When Steve Sarkisian bolted from the University of Washington for USC, I’ll admit I was pretty damn bitter. That’s not totally unexpected, but what’s a little shocking is the level of naiveté I was working with. As far as Husky fans are concerned, I’m something of a n00b. I was never into college football, whatsoever, when I was growing up. I attended the University of Washington because it was close to home, and because it accepted me. Had I not made the cut, I was well on my way to being a Washington State Cougar, and my whole life would be radically different right now.
I enrolled as a Husky in 1999, the same year Rick Neuheisel was hired. Neuheisel was a dramatic shift away from past Husky leaders, Don James (the immortal, from 1975-1992) and James’ defensive coordinator, Jim Lambright (1993-1998). Lambo took over under the harsh scrutiny and penalties of the NCAA, and for the most part held the program together through some pretty dark times. But, the university was looking for a change, and made a big splash in wooing Neuheisel away from Colorado after some successful years.
So, for all intents and purposes, Rick Neuheisel was my first Husky coach. Of course, history hasn’t been kind to the Neuheisel regime. Many argue he had his greatest successes with Lambo’s players (particularly superstar quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo), finishing 3rd in the nation in his second season as the Husky head coach, followed by another Top 20 finish the very next year. Neuheisel’s fourth and final year was something of a disappointment, and as it turned out, 2002 was just the beginning of a long, slow death of a football program.
At the time, I thought Neuheisel got a raw deal with his termination – I mean, come on, a football coach can’t participate in a friendly NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament bracket contest? But, who knows? Maybe it was for the best. If he didn’t destroy this program with shoddy recruiting, he either would’ve left for a better-paying gig, or even possibly gotten us saddled with more sanctions than we ended up getting. Much like the mighty oak tree, Rick Neuheisel was shady as all get-out.
But, that didn’t help things from a football perspective on the field. Keith Gilbertson was hired as Neuheisel’s replacement. He was a throwback to the Don James days, and he should be commended for taking a no-win situation. As one might expect, he struggled to get us to .500 in his first year, before totally collapsing with a 1-10 record in 2004 (including going 0-8 in conference play). After that, in an attempt to clean up our reputation, we hired Tyrone Willingham – recently fired from Notre Dame after having great success in Stanford years prior – and thus began our final bottoming out.
Throughout that whole decade, from 1999 through 2008, I followed the program, but I wouldn’t say I followed it as ardently as I do now. I’m sure I didn’t watch all the games, for instance. I certainly didn’t go to all the games, or even a high percentage of games. In fact, if I had any memory at all, I may have gone to MAYBE 10 games total in that time period. Part of that had to do with not having a ton of money, part of that had to do with spending a year and a half out of state, but the Husky football program was more of an excuse to hang out with friends and party than it was actually appreciating the product on the field.
In 2009, all of that started to change. We hired Sark with the express purpose of getting back to winning football games. Fuck graduation rates, fuck our reputation in the NCAA, now it was time to produce on the field. In a lot of ways, my Husky fandom was reborn with the hire of Sark. And, in his first couple of years, Sark didn’t disappoint.
- In his first game, the Huskies fought hard & lost a close one at home to LSU
- In his third game, we beat 3rd-ranked USC at home
- In his sixth game, we beat Arizona in a thriller, 36-33, which still stands as the best football game I’ve ever seen in person
- In his first Apple Cup, we shut out the Cougs 30-0
- In his first season finale, we destroyed 19th-ranked Cal 42-10
- In Year 2, we went down to 18th-ranked USC and beat them again
- In the final three regular season games of 2010, we swept UCLA, Cal, and Wazzu to earn our first bowl game since 2002 with Rick Neuheisel
- In that Holiday Bowl, we beat 16th-ranked Nebraska, who had slaughtered us earlier that same season
After those first two years, Sark was our adopted heir apparent to Don James. The Dawgfather Part II. While we all knew there was a great possibility that he’d eventually leave us for USC whenever they came calling, many of us couldn’t help but dream of a scenario where Sark brought us back to the Don James glory days of contending for national championships, building an empire in the northwest for the next quarter century.
That naiveté I talked about earlier. It was there in spades. I mean, why WOULD you trust anyone who played at BYU, who was from Southern Cal and who got his first coordinating experience with USC, when he said that the Washington Husky Football head coaching job was his “dream job”? It’s ludicrous! Those are empty words that you hear from practically every single head coach upon being hired by a new team!
Nevertheless, when he left, it stung. It stung worse than when we lost Neuheisel. I just had the feeling that he’d go on to USC, bring them back to national prominence, and we’d be up here looking like the fools who gave away the golden goose.
Sark’s first year at USC was pretty solid. 9-4 record, 2nd place finish in the Pac-12 South, important wins over ranked Stanford & Arizona teams, and a Holiday Bowl win over 25th-ranked Nebraska. They finished in the Top 25 in both polls; all in all, not a bad start to a tenure. Meanwhile, Chris Petersen struggled in his first year as Sark’s replacement. We finished the regular season 8-5, losing to all five ranked opponents, including an unforgivable botch job in that Arizona game; then we lost our bowl game to a not-very-good Oklahoma State team. We had four players on defense get drafted in the first two rounds, yet as a unit, our defense couldn’t have looked more mediocre. There were definitely some growing pains as holdovers from the Sark regime tried to adjust to Coach Pete’s expectations, and in the end it all resulted in one of the more unsatisfying seasons we’ve had around here since our winless 2008.
