Just like that, the Washington Huskies are searching for a new football coach.
Steve Sarkisian, hired in December of 2008 to resurrect a program coming off a 0-12 season, has left Washington to accept the head coaching position at USC. He will not coach the Huskies in their bowl game, and will begin his duties at USC “immediately,” according to a release from the school.
The news was reported by various outlets earlier Monday morning, then officially announced by USC shortly after 2:30 p.m. PST.
Washington athletic director Scott Woodward said in a statement that he has already begun searching for Sarkisian’s replacement.
“He embodies many of the qualities for which we looked,” USC athletic director Pat Haden said in a statement. “He is an innovative coach who recruits well and develops players. He is a proven and successful leader. He connects with people. He has energy and passion. He knows how to build a program and create a culture that we value. He is committed to academic success and rules compliance. And he understands the heritage and tradition of USC.”
Sarkisian, who was an assistant at USC from 2001-03 and again from 2005-08, informed Washington players of his decision during a meeting Monday afternoon at Husky Stadium, just before USC made its official announcement. Most, if not all, had already heard via social media or word of mouth. Players filed in before the 2 p.m. meeting, then left at about 2:15 or so. Woodward also addressed the team.
Senior quarterback Keith Price and junior defensive end Hau’oli Kikaha were selected to speak with reporters afterward, and both said Sarkisian told them his decision to leave was about doing what he felt was best for his family.
“It was a business decision. I’m not mad at him,” Price said. “His family is first. It would have been nice to get another game with him, my last game. But things happen. We have to move on. Whoever our coach is going to be for the bowl game, we’re going to play hard. There’s still a lot to accomplish this season.”
Kikaha said mostly the same things, not begrudging Sarkisian but emphasizing Washington’s need to move forward.
“It hurts a little,” said Kikaha. “A little bit of shock. We’re fine with everything that’s happened. We’ve got to move on all together and stay tight as a team and continue to persevere through whatever’s next.”
Sarkisian, whose original 5-year contract was extended through 2015, will owe the school a $1.5 million buyout. His deal with USC is reportedly for five years, though as a private institution, USC is not obligated to release his contract details.
Of larger concern for Washington is who the Huskies will hire to replace him, and which UW assistants Sarkisian will take with him to USC.
Several reports Monday indicated that Sarkisian would like defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox to accompany him to USC. Defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi, viewed as one of the nation’s best recruiters, is another coach who Washington could lose. Kikaha said he’d spoken to Wilcox, but stopped short when asked if he knows whether Wilcox has an offer from USC.
“He’ll be safe. His family will be fed,” Kikaha said. “That’s all I know.”
Sarkisian becomes the first Washington coach to voluntarily leave the school for another job since Darrell Royal left for Texas in 1956. Washington fired its previous four coaches — Tyrone Willingham, Keith Gilbertson, Rick Neuheisel and Jim Lambright — and Don James retired in 1992.
Sarkisian, 39, leaves with a 34-29 overall record (24-21 in conference play) in five seasons. He led Washington to four bowl games, including the one this year the Huskies haven’t played yet, and the team won eight games this season for the first time since 2001.
His detractors labeled him “Seven-Win Steve” after Washington finished three consecutive seasons (2010-12) with a 7-6 record. The first of those was viewed as an accomplishment, as Sarkisian led Washington to a 6-6 regular-season record in 2010, earning the Huskies their first bowl invitation in eight years. They defeated Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl.
“On behalf of the University of Washington, I want to thank Steve Sarkisian for the past five years of service to our institution,” Woodward said in a statement. “Steve has led the rebuilding of our program to new heights and we are in a much better position than when he arrived. I am happy for Steve and his family as they can return home and I wish them the best of luck in the future.”
Sarkisian, who appears at 6:45 each Monday morning on Sports Radio KJR, was asked during yesterday’s segment about a report that he’d interviewed for the USC job. He said: “I didn’t interview for the job. They reached out to me. I talked to them. I’m not anywhere near on the course of taking that job or not.”
Sarkisian added: “Like I’ve always said, I’ve got a great job. I love my job here at the University of Washington. I’m fired up about where this program’s headed and couldn’t be more proud of the work that we’ve done this year, and can’t wait to get started on next year.”
Apparently that changed quickly. Neither Price nor Kikaha knew who would coach Washington in the bowl game, though it is likely to be an assistant already on staff.
As for possible replacements, UCLA coach Jim Mora’s name will most certainly surface, given his ties to the Washington program — he played there and has lived in the Seattle area — and his publicly-stated desire to coach the Huskies during a now-infamous radio interview in 2006, while Mora was still coaching the Falcons. He’s said since that he was only joking, though he and Woodward have a good relationship — Mora said earlier this season that Woodward invited him to rehab a skiing injury at Washington’s facilities during his time away from coaching, and that was what motivated him to become a college coach.
Wilcox, Boise State’s Chris Peterson, Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier (a former Washington assistant) and Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter could also be possible candidates.
“I don’t knock Coach Sark at all,” Price said. “Of course people are going to have their differences. I’ve grown closer to coach. To this coach. To this guy. He’s a great friend of mine, so I wish him all the luck in the world.”