Guest Post: Closing the Talent Gaps


This is a guest post by Carl Munson.

Receiving commitments from two high caliber quarterbacks like Jeff Lindquist and Cyler Miles is remarkable and evidence of how far Washington football has come in three years, after a downward spiral of nearly a decade. Washington athletic talent over past three years has been improving consistently but the program upgrades have not been restricted to athletes. It’s interesting to go back a few years and revisit the road, much of it very bumpy, to the present.

The Dawgfather’s Speech

Concluding an excellent, keynote dinner speech before a business executive crowd of 300 in the Bellevue Hyatt Regency Grand Ballroom in 2005, former University of Washington head football coach Don James summarized his comments during the previous half hour.

"Sweat the small stuff. Set goals and prioritize. Work hard; that’s mandatory. Under-promise and over-deliver. Communicate positively. Listen. Look for results, not salutes. Give the credit and take the blame. See things with your own eyes. Don’t disintegrate under pressure. Set an example."

None of these principles follow the path of least resistance. While James was speaking from personal experience as a head football coach, what he said applied to any leadership position in any occupation. Had upper campus decision makers and subsequent Washington coaches, one in particular, adhered to James’ counsel, the Washington football free-fall probably would not have occurred.

The End and the Beginning

When Don James came to the University of Washington in 1975, he brought with him a reputation for being extraordinarily well-organized. As is well-known, while at first the program didn’t turn around, a determined James moved his bed into his Husky Stadium office, completely devoting himself to a goal of success. In 1978, Washington went to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1964. Fifteen years after being hired, on August 22, 1993, stung by politically stained accusations of unethical practices in the Husky football program coupled with lack of administration support, an insulted and disgusted Don James (153-57-2, 12-0 in 1991) made the strongest statement he could: he resigned.

The Unintended Coaching Carousel

Jim Lambright took over. Lambright bled purple and gold, and still does (during the 2011 spring practices, anyone studying Lambright on the sidelines could see the fire is still there). A good judge of talent and a good recruiter, Lambright did well but, as a coach, could not duplicate James. Considering the butterfly effect, a few more great recruits, a win instead of a tie against USC, one less interception here, another touchdown there, and Lambright’s turn at the helm might have gone on much longer. Lambright was shown the door, however, after going 6–6 during the 1998 season. In light of what subsequently followed, while firing Lambright (44-25-1) seems injudicious, at the time, in the shadow of “Don James,” it was almost inevitable.

In January 1999, Washington recruiting nemesis Rick Neuheisel was hired away from Colorado. Consisting mostly of Lambright recruits, Neuheisel teams did very well at first but, as time passed, and the Husky ship was having difficulty maintaining proper heading, some prominent Husky supporters became mutinous. Neuheisel, who already had a weak ethical reputation, angered Washington administrators and supporters when he lied about interviewing with Terry Donahue concerning the Dallas Cowboys head coaching job. Later, Neuheisal entered a neighborhood betting pool unrelated to Husky football, won, donated the winnings to the Bellevue Boys and Girls club, subsequently lied about betting, but then was ostensibly cleared when a Washington compliance officer memo surfaced saying such betting pools were not an NCAA violation – although they were. Not quite Jim Tressel but it gave Neuheisel’s detractors an opportunity. Neuheisel (35-16) was let go. Neuheisel sued. Washington later paid a settlement to Neuheisel equivalent to around $4,500,000 including forgiven loans.

The ship was beginning to list. Keith Gilbertson was handed the responsibility of righting the ship and getting her back on course. The bilge pumps weren’t going to work that quickly, however, especially in light of evidence that Neuheisel’s ability to sway recruits exceeded his ability to assess recruits. An example? Andre Reeves. A better example might be Francisco Tipoti. The hyped, fierce-looking, 6’5” 325 lb. tackle, who some publications named to pre-season all-conference teams, came to Washington with fanfare, spent little time in the weight room and less time on the field, becoming buried in the depth chart behind others with less potential and greater desire. At the 2003 Washington football awards banquet, the departing seniors were introduced and individually came forward. When it came his turn, Tipoti walked to the front. A class act, Gilbertson said something vague but it sounded good. Overall, the talent Gilbertson inherited wasn’t what it should have been. For example, two of Gilbertson’s first recruits, Greyson Gunheim and Jordan White-Frisbee, started on the defensive line as true freshmen although they weren’t ready. But Washington’s talent and strength levels had fallen, and Gunheim and White-Frisbee were the best Washington had at their positions. Gilbertson (7-16) was also relieved of command.

Time to get serious, everyone said. Time to hire a great head coach, replace all the assistant coaches (with the exception of Randy Hart, of course) and give the ship’s new captain time to permanently repair holes from stem to stern. No more interim fixes. A coaching decision was made. Was it the right decision? Believing the administration and athletic director did proper due diligence, most Washington fans supported the decision and looked forward to a gradual return to prominence. Particularly when a person or group knows less than they should of the subject at hand, however, sometimes a big decision is made easier when it is gilded with political correctness. By definition, however, if something is politically correct, it is not correct, that is, it is incorrect; in other words, wrong. It was the wrong decision.

