw numbers are:

1) Washington had a terrible stretch prior to Sark, worse I think than most fans realize

2) Sark has done pretty well in comparison to situations that were similar from a W/L record

3) Hiring the wrong guy, or a succession of wrong guys can render a program completely toothless for a long stretch - see Oregon State from 1971-1996, Northwestern from 1973-1991, Duke from 1990-2007 and others

Now, obviously every situation is different, and I'm sure you could point to any number of important differences between all of these other situations and the one at Washington. As I said above, this exercise isn't meant to be taken as strict science. But it does provide some context for discussing what reasonable expectations should be for Sark given the terrible stretch of football that preceded him.

I'll take a further in-depth look at a number of these situations in separate articles to follow as points of comparison.

Here is the full chart of the teams in the study:

School (years) W L T PCT W L T PCT DIFF Conf Champs
Maryland '67-'71 9 42 0 0.176 41 16 2 0.712 0.535 3, years 3-5
Cal '97-'01 12 43 0 0.218 43 20 0 0.683 0.464
Pittsburgh '68-'72 14 38 1 0.274 33 13 1 0.713 0.439 1 (NC), year 4
Kansas St. '84-'88 6 47 2 0.127 27 28 1 0.491 0.364
Kentucky '68-'72 13 40 0 0.245 32 23 1 0.580 0.335 1, year 4
Baylor '67-'71 7 43 1 0.147 25 28 3 0.473 0.326 1, year 3
Illinois '75-'79 14 37 3 0.287 34 22 1 0.605 0.318 1, year 4
Northwestern '87-'91 9 44 2 0.182 28 28 1 0.500 0.318 2, years 4-5
UW '04-'08 12 47 0 0.203 26 25 0 0.510 0.306
Stanford '02-'06 16 40 0 0.286 29 21 0 0.580 0.294
Wisconsin '85-'89 14 42 0 0.250 29 26 2 0.526 0.276 1, year 4
Vanderbilt '86-'90 10 45 0 0.182 19 25 0 0.432 0.250
Syracuse '04-'08 16 43 0 0.271 25 25 0 0.500 0.229
Wake Forest '73-'77 11 43 1 0.209 14 20 2 0.417 0.208
Duke '03-'07 8 50 0 0.138 21 40 0 0.344 0.206
Illinois '66-'70 12 38 0 0.240 24 30 1 0.445 0.205
Virginia '77-'81 14 40 1 0.264 25 29 2 0.464 0.201
Pittsburgh '92-'96 15 41 0 0.268 27 31 0 0.466 0.198
Oklahoma St. '90-'94 14 38 3 0.282 27 30 0 0.474 0.192
Oregon St. '80-'84 6 47 2 0.127 16 38 2 0.304 0.176
Missouri '89-'93 15 38 2 0.291 26 31 1 0.457 0.166
Minnesota '92-'96 16 39 0 0.291 26 32 0 0.448 0.157
Oregon St. '92-'96 12 42 1 0.227 8 14 0 0.364 0.136
Northwestern '76-'80 3 51 1 0.064 10 45 0 0.182 0.118
Baylor '98-'02 11 45 0 0.196 18 40 0 0.310 0.114
Indiana '00-'04 16 41 0 0.281 9 14 0 0.391 0.111
Rutgers '96-'00 12 43 0 0.218 19 39 0 0.328 0.109
Indiana '02-'06 17 41 0 0.293 19 30 1 0.390 0.097
Iowa '69-'73 12 39 2 0.245 18 37 0 0.327 0.082
Purdue '86-'90 15 39 1 0.282 18 34 3 0.355 0.073
Kansas St. '73-'77 15 40 0 0.273 18 37 1 0.330 0.058
Oregon '72-'76 15 40 0 0.273 16 37 2 0.309 0.036
Northwestern '81-'85 10 45 0 0.182 10 43 2 0.200 0.018
Missouri '84-'88 15 38 2 0.291 15 38 2 0.291 0.000
Oregon St. '71-'75 13 42 0 0.236 10 34 1 0.233 -0.003
Virginia '71-'75 16 39 0 0.291 15 39 1 0.282 -0.009
Vanderbilt '97-'01 15 40 0 0.273 15 43 0 0.259 -0.014
Iowa St. '90-'94 14 38 3 0.282 13 42 0 0.236 -0.045
Oregon St. '86-'90 14 40 2 0.268 11 43 1 0.209 -0.059
Duke '99-'03 9 48 0 0.158 4 42 0 0.087 -0.071
Oregon St. '75-'79 11 44 1 0.205 6 47 2 0.127 -0.078
Northwestern '73-'77 12 43 0 0.218 1 31 1 0.045 -0.173
Kansas St. '81-'85 15 39 2 0.286 2 30 1 0.076 -0.210
535 1802 33 0.233 852 1340 38 0.391 0.158

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