2015 didn’t appear to be trending much better, with the Huskies going with a true freshman at quarterback, while trying to patch together a defense that lost a lot of starters. Through four games, the Huskies were 2-2 and things were as expected. We’d coast through the rest of a losing season and PRAY some of the young guys showed real, tangible improvement. On the flipside, USC looked pretty ordinary in their own right through four weeks. Starting the year as a pre-season Top 10 program, the Trojans let one slip away against an unranked Stanford team. On top of that, there was the pre-season flap where Sark had too much to drink and made an ass out of himself at a school function. A lot of Husky fans had a lot of fun at his expense, not realizing the full extent of the problem.
Were there rumors that Sark was something of a partyboy when he was head coach of the Huskies? For sure! But, we’re talking about a relatively young guy, promoting a youthful, fun atmosphere. And, you can say what you want about his on-field playcalling, but he certainly got the job done in the recruiting department (maybe not in the offensive line, but you don’t get a player like Shaq Thompson to come here if you’re not a guy who knows how to recruit – players, and fellow coaches/recruiters). Does he like to have a good time, and occasionally allow himself to consume too much? Sure, but who doesn’t?
Everything seemed to come to a head last Thursday, as the Huskies made their way down to USC. No one gave us a chance in Hell. Yet, our defense was as good as I’ve seen it since the Neuheisel days, and our offense did just enough to get us the W. Husky fans rejoiced, we poked more fun at Sark, and this season has since taken a wonderful turn towards the positive. Maybe we’ll beat Oregon at home this week, for the first time in ages! MAYBE, we’ll even win enough games to get into a bowl game, thereby giving our true freshman quarterback some extra practices to hone his craft! Limitless possibilities!
Not so, down in Trojanland. Apparently, Sark came into practice last Sunday while still drunk, or at the very least at the end of a long bender. He was placed on leave, and later terminated for cause, because having an erratic lush as your head coach will NOT do wonders for your recruiting it turns out.
When I wrote that post above, in the days/hours following Sark’s abandonment of the Husky program, as I said before I was pretty bitter. I wished him ill will. I wished he’d be ridden out of Southern Cal on the rails like Lane Kiffin had before him. This moment, this happening, SHOULD bring me great joy! I should be wallowing in the succulence of sour grapes like a pig in shit. But, honestly, I can’t help but feel bad for the guy.
It wasn’t supposed to end like this. He was supposed to be crushed under the impossible weight of USC expectations, and watch miserably as his teams faltered on the football field. He wasn’t supposed to let that misery affect his personal life and drink himself out of a job! I mean, I’m not a monster, after all. I am capable of having sympathy, apparently (who knew?).
I have a different take on quote/unquote alcoholism than I think most others. I think the textbook definition – and most people’s definitions – of alcoholism is greatly exaggerated. It dates back to this country’s puritanical origins for all things “sinful”. Sex out of wedlock is naughty, marijuana is a gateway drug that will ruin your life, and more than four beers makes you an alcoholic. It’s insane! Before I learned all these stories about Sark being drunk on the job – at practice and even during games – when we only had the story from that pre-season USC function, and some bar tabs from recruiting trips and such while he was head coach of the Huskies, I thought that Sark was no different than myself. I like to tie one on during the weekends. I work all week in an office, I should be allowed to have as many fucking beers as I want on Friday and/or Saturday nights! As long as I’m not driving while drunk, getting into fights, or otherwise being an asshole while drunk, then who cares?
My take on alcoholism is this: when it starts infringing on your regular, everyday life, then you’ve got a problem. Like, when you’re drinking a fifth of vodka every single day, just to get through the day. Like, when you’ve got so many DUIs that you lose your license and need to be chauffeured everywhere by family or friends. Like, when you turn into a raging dickhead when you’re drunk and start alienating everyone around you. Or, when your drunkenness starts affecting your ability to hold down a job. Among, I’m sure, other reasons I can’t think of right now.
I think the term Functioning Alcoholic, or High-Functioning Alcoholic, is dismissive and patronizing. Alcoholism shouldn’t be reduced to how many drinks you have in a day, or how many you have in a week. If you drink to unwind after work, and you’re not hurting anybody, then who cares? You’re not a High-Functioning Alcoholic, you’re just a person, making it through what can be – at times – a long and shitty life.
Sark, it appears, went off the deep end, though. In almost any job, you have to be aware of your abilities and limitations. I don’t know of any employer who’s going to tolerate you coming into work while sauced. But, that dynamic increases 100-fold when you’re in a public position like head coach of a major college football program. Without knowing him personally, or even the intimate details of his private life, Sark strikes me as someone who needs help. It’s nothing to be ashamed of; we all need help at one point or another. It’s good that he’s finally at a point where he’s willing and able to get that help.
As a Husky fan, more than anything I feel sorry for the guy. Yes, he brought it upon himself. Yes, he’s a famous, white millionaire with the epitome of First World Problems. But, he’s still going through a lot of emotional shit right now, and as much as I want to enjoy him falling on his face for leaving the Washington program, I just can’t do it.
The stark truth is, Sark did have his dream job, when he was hired by USC. He’s since lost that job, in a painfully embarrassing and premature way. And, he’ll never have that opportunity again. He can go to rehab, he can get his addiction under control, and he can be in a position to be entrusted with another bigtime college football program. He can do almost anything he wants with the rest of his life, and he can live that life in comfort and financial security. But, he’ll never have his dream job again.
Is it better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all? I tend to have my doubts, especially in cases like this, where that love was ripped away all too soon. So, if you’re looking for a reason to feel bad for a guy you may have resented for leaving the Huskies, I’ll present exhibit A.