Washington’s highest-paid employee is headed south for a more lucrative job.
Steve Sarkisian, who was hired to turn around a winless University of Washington football program five years ago, acknowledged earlier today that he has accepted the head coaching position at the University of Southern California, which is one of the most elite schools in the country and a traditional powerhouse in the Pacific 12 Conference (formerly the Pac-10). Sarkisian was an assistant coach for seven years at USC prior to being hired by UW, so his desire to return his understandable.
But the timing and circumstances of his departure are not becoming of a man who claimed for half a decade to bleed purple and gold.
Sarkisian is abandoning his players and the Husky football program he helped turn around less than a hundred hours after the UW’s 2013 Apple Cup victory.
I say abandoned because Washington’s season isn’t over yet. The Huskies are coming off an eight-win season and have earned a trip to a bowl game. They have an opportunity to become a nine-win team.
But it won’t be under Sarkisian, because he’s jetting off to southern California to be (re)introduced to the USC faithful at an afternoon press conference tomorrow.
Instead of getting his team ready to play Brigham Young University in the Fight Hunger Bowl (which is where the Huskies are likely headed) and recruiting for UW for next year, Sarkisian will be packing up his things and moving his family to sunnier and warmer climes in southern California.
Sarkisian now owes the University of Washington $1.5 million for breaking his contract (he was signed through the 2014 season) though it’s possible that USC is buying him out. They can certainly afford to.
Rumors are swirling that Sarkisian is attempting to take much of the Washington coaching staff with him, including defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, who may now be offered the job just relinquished by Sarkisian.
As the UW’s Scott Woodward noted today, it isn’t unusual for college football coaches to move around, particularly when a prestigious university or a National Football League team comes calling with a head coaching opportunity.
But in allowing USC brass to approach him and then in accepting their job offer ahead of Washington’s bowl game, Steve Sarkisian is putting himself first, not the players he recruited and mentored, and not the university he has claimed to be proud and pleased to coach for. He’s behaving like a mercenary, not a Husky.
A few weeks ago, Sarkisian was doing all he could to convince his players and Husky fans that he was happy at the University of Washington and intent on staying, building on comments he made in 2010, when he said he viewed the coaching job at Washington as one of the premier positions in college football, and not a steppingstone to something bigger and grander.
“People don’t understand it, but this is my dream job,” Sarkisian said then.
He echoed that statement ahead of the UW’s game against Stanford a few weeks ago, saying “This is an awesome place to be,” and adding:
I have great respect for USC and the rich history and tradition that they have. But I am proud to be the head football coach of the 15th-ranked team in America right now, and all the hard work that we’ve put into this program for the last five years to get to this point. To be in an awesome matchup on national television Saturday night against a national-championship contender in Stanford, that’s where my focus is.
He even told KJR his goal as coach was to run Washington’s football program one year longer than Don James did. James, who died a few weeks ago, is affectionately known as the Dawgfather and was the UW’s most successful football coach.
Just this weekend, in the wake of the Apple Cup victory, Sarkisian was expressing excitement at the thought of coaching the Huskies in a bowl game.
“I’m excited about the opportunity to play another game with this group, because I think they’ll go out and perform,” Sarkisian said in remarks reported by the Everett Herald. “They’ll prepare great and they’ll go out and perform, and I’m excited about the future of this program with where we’re headed.”
This morning, in a Tim Eymanesque-like fashion, he claimed on KJR FM that he had not “interviewed” for the head coaching job at USC.
But then word of his hiring got out and was swiftly followed by an official announcement that was only delayed so that Sarkisian could tell his players in person about his decision to leave Washington… and them. Of course, by then, they had already heard the news from Twitter or ESPN. Naturally, they feel blindsided.
“Don’t ever commit cus of a coach. Faker then a 3 dollar bill,” tweeted Husky quarterback Troy Williams, one of Sarkisian’s recruits. (He later deleted the tweet, presumably on the advice of teammates or coaches, but his point is well taken).
Sarkisian has not said much about why he decided to leave. He released a prepared statement saying he was excited to return to USC and “win championships”.
But he told UW players, including quarterback Keith Price, that he was taking the job at USC “for his family”. If Sarkisian truly is the kind of man who puts his family first, then why’d he accept the head coaching job at the University of Washington to begin with? He could have stayed at USC working under Pete Carroll and waited for Carroll to move on (which happened only a year after UW fired Tyrone Willingham).
Instead, he jumped at the opportunity to become a head coach. Sarkisian’s own ambition turned out to be more important.
It may well be that his family supported and accepted his decision to come to Washingtin in 2008, despite having misgivings or mixed feelings about it. If so, they have been far more loyal to him than he has been to either USC or UW.
It’d be nice if the UW’s next football coach were truly committed to building a great football program and mentoring Washington’s student athletes long term. After the turmoil of the Neuhisel, Gilbertson, Willingham and Sarkisian years, it’d be nice to have a coach who acts more like Don James as opposed to another mercenary who is only loyal to Washington until he lands a better gig.