Over the next four years the great ship that was Washington football continued to founder. Revered strength coaches Pete Kaligis and Steve Emtman were replaced by a strength coach many players disliked and would not follow; the “lack of bullets” was countered by “low-hanging fruit”; practices were closed, and game-day coaching came under fire. Player morale plummeted. Under pressure, the head coach dismissed Husky assistant coaches Kent Baer and Bob Simmons, and Trent Miles left to become head coach at Indiana State where he is now in his fourth year. While most Washington assistant coaches were competent, going on to respectable coaching positions after leaving Washington, nevertheless, in all manner, Washington coaching appeared to be imploding, nearly a Don James antithesis.

"Don’t sweat the small stuff. Set flexible goals and prioritization. Work hard if you must. Don’t promise. Don’t communicate. Don’t listen. Salutes are reassuring. Take credit but not blame. Believe what you hear. Go with the flow. Follow by example."

Washington’s decline should not have gone as far as it did but this head coach was going to be given every chance to fail. In spite of the record (11-37 ultimately; 0-12 during his last season) and program disarray, when he was finally fired during the second half of the 2008 season, the NAACP called. Inexplicably to many, he continued to coach until the end of the 0-12 season.

Washington football had fallen even further. Was this going to continue? The Husky faithful were unwilling to believe it would. For good reason. After an 0–12 season, the only direction was up. It was time to try again. Fortunately, the former athletic directors were gone, a permanent one was needed, and there was a coaching candidate on the horizon with a vision and a clear memory of Washington football. He knew the potential. He wanted the job.

Woodward and Emmert

In 2008, after extensive interviews with candidate athletic directors throughout the U.S., President Mark Emmert was confident that Scott Woodward, who was only serving as interim athletic director after being Vice President of External Affairs, would make the best athletic director at Washington. Among other things, Emmert liked that Woodward had a passion for winning, was a good people-person, had demonstrated a high aptitude for organization, and was keenly aware of how important football was to the University of Washington (more on that below).

Enter Steve Sarkisian. When Sarkisian walked into Woodward’s office to interview for the head coaching position, Sarkisian already had his coaching program completely organized. And, in hindsight, Sarkisian wasn’t being interviewed so much as Woodward was being recruited. Sarkisian laid out all the details, made it clear why he needed to go to work immediately, and Woodward verballed. The things that impressed Scott Woodward about Sarkisian were how well Sarkisian understood Washington’s problems (years of scouting Washington provided a wealth of insight) and, with respect to solving those problems, how well-organized and goal oriented Sarkisian was. Scott Woodward believed Steve Sarkisian, who had not been a head coach, would make the best head coach.

Presently, many Washington fans believe it was miraculous Emmert and Woodward both thought objectively, and thought outside of the box (many were upset at the time because Washington hired someone with no head coaching experience), rather than relying on individual pedigree, the press, a groundswell of popular opinion, or political correctness. It was the right decision.

The Sark Attack

Sarkisian was given a green light and hit the ground running. The first thing Sarkisian did was hire strength coach Ivan Lewis away from USC. Inexplicably, it was more obvious to USC coaches than Washington coaches that Washington players were not in winning football condition. Ivan Lewis immediately came to Seattle and began testing players and organizing workouts. The Husky players liked Ivan, accepted his lead and responded to his direction, a beneficial change since the players belong to the football coaches part of the time but they belong to the strength and conditioning coach all of the time. It would be two or three years before many Washington players were where Ivan and Sarkisian wanted them but a badly needed, effective, strength and conditioning program was underway. Sarkisian rounded out his coaching staff – including Sark’s second recruiting triumph, Nick Holt – pursing coaches according to coaching and recruiting abilities (and there have been no coaching changes since). The desired strength and conditioning program, and the desired coaching stability with above-average efficacy potential, were in place. Then began the patient process of upgrading athletic talent.

Raising the Talent Bar

When Sarkisian first arrived at Washington, he evaluated the 2009 commitments recruited by the previous staff, and rescinded the scholarship offers to several because it was evident they were not of the caliber needed to win football games in the Pac-10. Low hanging fruit.

During the first set of spring practices, Sarkisian stated there was, however, actually more talent on the Washington team than he realized, implying it was not being developed. The coaches created specific plans for specific players (“sweat the details”). Jake Locker, for example. The big push, however, was to bring in players of the same talent level as what Sarkisian, Holt, et al had been recruiting to USC, selling Washington’s history under James, Lambright and Neuheisel and, when the immediate past record was discussed, countering that the present coaching staff wasn’t at Washington then. Cynics have said it is impossible to consistently bring in classes of USC caliber but those who remember pre-Pete Carroll USC recruiting were not always impressed. It is interesting that after Sarkisian and Holt left USC, Pete Carroll wasn’t far behind.

