SEATTLE — When he arrived at Washington, Steve Sarkisian was the newest member of the then-Pac-10 coaching hierarchy.
When his fifth season in charge of the Huskies begins on Monday with the start of fall camp, he’ll be among the more established veterans coaching in the conference.
“I can believe it because I look at our guys and look at our players and see them all grown up,” Sarkisian said in an interview with The Associated Press last week.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been more excited. I’m excited about this team, this season, the opportunity we have.”
Sarkisian may be full of excitement, but his fifth season begins facing increased scrutiny after failing to top seven wins in a single season and as the Huskies move back into their renovated home stadium.
While a seven-win season seemed like a dream when Sarkisian arrived and the Huskies fresh off a 0-12 season, that standard is no longer acceptable by a fan base that expects to compete for Pac-12 titles.
Championships were the goal Sarkisian set when he arrived.
And now, as he preps to move into his palatial new office atop the west end zone of the renovated Husky Stadium and gets ready for the season opener against Boise State in less than three weeks, it’s time to deliver.
“Like I tell the team now and like I tell our coaches, we’re judged on one thing and that’s winning and losing,” Sarkisian said. “Are we better today than we were three years ago when we went 7-6 and beat Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl? Yeah, we’re a better team. But until our record changes we’re 7-6. I don’t mind saying it.”
Washington enters 2013 still smarting from a thud to end 2012. The Huskies were on the cusp of finally topping that seven-win plateau they’ve reached in three straight seasons, before blowing an 18-point fourth-quarter lead in losing to rival Washington State and then losing 28-26 to Boise State in their bowl game.
Sarkisian knows there is grumbling as he enters 2013. Couple that with what appears to be indecision by Sarkisian around whether there will be any extra punishment coming to two star players — Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Kasen Williams — who ran into trouble with the law in the offseason, and there has been a rising amount of pressure.
If he’s feeling the weight from outside the program, Sarkisian wasn’t showing it on the verge of camp.
“I chose to come here, these players chose to come here to win a championship and that’s our mission, that’s our goal,” he said.
Sarkisian is 26-25 as a head coach. He’s gone to three straight bowl games, the first time Washington has reached that benchmark since 2000-2002. He’s 3-1 against rival Washington State — although last year’s loss against the Cougars still stings — but has yet to solve Oregon’s dominance of Washington over the past decade.
He’s no longer a new, young head coach. He’s still young at age 39, but he’s one of the more established vets in the Pac-12, with only Mike Riley and Kyle Whittingham having longer tenures at their respective schools.
When he arrived at Washington in late 2008, Sarkisian was a bombastic cheerleader for a program that was coming off the first winless season in school history.
He wanted to promote his program like a salesman, hoping to drum up support and interest in a product that was at its lowest point in a long and storied history. He needed fans to care about a program that had become fractured during the disappointing tenure under Tyrone Willingham.
The calculated decision worked at the start. Season tickets rose, fan apathy diminished and not surprisingly the Huskies got better on the field.
But some backlash soon followed when Sarkisian made changes that appeared to close off the program. Practices are no longer open to fans.
Media access to practice, players and coaches has been limited. What Sarkisian now believes the Huskies need to be successful is outweighing a program that’s open to all.
“It was very intentional when I came here to raise the excitement about the University of Washington’s football program and I tried to find every avenue to promote this program in a positive light as best I could, and I think it was effective.
“I think it helped us in recruiting, I think it got our fan base excited in a product that we were trying to develop on the field and we saw that in season ticket sales and whatnot,” Sarkisian said.
Sarkisian also no longer needs to manage every aspect of the program the same way he did in his first season. The first couple of seasons were spent establishing foundations for various aspects of the program.
He says because there has been little staff turnover on the fringes of the program that’s created continuity and allowed him to get back to focusing more on coaching.
“It’s allowed me to really find myself back into the cylinder of football more often than I use to be and I love that,” Sarkisian said.
“That’s why we do what we do, that’s why I’m in the profession. … I think a lot of things have changed in five years and in turn for me it’s helped because I’m back to doing the majority of the time what I loved to do which is coaching football.”