The head coach of a major-college football program is not unlike the boss of a big business – or the president of a republic. Because nobody can effectively perform all aspects of the job, it’s necessary that capable, trustworthy underlings be appointed to manage the details.
A competent head coach gives his assistants advice, and he gives them encouragement. Sometimes, he must even give them grief. Most important, he gives them the freedom to do their work, so the head coach can do his.
When the University of Washington hired Steve Sarkisian, the school presumed it landed a bright, enthusiastic and principled head coach to serve as the most recognized face of a team desperate to reconnect with the public. Seven games into his first season, Sarkisian has delivered on those expectations.
But two recent tactical breakdowns – at Notre Dame, on Oct. 3, and at Arizona State, last Saturday night – pose questions about Sarkisian that never were directed at his predecessor. A common criticism of Tyrone Willingham is that he didn’t work hard enough. With Sarkisian, it’s fair to wonder: Is he working too much?
Sarkisian insists on holding multiple roles with the Huskies. During practice and various functions with fans and media, he’s strictly the head coach. Behind the scenes, he’s a co-offensive coordinator responsible for assembling the game plan. On Saturdays, he calls the plays.
Sarkisian’s full-tilt devotion to his occupation is admirable and understandable. He’s 35. He’s got a contract that will pay him $1.75 million this year, with increases that will guarantee him $2.3 million annually by 2013. He wants to reward the faith the UW put in him with diligence. He figures sleeping soundly several nights a week was not part of the deal.
But appointing himself co-offensive coordinator was not part of the deal, either. Nor was calling plays. President Mark Emmert and athletic director Scott Woodward no doubt were impressed by Sarkisian’s work at USC, where he oversaw the Trojans’ offense for Pete Carroll. Sarkisian gained national notoriety in his previous role – it got him the Huskies’ gig – but his new role is different and sometimes at odds with the impulses of his old role.
For example: A fourth-and-1 at midfield. An offensive coordinator always wants to go for it, but a head coach, from a more detached perspective, can’t be so sure. If the offensive coordinator is also the head coach, whose voice prevails?
When the Huskies took seven snaps inside the Notre Dame 2-yard line without scoring a pivotal touchdown in a 37-30 overtime defeat, head-coach Sarkisian put the blame on play-caller Sarskisian.
“In my opinion,” Sarkisian said afterward of consecutive plays designed to put Jake Locker into the end zone on a quarterback sneak, “we probably should have run something else.”
Something else could have been drawn up by co-offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, 39, a former NFL quarterback and nine-year coaching veteran who called plays last season at Fresno State. But Nussmeier’s opinion wasn’t sought.
The circus sequence on the Notre Dame goal line was merely a warm-up to last weekend’s fiasco at Arizona State, where the Huskies had possession at their 10-yard line with 1:17 remaining in a tie game. Head-coach Sarkisian, seemingly content to settle things in overtime, sent in two Chris Polk running plays before morphing into mad-bombing play-caller Sarkisian, savoring the possibility of the Sun Devils napping on defense. Locker’s deep pass to James Johnson was incomplete, allowing ASU enough time to find the Huskies napping on defense.
Sarkisian, to be fair about this, is not the first longtime offensive coordinator who has shown a reluctance to give up his play-calling duties as head coach. He’s not even the first in Seattle: Mike Holmgren relied on the wisdom of Gil Haskell for basic game plans, but the only way he’d give up play-calling was to pry the play chart from his cold, dead fingers.
One of every four major-college head coaches is similarly involved, either on offense or defense. Among them: Stanford’s Jim Harbaugh, Arizona State’s Dennis Erickson, Oregon State’s Mike Riley and Oregon’s Chip Kelly.
Notre Dame’s Charlie Weis, in a rare demonstration of humility, relinquished his play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Mike Haywood last season.
“Play-calling is my great strength,” Weis said at the time, “but I’m the head coach, and I think when you’re play-calling on offense, you might not necessarily be the best head coach.”
Weis reclaimed his play-calling responsibilities in November. At least he tried.
California’s Jeff Tedford, on the other hand, has been able to turn play-calling over to his offensive coordinator. So has Ralph Friedgen at Maryland, and Steve Spurrier at South Carolina.
And then there’s Boise State’s Chris Petersen, who for five years called plays as an assistant to former head coach Dan Hawkins. When Petersen replaced the Colorado-bound Hawkins in 2006, he designated Bryan Harsin, then only 30, as the play-caller.
Behind a first-year head coach and a first-year offensive coordinator, Boise State finished 13-0 in 2006. (The Broncos’ epic upset of Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl is recalled for a couple of trick plays seemingly drawn up in the dirt of a sandlot.)
“The bigger the program gets, you can see how it’s harder to stay into the details of the football day-to-day (stuff),” Petersen told reporters a few months ago. “The head coach’s job, as weird as it is, has less to do with X’s and O’s and a lot to do with all the other stuff.”
Steve Sarkisian was hired at Washington to do all the other stuff, and even if the Huskies don’t win another game in 2009, the mission has been accomplished.
But it’s clear he’s still learning on the job, and I hope he’s learned this: When the head coach is immersed in every last detail, when he’s got his fingerprints on every X and every O, the hands-on work ethic can produce some all-thumbs consequences.