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Updated Wednesday, November 28, 2012 at 11:58 AM

Huskies' Steve Sarkisian needs more than middling bowl after four seasons

By Steve Kelley
Times staff columnist

All things seemed possible after that first conference win in that first optimistic September at Washington for coach Steve Sarkisian.

In 2009, the reawakened Huskies beat the Pete Carroll-coached USC Trojans 16-13. Student beat teacher and three games into the Sarkisian era, Washington football was 2-1 with a bullet.

Could the transformation really happen that quickly? Could Sarkisian and his staff really turn around a program that was 0-12 the previous season that quickly? Was the return to glory Washington once stood for already happening?

High on hope, the callow coach said as much after that win. In the intoxicating first hours after the win, he said the rebuilding wouldn't take very long.

Sarkisian had reasons to feel giddy. Already he had changed the look of the team. He had installed a work ethic that was missing from the faux-discipline of the Tyrone Willingham years.

There was a new commitment to the weight room. The Huskies were bigger and stronger and just a little bit edgy.

In hindsight, the optimism that day was a bit over the top. Even Sarkisian later admitted that some of it was false bravado, a young coach selling his program to recruits and boosters and media.

Now, four years into his Montlake reign, reality has settled in, the brutal reality of an overtime Apple Cup loss and the fallout that comes with it. Rivalry losses, especially to a team that hasn't won since mid-September, are the ones that get coaches canned.

I'm not suggesting that Sarkisian be fired. Not even close. This has been another season of gradual growth. By firing his friend Nick Holt after last season and hiring Justin Wilcox as defensive coordinator, Sarkisian showed that he was willing to make tough calls. And Wilcox was the right coach for the job.

Washington football is progressing, but it isn't progressing nearly as fast as its fans rightfully expect. For the third straight season, the Huskies, 7-5, are bowl eligible, but for the third straight season, the bowl is a second tier, made-for-TV game, probably the Las Vegas Bowl, which feels like the NIT to a fan base that is antsy to dance on New Year's Day, or beyond.

The way Washington lost the Apple Cup — all of the penalties, the questionable play-calling, the blown 18-point, fourth-quarter lead — shines the harsh light of truth on the head coach.

Sarkisian was hired with the expectation that he could grow into a great coach; that he could compete with Oregon and Stanford and USC for Pac-12 championships and make Washington a player in the BCS rankings.

It hasn't happened.

Washington is supposed to be great, not just good. But even with the win over Stanford this season, the program still feels years behind the real powers in the conference.

Most glaringly, under quarterback guru Sarkisian, junior quarterback Keith Price regressed this year. Where was that quarterback who was so masterful in last season's Alamo Bowl?

Price had a dismal Apple Cup and a bad first half against really bad Colorado a week earlier. The starting quarterback position should be reopened for competition this spring, even if it's just to relight a fire under Price.

And why is Sarkisian using tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins as a pass rusher and experimenting with freshman wunderkind safety-linebacker Shaq Thompson at running back? It sounds like fun, but feels more like a distraction.

Sarkisian has dramatically improved Washington's talent level. He is backing up his highly ranked recruiting class of a year ago with another solid class this year.

Seven of the 19 players who have committed to Washington are rated four stars (out of five) by ESPN.com and the Huskies are close with a couple of other recruits. The talent is there to compete for conference championships.

Without question, Sarkisian has returned hope to the Huskies. He has turned a bad program into a good program.

But can he make the program great?

Four seasons in, this program and its coach still have some growing to do. It's time to compete with the best. It's time to hold Sarkisian's feet to the Pac-12 fire. Time to hold him to the same standard as Oregon's Chip Kelly and Stanford's David Shaw.

Next season will be Judgment Year.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com


BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
For the third time in Washington coach Steve Sarkisian's four seasons, the Huskies are bowl eligible, but the bowl is again a second-tier game.




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