Washington Football: Is Sarkisian the Second Coming of Rick Neuheisel?

Derek JohnsonContributor IIIJanuary 8, 2012

Washington coach Steve Sarkisian: Strong offense, struggling defense
Washington coach Steve Sarkisian: Strong offense, struggling defenseStephen Dunn/Getty Images

Is Washington coach Steve Sarkisian a replica of Rick Neuheisel but without the Rose Bowl win?

No, that’s not a reference to Neuheisel's penchant for corny jokes and pushing the recruiting envelope.

It is a question posed recently by Race Bannon, the former football scribe exiled from Dawgman.com. It references the trends of current UW coach Sarkisian in comparison to Neuheisel, who coached at Washington from 1999-2002.

Neuheisel was blamed by many for transforming the once-tough Washington football culture into a program of soft primadonnas. He led the Huskies to the 2001 Rose Bowl championship, which proved to be his zenith.

But by Neuheisel's final season of 2002, Washington ranked last in the Pac-10 in rushing offense, and the defense was mediocre and sometimes overwhelmed.

Neuheisel was a Southern California guy who loved to throw the football all over the place. When it came to recruiting, he focused on bringing in big-name skill position players (see: Reggie Williams and Charles Frederick) at the expense of prized linemen and great defensive recruits. His final recruiting class hauled in seven wide receivers and only two offensive linemen.  

Neuheisel was ultimately fired in the summer of 2003 for lying to NCAA investigators and for involvement in a neighborhood betting pool for the NCAA basketball tournament.

Sarkisian is comparable to Neuheisel in many ways. With a 19-19 record, Sarkisian's national reputation is for being one of the top up-and-coming coaches in the land.

Former Washington and UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel
Former Washington and UCLA coach Rick NeuheiselSteve Dykes/Getty Images

But he’s largely treading down the same path.

Sarkisian loves throwing the football all over the yard, and his offense is often fun to watch. But three years after taking over for the disastrous Tyrone Willingham, Sarkisian's 2011 defense was the worst in Washington history—even worse than Willingham’s epic team failure of 2008 that overall went 0-12.

If Sarkisian is a great coach, how did this year's team perform worse than Willingham's worst-ever?

Sarkisian has proved adept at recruiting the big-name skill position players (see: Kasen Williams and Austin Sefarian-Jenkins), but he neglects wooing tough, physical linemen and defensive players.

In the current recruiting season, four of the top five in-state recruits are going elsewhere, and the lack of acclaimed linemen and defensive recruits is both alarming and makes one wonder if Sarkisian comprehends the big picture.

After all, if you have a desperate need, don't you aggressively fill it?

Sarkisian's reputation is still intact, and many in the Seattle media have his back, so job security is not a current issue. An article in today’s Tacoma News Tribune deftly blamed Huskies fans for Sarkisian's poor recruiting this year.

Sarkisian recently fired three assistant coaches, including defensive coordinator Nick Holt whom Sarkisian referred to three years ago as "the best defensive coordinator in the country." That move relieved some peripheral pressure and restored some enthusiasm among many fans. His recent hiring of highly respected defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and linebackers coach Peter Sirmon are solid moves.

But fans like and admire Sarkisian, and they project onto him the belief that he's a great coach. They fiercely reject any evidence to the contrary and will defend him to the death.      

There was a time when these same fans felt similarly toward Neuheisel. However, when the clock struck midnight, the fans' wrath toward him knew no bounds.

Hard as it is to fathom, the same fate ultimately awaits Sarkisian—unless he swiftly revamps his recruiting philosophy and returns the Huskies to playing defense at a high level.

As much as the standards for Huskies fans fell during the Willingham years, there's only so much patience in the regional reservoir for watching patty-cake defense. The enthusiasm of Huskies fans will begin to wither if Sarkisian has been on the job five years and his defenses continue to be out-manned and overwhelmed on the field—especially as Jim L. Mora, the man many saw as the perfect fit for UW, builds a dynasty at UCLA.


Derek Johnson is the author of several books, including Bow Down to Willingham: How White Guilt Enabled a Secretly Malicious Coach to Destroy the Once-Mighty Washington Huskies. It's available at DerekJohnsonBooks and Kindle at Amazon.com.