John McGrath

John McGrath: Steve Sarkisian walking away was a boon for UW Huskies football

USC coach Steve Sarkisian yells at an official late in the fourth quarter against Washington. The Huskies won, 17-12.
USC coach Steve Sarkisian yells at an official late in the fourth quarter against Washington. The Huskies won, 17-12. The Orange County Register

Steve Sarkisian was a raging bonfire of profanities on the sideline Thursday night, berating a freshman defensive back less than half the age of the USC head coach, when it occurred to me.

For five years, the University of Washington football program was managed by somebody who turned out to be unmanageable. And then, on Dec. 2, 2013 — a date Huskies fans ought to recognize as Liberation Day — Sarkisian quit with two seasons remaining on his contract.

Sarkisian’s yearning to return to USC made it possible for Washington to land Boise State’s Chris Petersen, a far more accomplished coach who does not berate players half his age.

That’s not to say he tolerates the kind of unsportsmanlike penalty that unhinged Sarkisian the other night. Petersen simply chooses to remain composed, informing any player whose conduct costs 15 yards to look for a seat on the bench and, ahem, stay there.

Of the countless differences between the former Huskies coach and the man who succeeded him, self-control is the most obvious. Petersen preaches it — embodies it, actually — while Sarkisian presumes he’s too important to be constrained by expectations of etiquette.

Washington’s 17-12 upset of USC showcased some other reasons why Dec. 2, 2013 looks pivotal in the Huskies’ attempt to re-emerge as a national power. Thanks to an open date on the schedule last weekend, Petersen was given 12 days to prepare for the 17th-ranked Trojans.

The result?

“Sarkisian got completely out-coached by Petersen,” wrote Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel. “The team with less talented, inferior athletes and a liability at quarterback won with a better game plan, crisper execution and fewer penalties.”

Comparing the Huskies to The Little Engine That Could is a bit of a reach. True, they scored what turned out to be the decisive touchdown on a Petersen specialty, a gadget-play pass in the third quarter from receiver Marvin Hall to right end Joshua Perkins.

The Trojans’ disinclination to pay attention to Perkins — he was more open than the memoirs of an aging rock star — suggested they weren’t familiar with Petersen’s history of gimmickry. Which is inexcusable, because Washington scored a touchdown last year at Arizona on the same play involving the same players.

Aside from that razzle-dazzle, the visitors stood up and went toe to toe with USC. They finished with the time-of-possession edge and, even more significantly, held the Trojans to 1 of 13 on third-down conversions.

Did Washington win with less talented, inferior athletes? I’m not so sure. Before he was ejected for “targeting” the quarterback on what appeared to be a clean hit, third-year sophomore linebacker Azeem Victor continued his string of dominating performances.

We’re almost halfway through the college football season, and is anybody grieving about Shaq Thompson’s decision to forgo his senior season for the NFL? Victor essentially has replaced a first-team All-America and first-round draft choice, and the Huskies haven’t missed a beat.

For that matter, I’m not seeing any regression at defensive tackle, where Elijah Qualls is occupying the role of interior menace that recently belonged to Danny Shelton, another first-round draft choice.

When a seamless transition is achieved from a defense stocked with NFL-bound players to a defense that prevents USC from converting 12 of 13 third-down attempts, it’s an indication of some talent.

But I understand the narrative, because the narrative is accurate: Petersen coaxes more effort and production out of three-star recruits than Sarkisian gets from five-star recruits.

Petersen’s players respect their coach, but the respect is mutual. He doesn’t humiliate them on national television. As the leader of a football team largely comprised of young men who aren’t yet adults, Petersen acts like an adult.

If you’re a Huskies fan, the importance of what happened on Dec. 2, 2013 can’t be overstated. Sarkisian left for what he presumed was his dream job, a selfish move that turned out to offer supremely beneficial consequences.

It set Petersen up for what became his right-place-at-the-right-time job. Exerting poise on a sideline across the field from a ranting Steve Sarkisian, that fulfills any definition of right place at the right time.