Sarkisian Making Moves

One question was answered emphatically just a few days after Washington's defensive display against Baylor in the 2011 Alamo Bowl - would Steve Sarkisian have what it takes to clean house when it was clear the status quo wasn't going to cut it. Not only did he clean house, he took out all the furniture, gutted the carpet and ripped out the sink.

"That's part of the evaluation process of our program: who are we, what's our identity, and where are we headed," Steve Sarkisian said to the media Friday when addressing the dismissals, as well as his three new hirings. "I think you're seeing the scores around the country are really just in a nutshell of what's gone on in college football this entire season. You look at the offensive numbers around the season and they're getting higher and higher and higher, in yardage and points and different things.

"We're just trying to make sure that where we fit in this thing is right for us and not necessarily what everybody else is doing. Sure, we want to score points. Sure, we want to have yards. But we also want to stop people, we also want to create turnovers, and ultimately we want to win. So we're just trying to figure out what's best for us to win games."

Letting Mike Cox, Jeff Mills, and Nick Holt go were straight-up business moves. Add to that the move of Demetrice Martin to UCLA, and Sarkisian's resume now includes interior decorator for Washington's defense.

"It's extremely difficult," Sarkisian said Friday. "And I think that as you go through this, you have to try to take your personal emotions out of it the best you can and put on the CEO hat of the organization and what's best for our football organization. And again, I think the world of Nick Holt as a person, I think the world of Nick Holt as a coach. But it didn't work and it just wasn't right for a variety of reasons and we just felt like the time was right to make a change."

In a world of tough competitors and what-have-you-done-for-me-lately loyalties, Sarkisian decision to dump Holt to the curb showed Sarkisian could separate his personal allegiances from what he had to do to push the Washington Huskies forward. What made it tougher was the fact that Sarkisian doggedly recruited Holt to come to Montlake, to run the defense and to be Sark's right hand man.

Going forward, it will be interesting to see who Sark leans on during the lean times; Holt was a friend as much as a coach, and could be counted on as a confidant. But these three years at UW - the first three for Sarkisian as a head coach - have taught him enough to believe those kinds of luxuries can be put to the side for the greater good. Now it's time he step up and show exactly what kind of executive and manager of men he can be.

And with his first three hires, Sarkisian has taken bold action, showed ingenuity and brass, and has also sent the Pac-12 a clear signal; Washington is going to use it's youth, creativity, endeavor, and heart to win back the Huskies' rightful place in the league's natural pecking order. Justin Wilcox, Peter Sirmon, and Keith Hayward all took their god-given abilities to the then-Pac-10 conference and showed that not only could they produce more with less, but excel at their positions. Not only did they become exceptional players - they became leaders.

"I didn't sleep, quite honestly," he said. "It was 48 straight hours of trying to find the right guy to fit what we wanted to do here, of where I felt like I needed our program to go. It was a dead period in recruiting and I wanted to work diligently, quickly but yet make sure we made the right hire and I think we hit a home run with Justin and I couldn't be more happy about it.''

One may have thought Sarkisian would go and find a defensive coordinator with a Pac-12 pedigree, experience, and a track record of success - and he did just that. Wilcox absolutely has conference credibility, having played his college football at Oregon, at a time when the Ducks were just starting to smell the sweet scent of victory. He started his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Boise State, a team that has won consistently for the better part of three decades, and then helped Cal compile a 26-12 record in three years as their linebackers coach.

Wilcox returned to BSU as one of the country's youngest defensive coordinators, and immediately helped the Broncos to an undefeated season in 2006 - including the now-infamous 43-42 overtime win over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. During his time at Boise State, he beat his alma mater twice, something the Huskies have failed to defeat once since 2003. Wilcox was lured by Tennessee to make the jump to the SEC, and just one year into his stay in Knoxville was tabbed by Texas to be their leading candidate to fill the vacancy laid by Will Muschamp, who took the head coaching position at Florida.

Wilcox, who is only 35, has already been to a lot of places and heralded by major programs as the man to run their defenses. It's a testament to not only Sarkisian's recruiting prowess to once again go out and get a coach he believes in, but it's also a matter of Washington being in the wrong place at the right time. No way did they want to see themselves in this kind of defensive predicament, but with Wilcox's west coast ties and an opportunity to return home (kind of), it certainly appears on the outside that this move had a bit of serendipity to it.

"I think not only is he a fantastic football coach and a great football mind on the defensive side of the ball, I really have embraced his personality, his ability to teach, his ability to communicate was something that is very attractive to me on that end," Sarkisian said of Wilcox. "I think he brings a wealth of knowledge but also a real sense of energy and excitement and one that I think our players will be excited to play for him."

Adding to the Huskies fortuity was the fact that Wilcox's linebackers coach at Tennessee was Peter Sirmon. Sirmon, 34, spent his high school years in Walla Walla and almost became a Husky, eventually losing out on a scholarship opportunity to Tacoma's Marques Hairston. Declaring for Oregon, Sirmon set out to quickly prove the faith the Ducks had placed in him was not unfounded. During his stint in Eugene, Sirmon won four letters and helped UO to 30 wins, eventually drafted to play for the Tennessee Titans.

