SEATTLE — Five years ago, as a rookie athletic director, Scott Woodward made a good hire out of a bad situation. He had an opening for a football coach, the most high-profile sports job at Washington, but he came to the negotiating table with a winless team, a decaying stadium and no real track record as an AD.
He might as well have been selling hair products to Michael Jordan.
The rookie Woodward didn’t need beginner’s luck. He required beginner’s pluck. After a thorough search that included unsuccessful flirtations with several big-name coaches, Woodward went the hot assistant-coach route. And if you’re upset now that Steve Sarkisian has bolted for USC, your disappointment alludes to the solid work the coach did in helping the Huskies return to respectability.
Five years later, Washington has qualified for four straight bowl games, put $280?million into a fabulous renovation of Husky Stadium and built a young and gifted roster. The Huskies finished the 2013 regular season with an 8-4 record, their best mark in a dozen years.
Woodward doesn’t have to mask any odor to sell this program now. He operates from a stronger position. His challenge is strikingly different today.
It’s not about reviving. It’s about finishing.
It’s not about hiring the best coach he can under the circumstances. It’s about hiring the best coach, period.
This time, the Huskies are fishing in much better water. They can reel in a sitting head coach with a proven track record. That’s what Woodward must do, unless an assistant coach blows him away as college football’s next great head coach.
To be frank, don’t hire another Sark.
That’s not meant to insult the job that Sarkisian did. But upon reflection, the Sark era was full of growing pains that Washington shouldn’t have to tolerate this time.
Sarkisian was a 34-year-old head-coaching virgin when the Huskies hired him in December 2008, and while his youth was an advantage because he had the energy to recruit and develop, Sark also needed significant grooming. He had to learn some tough lessons while on the job.
Without Sarkisian’s talent, perhaps the Huskies don’t experience some of the highs of the rebuilding process: the home victories over top-10 opponents, the record-setting offenses, the enthusiasm his teams displayed when at their best.
But there were extreme lows, too: the annual inexplicable blowout losses to merely decent teams, the record-setting penalties, the coaching mishaps that led to easy second-guessing.
High risk. High reward.
Now, Woodward should be able to seek a coach who comes with moderate risk and an almost guaranteed high reward.
The search took a hit Tuesday when Jim Mora decided not to return to his alma mater and signed a contract extension with UCLA. Mora was the undisputed No. 1 choice because of his purple blood, his 18-8 record in two seasons with the Bruins and an overall coaching resume that includes 24 years of NFL experience.
There are plenty of good coaches, however. And if you’ve learned one thing about these searches, it should be that Plan A rarely pans out. The key is to have a clear understanding of what the program needs and a keen eye for talent.
In just about every hire Woodward has made the past five years, he has shown those skills. No one works in a more exhaustive or cerebral manner.
“I’ve got great confidence in him,” said Ron Crockett, the Emerald Downs president and UW booster. “My way of thinking is that he can do what he chooses here. It should be him and the president of the university making the decision. No search committees. All the extra people can stay out of it. This is Scott Woodward’s job, and he’ll find a good coach.”
The Huskies can be made attractive to rising young coaches such as Fresno State’s Tim DeRuyter (20-5 career record) or Vanderbilt’s James Franklin, who coached tight ends at Washington State in 1998. Boise State’s Chris Petersen is unlikely, but his name continues to be floated. There will be no shortage of sitting head coaches interested in the job.
It should take an extraordinary assistant to get the job. Only current defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and former offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who helped Alabama win a national championship, should be considered. Both would need to prove somehow that they’re capable of getting the Huskies to the next level without significant on-the-job training.
Sarkisian’s legacy, besides a clumsy exit in which he misled Husky fans about his intentions and tiptoed off to USC, should be that he set the table for the Huskies to return to dominance. But he only partially finished the job here.
The onus is on Woodward to finish now. It’s an easier sell this time, but the stakes are enormous.