Due to Sark’s late start, the February 2009 recruiting class was modest although there would prove to be a few gems, e.g., Semisi Tokolahi, Desmond Trufant and Keith Price.

The 2010 class was the first class where Sarkisian had a full year to go after recruits and, of those who made the grade (Chris Young and Darius Waters did not get into school; and it became obvious Brent Williams was too small for Pac-10/12 play), in contrast to past recruiting classes, all are still on the team and most are competing for playing time. Erik Kohler, Colin Porter, and Hauoli Jamora became starters. After a redshirt year, Colin Tanigawa also did so this spring. The upgrade in the O-line with Kohler and Porter having another year in the weight room in addition to a year of experience, and the introduction of Tanigawa (who, although only a scout team player, was named game day co-captain at least twice in 2010), should result in a better 2011 O-line. Others from the 2010 class like Garret Gilliland, John Timu (effectively), Josh Shirley, Sean Parker, Princeton Fuimaono, Michael Hartvigson, Nick Montana, Zach Fogerson, Ben Riva, et al, will see playing time this fall. The upgrade in talent is obvious, as is the development of that talent.

The 2011 class has already produced one possible starter, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who is proving even better than advertised. When Parade magazine player of the year and Washington state triple jump record holder Kasen Williams arrives, he’ll bring a wealth of talent that, a few years ago, would have guaranteed a starting position. The stable of quality receivers that Washington already has, however, precludes any such guarantee, reflective of the depth and quality of depth that Sarkisian is building. With the present D-line depth, barring extensive injuries, Danny Shelton and Taniela Tupou shouldn’t be needed and will have redshirt year.

Nevertheless, Sarkisian will play the best people and, consequently, there will be freshmen surprises. For example, unless the coaches decide to redshirt one or both before the season starts, as the time progresses, watch two very competitive 2011 recruits: James Sample and Travis Feeney. Some players, like Colin Tanigawa, are hard to keep off the field, and Sample and Feeney fit into that category. While pundits rated Feeney only two stars, in his videos it is evident the players he hits see more stars than that. Feeney on specials teams should be interesting to watch.

Again, Washington will have two quarterbacks, Jeff Lindquist and Cyler Miles, in the 2012 class and they’re both very good. Washington would be glad to have one or the other most years, so having both is obviously exceptional. How exceptional? Jake Locker committed in 2006. Pretending it is 2006, and without the advantage of foresight or hindsight, what would be the probability of bringing in two Jakes? In 2006, Washington was very fortunate to get one. But more importantly, the commitments from Lindquist and Miles are evidence that Sarkisian is already beginning to reach that point where he can recruit at Washington like he recruited at USC, in stark contrast to a few years ago when big names, e.g., Jonathan Stewart, would not consider the Huskies. The top recruits that we presently read about, however, such as Garnett, Williams, Brostek, Simmons, Kaumatule, Banner, et al, are not only seriously considering Washington, but odds are that several will commit to Washington by next February. Presently, Washington fans can justifiably salivate when considering what Washington’s 2012 O-line class might look like. In the not-too-distant past, that vision would have been wishful thinking only.

Closing the Gaps

When considering the talent gap of the past, it is intuitive to think about player talent but the extant talent gap went beyond the athletes.

Not long ago the administration did not seem to either value or be as supportive of Husky football as it should have. Perhaps past administrators were not completely aware of how important a successful football program is to Husky alums and, consequently, university funding. At a Foster School of Business reunion a couple of months ago, in private conversation, the Foster representative said donations to all Washington academic programs are actually affected by the football team’s performance; donations increase when the football team is winning, and decline during periods of losing, to the point where previously generous donors would call the alumni office and angrily threaten to withhold any additional donations until (fill in the name) was replaced. And, as is well-known, Husky football revenue helps fund many other sports at Washington. At present, upper campus appears to “get it,” that is, understands that Washington football is the source of more than Saturday afternoon entertainment. The present administration is supportive of the football program and, in a manner of speaking, an administrative talent gap appears to have closed. It’s again a family affair.

With respect to the more obvious coaching talent gap, it has taken some time and a great deal of disappointment but it appears Washington is back to having a coaching staff that sweats the details, sets goals and prioritizes, works hard, under-promises and over-delivers, communicates positively, listens, looks for results (not salutes), gives the credit and takes the blame, uses their own eyes, handles pressure well, and leads by example. The results thus far speak for themselves.

And Now, the Gathering Momentum

Like the distance between the ground and a large tree being felled, the talent gap at Washington began closing slowly at first when Mark Emmert hired Scott Woodward, began to accelerate when Steve Sarkisian first arrived, picked up when Ivan Lewis was brought in… and the momentum continues to build. An impossibility three years ago, Washington has commitments from two outstanding quarterbacks, and all that implies. A great deal of ground has been made up in a short period of time. And the best is yet to come.