Seven years later, Sirmon hung up his spikes and moved toward coaching, first starting out at Central Washington before taking up graduate positions at Oregon and Tennessee. Last year he was promoted to linebackers coach for the Volunteers. So with just one year of BCS coaching experience under his belt, he returns to the Evergreen State hungry for more. On top of that, Sirmon had already started to earn the reputation as one of Tennessee's top recruiters. In fact, the lion's share of UT's defensive recruiting had been handled by just Sirmon and Wilcox.

The addition of Oregon State defensive backs coach Keith Heyward to Montlake Thursday follows along Sarkisian's apparent philosophy of hiring young, smart coaches with plenty of Pac-12 cred to help him not only during the regular season, but also during recruiting's second season. Considered one of the best cornerbacks to have ever played at his alma mater, Heyward started 35 consecutive games for the Beavers and was a senior focal point for the best OSU team of all time, the 2000 squad that went 11-1 and defeated Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl.

The Beavers' only loss that year was to the Washington Huskies.

Heyward has spent the last four years as Oregon State's secondary coach, and in 2011 he helped the Beavers to the No. 2 pass defensive overall in the Pac-12, allowing only 214 yards per game. According to Cliff Kirkpatrick of the Corvallis Gazzette-Times, recruits appreciate Heyward's down-to-earth personality, and because he's from Woodland Hills, Calif. he's also well-known as a top recruiter in the Los Angeles Metropolitan Area, thus mitigating the loss of Martin.

"Well I think Keith brings obviously a great deal of knowledge of the conference when it comes to competing against the other 11 teams," said Sarkisian. "He obviously has played in this conference, coached in this conference and recruited in this conference. He knows the West Coast extremely well. He went to high school in Los Angeles and has recruited in Los Angeles for years which was critical for us from a recruiting standpoint. And I think that you look at the body of work of the players that he has had, he's produced tremendous players in a short amount of time, guys that have been All-Pac-10, All-Pac-12 performers and have gone on and now play in the NFL."

With one more defensive spot left to fill - Sarkisian said Friday he's hoping to shore up the defensive front after giving Johnny Nansen the bulk of the special teams chores - don't be surprised if Sarkisian mines a similar vein; a young, energetic coach with Pac-12 ties who also has a history for finding talent and developing it. And with that blueprint as a framework, there are two prospects that clearly stand out; Tosh Lupoi and Inoke Breckterfield.

"I think there's a lot to take into consideration," Sarkisian said. "You want people who are familiar with this conference and have a great deal of respect for this conference and a great deal of respect for this university, that are very good coaches and are very good recruiters and can deal well with our current players. So there is a lot that goes into this and that definitely is one of the factors."

Lupoi would be a home run hire not seen at UW in quite some time, simply for reputation alone. Along with coaches like Martin, USC's Ed Orgeron and new UCLA OL Coach Adrian Klemm, Lupoi has the knack of being able to pull some of the top players from southern California to the Bay Area to play their college football. For the 2012 class, Lupoi has already spearheaded a recruiting charge that has yielded the Golden Bears top-10 verbal commitments at six different positions, led by the No. 1 safety in the country, Shaquille Thompson, and the No. 2 DT, Ellis McCarthy. And California is headed for another top-3 recruiting ranking in the Pac-12 for the second-straight season, in part due to the influence and salesmanship of Lupoi.

"The kids understand, when they talk to him, how much he cares about this place," said running backs coach Ron Gould of Lupoi to Mitch Sherman of ESPN. Lupoi has still to reach his 30th birthday. "Kids want to be around that kind of passion. You look in his eyes, and you see this guy has no quit. Listen to him for 30 seconds, and you feel his heart beat."

Lupoi's connection with Wilcox - Wilcox was at Berkeley when Lupoi was playing and starting his coaching career - is known. When Wilcox was courted for the Texas DC position at the end of 2010, he came to Lupoi. It makes sense for a similar scenario to be played out at Montlake. The key here is the battle of blood versus green; Lupoi has made no secret his love for all things Cal, but the Bears can't compete with any high-dollar offer the Huskies put on the table. And just as it took a couple rounds with Holt to secure his services, Sarkisian may have a 12-rounder in front of him to get Lupoi away from Berkeley. Tosh appears fiercely loyal, but I suspect that loyalty will be tested by a substantial offer to move to UW.

Inoke Breckterfield has similar coaching ties to UW, having played at Oregon State when Keith Heyward was there. He is young (33), energetic, played the same position in the Pac-10 that he'd be coaching, and is known as a very solid recruiter, especially within the Polynesian community.

So with two very attractive candidates basically in their backyard seemingly tailor-made for what the Huskies are looking for , are they the match they appear on paper? Can Sarkisian finish his coaching search with the flourish that all Husky fans are hoping for, especially so close to signing day? Either way, the price of poker has gone up - and he knows they are going to have to splash some cash in order to attract not only the best candidate to UW, but also the right one.

"I think the state of college football and where we're headed it's almost the going rate for successful programs and I think (Washington Athletic Director) Scott (Woodward) recognizes that and if you want to get a top tier defensive coordinator that's where we're headed," Sarkisian said. "I think you're going to continue to see that around our conference now, especially with the new TV money coming in and we're obviously already seeing it from the head coaches salaries that are going on around the conference now and I think we'll continue to see that as it works its way, a trick down affect in a sense, down to the assistants in our conference." Top Stories