Success is running parallel for Steve Sarkisian, Pete Carroll
SEATTLE — A chrome football helmet, shiny as a polished trailer hitch, sits on a round table in Coach Steve Sarkisian’s office. The University of Washington debuted the alternate headgear in a home game against Arizona last Saturday.
“I love it,” Sarkisian said. “Looks a little bronze in here, but it’s silver under the lights.”
Considering the state of football in this city, a reflective helmet is appropriate. For Sarkisian, looking across Lake Washington is a little like looking in a mirror. Both the Huskies and Seattle Seahawks are undefeated. Washington plays at Stanford on Saturday, and the Seahawks play at Indianapolis — against former Stanford star Andrew Luck — on Sunday. Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is a mentor to Huskies quarterback Keith Price.
And, of course, the most obvious connection: Sarkisian was one of Pete Carroll’s top assistants at USC.
“It’s ironic that we’d be in the same place,” said Carroll, 62, in his fourth season as coach of the Seahawks, who are 4-0 for the first time in their history. “We’ve both been in it a few years, and it’s taken us a few years to get it at its best.”
While their old school is reeling and beginning the search to replace the fired Lane Kiffin, Sarkisian and Carroll are riding high, fully embraced in a Pacific Northwest community whose football passion is building to a crescendo.
“It’s a good time to be a football fan in Seattle, no question,” said Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon, who was a star with both the Huskies and Seahawks.
“When Pete first came up, people were kind of skeptical because they didn’t know the reason why he was leaving. A lot of people wondered, ‘Is it because of the Reggie Bush thing? Is he just a college rah-rah coach? Is he going to be the coach we need coming off Mike Holmgren?
“There was a wait-and-see attitude here, no doubt about it. But he quickly won them over.”
A year after his team narrowly missed making it to the NFC championship game, Carroll is at the helm of a top Lombardi Trophy contender, through the first quarter of the NFL season the biggest threat to Super Bowl favorite Denver.
Sarkisian arrived in Seattle a year before Carroll, and had the daunting challenge of rebuilding a program that finished 0-12 the season before.
“When he got here, it was the worst team in America,” said Damon Huard, a former Huskies and NFL quarterback. “Kids wouldn’t wear their Husky gear on campus. It was as bad as it could get. I think Steve coming here that first year changed the culture overnight.”
The culture might have changed but, after an initial spike, the record has been static. The Huskies were 5-7 in Sarkisian’s first season, and 7-6 in each of the next three.
“The three consecutive seven-win seasons, we were a better football team from one year to the next to the next,” said Sarkisian, 39. “Unfortunately, our record didn’t show that.”
But now the No. 15 Huskies have a spectacularly renovated stadium, and their highest Associated Press ranking in 11 years, with victories over Boise State, Illinois, Idaho State and Arizona.
“When you take over a program that has two national championships and multiple conference championships, and the first team ever to go to three consecutive Rose Bowls, that’s the standard,” Sarkisian said. “Granted, the program had fallen on hard times but the standard was set that this is what we’re capable of doing at the University of Washington. That’s quite honestly why I took the job.”
Sarkisian, who once shared USC offensive coordinator duties with Kiffin under Carroll, said he hasn’t spoken to Kiffin since the firing but has exchanged text messages. Sarkisian also said the Trojans have not contacted him about their coaching vacancy.
“I haven’t worried about it,” said Sarkisian, who is under contract through the 2015 season. “We’ve got a big game Saturday. In season, to be worried about that stuff is really difficult. Maybe some guys can do it. I’m very involved and engaged in our game-planning. I call the plays on Saturday, so I don’t have a whole lot of time to sit around and even look at what’s going on with that stuff.”
By every measure, Sarkisian was heavily influenced by Carroll’s coaching style.
“What you see with Pete is what you see with Sark,” said Jermaine Kearse, a second-year Seahawks receiver who played under Sarkisian at Washington. “The program is so similar, the team philosophy, the rules, how Pete and Sark both carry the organization is real similar. The practices, the music. It’s just like a mirror image.”
Carroll is careful to stress that while Sarkisian spent formative years at USC from 2005-08, he has put his own stamp on the Huskies.
“Sark understood why we were doing what we were doing,” he said. “It made sense to him. And personality-wise, he found a way to fit a lot of it together. But he found a way to deliver the message. It’s not my message, it’s his message.”
The two head coaches keep in contact during the season with text messages and the occasional call.
“I actually confided in him about a week ago about our penalty situation,” Sarkisian said. “We lead the country in penalties, and [the Seahawks] have been getting quite a few penalties too. I said, ‘Coach, I don’t know what to say to these guys.’ He said, ‘You know, Sark, if you go back to ‘SC, we got a lot of penalties. I think that’s just the way we coach our guys. We allow them to be free and play fast.
‘They want to sustain their blocks, and that’s why they might get a hold or two. They play aggressively on defense. So it’s not always a bad thing that you’re getting penalties.’ ”
Sarkisian calls that “playing in the gray,” and said: “But that’s a good place to be. I’d rather be there than not playing hard enough.”
They both live in Bellevue, on the other side of Lake Washington from Seattle, but generally don’t have time to socialize until the off-season. Sarkisian and his wife, Stephanie, have three young children. Carroll and his wife, Glena, split time between Seattle and Los Angeles and are grandparents.
However, it’s not unusual in the summer for Sarkisian to hop in the 27-foot Cobalt speed boat he docks at a neighbor’s house down the street, drive it across the lake to pick up a group of Husky coaches, and then down the lake to Renton to watch a Seahawks practice.
“You can’t do that anywhere else,” he said. “It’s amazing.”
Football-wise, Seattle is an amazing place these days, with the undefeated teams ramping up the excitement and taking the edge off the early, wet fall.
Playing in the gray. A good place to be.
Get our high school sports newsletter
Prep Rally is devoted to the SoCal high school sports experience, bringing you scores, stories and a behind-the-scenes look at what makes prep sports so popular.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.