Editor’s Note: We’ve reached the point in the football season where things come to a natural pause. Fortunately, there is much about the 2016 season for us to reflect upon and full digest. The characters, the games and the plays that made up the character of the 2016 season are the reason for the 12 for ‘16 series. This isn’t a countdown. Rather, it is a series of deep-dives into those anecdotes that your UWDP bloggers felt mattered to the program and the fans that followed it. In short, we are talking about what we were talking about in 2016. Enjoy.
That Steve Sarkisian was in the building for the final game of the Washington 2016 season - a game in which “the great rebuild” for a Washington football franchise he once helmed was both figuratively and literally concluded - was amazing irony. Yet Husky fans hardly gave it notice.
This probably should not be surprising. Not unlike the current experience Americans are having with the new presidency, Sark’s tenure and subsequent departure from UW was one whipsaw after another. Heartening upsets, bold proclamations, recruiting shenanigans, unsettling losses, a messy departure, and the increasingly public manifestation of personal demons were presented to UW fans in visible ways through all forms of media over the past eight years. Husky fans aged at a similar rate as their then-sitting president as they tried to digest all of it. It was exhausting.
And now, it is finally over.
The finishing touches on the remnants of the Steve Sarkisian era have finally been delivered. The graduations of some of his best recruits such as WR John Ross, DB Kevin King, OL Jake Eldrenkamp and DL Elijah Qualls - players who were key contributors in UW’s run to the college football playoffs this year - puts this point into perspective.
Everybody here knows the story. Sark came to UW in 2009 following the lowest point ever seen in the history of this program. Replacing Tyrone Willingham with a breathing body would have been an upgrade. But Sark was more than that. He came into town as an upstart coordinator with a strong west coast network to support him. He talked about winning recruiting battles and then winning football games. He even said “it wasn’t going to take too long.” His supporters Barked-for-Sark and Husky fans everywhere were drawn from the depths of apathy to the edge curiosity. In 2009, “wait and see” was a perfectly acceptable improvement in the demeanor of the fanbase.
Sark did make an impact on the field. In his first season, he put wins back in the win column. His Dawgs scared the living daylights out of a ranked LSU team a few weeks before pulling off a huge upset over USC. By his second year he had the Huskies in the postseason after a wild end-of-season run that resulted in the what we all simply now refer to as “God’s Play” - the play that RB Chris Polk was born to run.
His success in rebuilding the program, unfortunately, never transcended from “good” to “great”. But his accomplishments in developing new recruiting pipelines, building a prolific offense and overseeing the unveiling of new facilities added value to his resume. When the opportunity to return to his alma mater presented itself, he cut bait with Montlake amidst a whirlwind of emails, tweets and awkward media statements that would make a Sean Spicer press conference look amateurish by comparison.
As he moved on, rumors and anecdotes about Sark’s off-the-field exploits percolated. I can attest that several such anecdotes were delivered to the authors of this blog in the form of emails and tweets. Message boards delighted in telling tall tales of booze-filled nights and encounters with co-eds. These stories followed Sark to USC. But no evidence was ever presented and reported on before or during the transition.
Sark eventually took care of that issue himself. Over the course of a several week stretch to begin his second season at USC, Sark got divorced under auspicious circumstances, showed up at a pep rally drunk and spewing vulgarities, publicly acknowledged his problem with alcohol and his intent to get help, and then appeared at a team practice drunk forcing his boss and mentor, AD Pat Haden, to suspend and to ultimately dismiss him from the program. A year-long hiatus from football followed before he reappeared as an offensive consultant for Nick Saban’s Alabama program.
While Sark continued this destructive-then-redemptive journey, his connection to UW and the program remained intact. Reminders of his successes - mostly in the form of contributions made by players he coached (such as Danny Shelton, Marcus Peters, Shaq Thompson, Jaydon Mickens and Hau’oli Kikaha) and of his failures (the Oregon streak, the “seven win” stigma) lingered over the program like Beijing air pollution. It was always present and often toxic.
Sure, there are still a few links to the Sark era still present. Most visibly, there are players like Coleman Shelton, Azeem Victor, Lavon Coleman and Keishawn Bierria (among others) who made their pledges to his staff and not to Chris Petersen.
But those connections are simply part of the fabric of the program that is now fully installed under the new regime. That Steve Sarkisian was in the press box of the Peach Bowl to witness the final step in the program’s overhaul seems fitting. A clean break where the future greets the past and says “thank you very much for your contributions, we’ll take over from here.” A peaceful transition of power, if you will, between what was and what ultimately will be.
And for Sark, who yesterday surprised everybody by moving on from Alabama and accepting the offensive coordinator position for one of the NFL’s hottest offenses, it was a conclusion of a different sort. A rising star who followed a classic story arc of a literary protagonist: the toast of the town who grows too big for his britches, makes a bad choice, gets overrun by his demons and then finds both redemption and a self-forgiveness as he rides off into the horizon of a new future. The opportunity in the CFB playoffs for him to go face-to-face with the success of a UW program that he had a part in producing is almost poetic. Ernest Hemingway would have had difficulty writing a more poignant conclusion.
In fact, I’m not sure if Hemingway would have even conceived of the kind of protagonistic twist that we saw with Sark’s jump to the NFL yesterday. The part where the happy ending you thought the character was going to have suddenly turns into a different happy ending, I suppose, is more J.K. Rowling than Hemingway.
And, so it ends. The connection between Steve Sarkisian and the Washington Huskies has reached its natural conclusion. While we - the program, the coaches and the fans - may all cross paths again, we will do so with only the faintest of recognition. To us, he will be just a coach we used to know. To him, UW will be just a logo he used to wear.
This chapter is closed and the story is over.