When Washington walks into Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas to play the Las Vegas Bowl on Saturday, Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian will have flashbacks.
Sarkisian played in his own neutral site game in Sam Boyd back in 1996 when his sixth-ranked BYU Cougars took on 20th-ranked Wyoming in the Western Athletic Conference championship game. If BYU won, it would likely get into the then “bowl alliance” and play in the Cotton Bowl.
Sarkisian took a zigzag route to Las Vegas the first time.
He wanted to play baseball in college, not football. He had a 10-0 record as a pitcher and hit more than .400 his senior year at West High School in Torrance, Calif. He tried to walk on at USC and was cut after the fall semester and told he would not make the team in spring.
That sent Sarkisian to El Camino College in Torrance. The school is small enough that it needs coaches to teach classes, which is what football coach John Featherstone was doing at the time.
Featherstone taught a health class at El Camino. In 1993, Sarkisian filled one of the classroom seats and received an earful from Featherstone. There wasn’t an issue with grades; rather, Featherstone was hounding Sarkisian to come out to the football field.
“In my health class, it goes for 16 weeks, so I knew I had plenty of time to convince him to come out and play football,” Featherstone said with a laugh.
Sarkisian eventually made his way out there in the spring before walking on in the fall. He was third string, then moved up the El Camino depth chart as a result of the stunning shooting death of the first-string quarterback, which left two quarterbacks. It was clear to the coaches Sarkisian was the more skilled.
Sarkisian was the El Camino starter in 1993 and 1994. In one of many fateful Seattle-related twists to Sarkisian’s past, Featherstone was an alum of the “Air Coryell” school.
Featherstone was part of the San Diego State staff when Seattle native and former University of Washington defensive back Don Coryell was making innovations to the passing game in southern California. The single back, play-action approach was installed by Featherstone at El Camino. Now Sarkisian ran it.
Sarkisian’s first season as the quarterback El Camino? Not so good. The Warriors were 2-8. “Our worst season ever,” Featherstone said.
In year two, Sarkisian used his accuracy and acumen to lead the Warriors to a 10-1 record. He threw for 635 yards in a season-ending bowl game. After big-time colleges initially ignored him because he was supposedly too thin and too slow, Sarkisian eventually had Kansas State, Washington State, Fresno State and BYU in a lather.
The same qualities that made Sarkisian such a success at El Camino had BYU coach LaVell Edwards watching film and sending out staff members to recruit him. Norm Chow, then the quarterbacks coach at BYU, and Barry Lamb, a BYU assistant, plopped down in the El Camino football offices and had a long talk with Sarkisian.
Edwards, an offensive innovator who is credited with the development of the spread offense, thought Sarkisian would be a perfect fit for the Cougars.
“You could tell right away that it’d just be a matter of time with him catching on to the system,” Edwards said. “He picked it up quickly. That was the thing that always impressed me.”
Sarkisian’s time at BYU was a repeat of the El Camino scenario in many ways. He arrived in the program after others had been there, yet surpassed them. His first season was solid, his second historic.
“His senior year, we just had one of those magic years,” Edwards said.
Which led the sixth-ranked Cougars to being favored over Wyoming in what became a tight WAC championship game. Ethan Pochman, who went to Mercer Island High School and played football only his senior year after playing soccer, kicked a game-tying 20-yard field goal as time ran out. He kicked a 32-yarder in overtime to give BYU a 28-25 win.
Sarkisian completed 26 of 37 passes for 250 yards and a touchdown.
“I was OK,” Sarkisian said. “I had better games that year, that’s for sure.”
Sarkisian threw for 4,027 yards and 33 touchdowns during the regular season (including 536 yards and six TDs in a season-opening 41-37 win over Texas A&M), winning the Sammy Baugh Trophy as the nation’s best passer. He was on one of nine college football covers distributed by TV Guide in December 1996.
The Cougars finished 14-1 and ranked fifth in the nation. The lone loss was 29-17 at Washington in September. Edwards recalled the Cougars having trouble with running back Corey Dillon. Sarkisian was also sacked eight times.
“I remember thinking, man, that’s a game I would like to play again,” he said.
BYU beat Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl, 19-15, still the only time the Cougars have played on Jan. 1. It took a win in Las Vegas to get them there.
“Pretty good celebration by our fans coming onto the field, even though it was a neutral site game,” Sarkisian said. “Great memories.”
He has a chance for more Saturday.