Marques Tuiasosopo surprised me.
I expected Tuiasosopo, who made his head coaching debut Friday night, to behave like a guy making his head coaching debut.
He’d exude confusion, distracted by a headset that wouldn’t stay in place. He’d pace the sidelines with a lost-in-space look in his eyes. He’d shake his head, frustrated at the difference between a polished practice and the unscripted chaos of an actual game.
Mama told me there’d be days like this.
Instead, Tuiasosopo appeared to be a man possessed — possessed of confidence, possessed of poise, possessed of the intuitive sense he was born for this job. So seamless was Tuiasosopo’s temporary promotion from Washington quarterbacks coach to head coach for the Fight Hunger Bowl, he even knew how to act after his team’s 31-16 victory over BYU.
As the Huskies were carrying Tuiasosopo off the field on their shoulders, he limited the celebratory scene to a few seconds. There was protocol to follow — a handshake with the opposing coach — and Tuiasosopo didn’t want to keep the Cougars’ Bronco Mendenhall waiting.
Washington did more in San Francisco than seal the program’s first nine-victory season since 2000. The Huskies turned Steve Sarkisian’s interim replacement into a rising star who answered every question about his potential as a head coach but the most obvious one:
Where does Tui go from here?
New UW coach Chris Petersen is said to be interested in adding Tuiasosopo to his staff, presumably as tight ends coach. (Jonathan Smith, who served as Petersen’s quarterbacks coach at Boise State, is expected to retain that role with the Huskies.) Tuiasosopo is familiar with the task — his first full-time coaching job, in 2012, was as tight ends coach under Sarkisian.
But at 34 years old, Tuiasosopo, who was a UCLA graduate assistant as recently as three years ago, needs more to be put on his plate, not less. He needs the responsibility of preparing game plans and calling plays — a responsibility he won’t soon get at Washington, or any school affiliated with a major conference.
Rather than spending the next season or two in a holding pattern, Tuiasosopo can accelerate the apprenticeship process by taking his talents to a mid-major program.
College football staffs are in flux right now, and with Texas looking for a replacement for Mack Brown (and a possible opening looming at Penn State, where Bill O’Brien has emerged as the leading candidate for the Houston Texans head coaching job) the domino effect could be substantial.
Wherever Tuiasosopo lands, whatever he ends up doing, he’ll go to work with a reputation enhanced by his graceful response to a difficult challenge. Tuiasosopo was given three weeks to motivate a team for the sort of postseason event that doesn’t inspire a college student’s undivided attention.
Some of the most respected head coaches in the business have trouble maintaining discipline before bowl games absent national championship implications. Tuiasosopo’s predicament was thickened by his interim status: the substitute teacher on the Friday before winter break, when eyeballs roll and spitballs fly.
And then there was the fragile bond among assistant coaches. Some knew they were on their way to join Sarkisian at USC, others knew they weren’t. Amid the uncertainty lurked a common denominator — none of the coaches surrounding Tuiasosopo figured on returning to Montlake in 2014.
Oddsmakers installed Washington as a three-point favorite, but all things considered, a blowout by BYU wouldn’t have been surprising.
No bowl trip is without its pratfalls, and the Huskies endured a few. Before kickoff, it was learned starting safety Will Shamburger, a fifth-year senior, had been sent home for violating team rules. Another starter, sophomore cornerback Marcus Peters, was benched during the first quarter because of an academic issue presumably related to another kind of quarter.
As for the game, it was mostly a grind. Sophomore quarterback Taysom Hill is the BYU version of Johnny Manziel — once this kid develops consistency with his midrange passes, he’ll contend for a Heisman Trophy — and he dazzled during the first half. The second half revealed the Huskies’ depth, put to use after injuries to quarterback Keith Price and running back Bishop Sankey.
Despite BYU’s image as the University Least Likely To Hold Frat Parties Reminiscent of “Animal House,” the Cougars play with a mean streak, and attention span is never a concern. Had the Huskies taken the field without a collective purpose, they would have been humiliated.
But that’s just a hunch; we’ll never know. The head coach I saw on Friday exercised a precise balance of stoicism and agitation, and the Huskies followed his cue, competing as if there were no tomorrow.
There’s always a tomorrow, of course, and when it came, Tuiasosopo was demoted from interim coach to former coach.
More accurately, he’s a once and future coach who’s going places. If Tui plays his cards right — and he’s got some cards — he’ll realize his ambitions long before he turns 50.
Until then, Marques Tuiasosopo will own a share of a really cool record in college football: Most Gatorade Showers Per Games Coached.