You may have noticed the game in L.A. last night. WSU, in what can be termed nothing less than a stunning upset, trounced the USC offense en route to a nailbiting win over USC. As Trojan coach Lane Kiffin walked off the field, a chorus of chants from fans ready to eat their coach wailed through the stadium: "Fire Lane Kiffin"
Clearly, Lane Kiffin has become the consensus least-competent coach in the Pac 12 as judged by the unscrupulous horde that is the Pac 12 fanbase. But is he the most derided? I fear not. In fact, I would argue that the role of most despised head coach in the Pac 12 probably belongs to Husky coach Steve Sarkisian.
If there were ever an epic chasm between the public perception of a man relative to his true character, Sark may lay claim to it. Steve Sarkisian is a traitor to USC fans. To UCLA fans, he is a narcissist born from the tree of the ultimate egoist, Pete Carroll. WSU fans think he's a turd worthy of the same type of mocking that Lane Kiffin gets. To Oregon fans, he's just another wannabe who happens to anchor the program whose fans just can't let go of the past. Boise State fans jumped on the bandwagon recently by calling him out as an amoral buffoon (though they did so based on what they assumed he would do about the Austin Seferian-Jenkins situation). Cal fans, who vociferously second that sentiment, paint him in the caricature of some type of egoist college football mogul who, flush with University money, is out there hooking up prospective players, their parents and assistant coaches with girls, boats and cash (because how in the hell could you otherwise justify wanting to go to the University of Washington over Cal?!?)
That's a whole lot of hate being generated for a guy whose greatest accomplishments to date are an upset win over a USC team led by Aaron Corp and three straight 7-6 seasons.
The loathing that Coach Sark elicits among our Pac 12 competitors is not consistent with the threat that heretofore his program has represented to them under his guidance. Similarly, the motivation behind the ill-will felt by so many of these people varies so greatly from fan-base to fan-base that it is hard to put stock in the collective sentiment lest we accept the fact that Scott Woodward somehow hired the perfect mix of Machiavelli, Adolph Hitler and Elmer Fudd. The truth is that the angst that opposing fan-bases feel for Steve Sarkisian has less to do with him and a lot more to do with what he represents: the potential for a rebirth of a football program that has once seen high-level accomplishment, is settled in a pro football city with a remarkably high quality of life and is attached to a leading global public university.
Opposing fans, of course, will debate that last statement. They argue that there are legitimate reasons for hating on Sark. But each of those issues that they cite seem to one way or another link back to a weakness in the persona of some other coach. In my consideration of the situation, I've identified three issues that seem to keep the embers stoked for Sark-hate.
Issue number one: Steve Sarkisian wants to be in Seattle. This whole notion is an affront to any person who ever argued that the Washington football program is as outdated as bell bottoms, pet rocks or Heather Locklear pin up posters. How in the world could any coach of any renown actually desire to live and work in Seattle? With the exception of a little Rose Bowl blip in 2000, this is a program that has been on one of the longest, slowest and most painful downward slides in the history of college football. Furthermore, this is a program that had a notoriously difficult administration, a decrepit stadium, and the blemishes of scandal (no matter how real or perceived) to contend with. And, the rain! Clearly, a true man of repute could never be interested in such a job. Am I right?
Not so much. From Day 1, Steve Sarkisian has wanted to be in Washington with his wife and his young children. Over the years, he has taken steps to reconnect the program to its roots by initiating and sustaining relationships with many of the personalities that have been ostracized for one reason or another over the years. He's mixed it up with fans. He's reached out to the community, both as the director of the football program and as an individual member within our ranks. He has embraced the culture of the Northwest (including commuting to work by boat) and even served yesterday as the announcer for his son's football game. He's rejected overtures to move prematurely to the NFL. Sark has gone far beyond the words of a man trying to land a job in demonstrating his desire to be where he is. Indeed, his commitment has been deep and more Chris Peterson then Chip Kelly which clearly has ruffled a few feathers among the P12 elitists.
The second issue that concerns opposing fan-bases is Steve Sarkisian's failure to adhere to a single philosophy when it comes to executing his X's and O's. This is another issue that really rankles some people. Mike Bellotti famously chided Ty Willingham in his normal passive-aggressive style by noting in an interview that Oregon was successful because they went "all-in" on the zone read philosophy. Seven years and three head coaches later, they are still running that exact same offense with the exact same precision and the exact same level of commitment. Compare and contrast that to Steve Sarkisian who arrived at Montlake talking about his pro-style and how it "has survived the test of time" ... and then gone on to not just tweak but to overhaul his offense on a bi-annual if not annual basis.
The truth of the matter is that Sarkisian is a rarity among college head coaches. He lacks the overarching pigheadedness demonstrated by so many others to "stick to his way" in the face of obstacles presented by his latent availability of talent and the evolutions of the programs with whom he is competing. In short, Sark embraces change and prefers to race it than to overpower it. We've seen countless examples of this trait. Whether he changed from pro-style to multiple style or from multiple style to hurry up no huddle style, he's demonstrated it. In firing his good friend, Nick Holt, and overhauling his entire defensive staff just one year after dominating a strong Nebraska offense in the Holiday Bowl, he demonstrated it. In evolving his media policies from "totally open" to "closed practices, no injury reports", he's demonstrated it. Sark does not lack the professional humility to change things up or to adopt the good ideas of others when they serve the purposes of his program. If only Jeff Tedford would have learned that lesson.
The final issue that draws derision from up and down the west coast football fan-tocracy is the charisma and resoluteness in which Sarkisian attacks the recruiting trail. Always one to adopt his tactics to the interests and needs of the kids being recruited, opposing fans are often put-off by how doggedly Sark and staff pursue kids that they think fit what they want to do. Indeed, it is a pretty remarkable accomplishment to consider that Sark's first full class following the Huskies 0-12 2008 season was the 14th overall ranked 2010 class. While numbers of total recruits skewed those results to a degree, that class yielded a bunch of "4-star" talent including Kevin Smith, Colin Porter, Eric Kohler, Deontae Cooper, Sean Parker and, perhaps most eye-popping to the national fan at the time, Nick Montana. Recruiting is the one aspect of program building that Sark has been most adept and his success in this regard is a threat to the rest of the Pac 12.
Of course, the book is not yet written on Steve Sarkisian and his ultimate success or failure as a head football coach at the University of Washington. The astute fan understands that the flavor of each 7-6 finish over the past three seasons has varied dramatically, indicating a program that is still prone to wild swings up and down in terms of overall performance. Nonetheless, 7-6 is still mediocre. The development of players and the ability to constantly reload in the face of the normal attrition of the college game are also areas where we just don't know enough about Sarkisian.
Despite these unknowns, there is very little in the factbase behind Sarkisian's overall performance as a head football coach to warrant the sum total of raillery and disparagement that has been dealt his way by both our traditional (Oregon, WSU) and our emerging (e.g. Cal) rivalries. The only way to explain this hostility is to understand that this is not so much about the crusader that opposes them, but about the substance of the crusade itself.