Assistants create mutual admiration society

SEATTLE - Justin Wilcox was just driving home from one of his favorite haunts in Knoxville - the Copper Cellar - and got a call. The number had a 206 area code to it. As a rule, Wilcox doesn't take calls right away, but he eventually checked the message when he got home. It was Steve Sarkisian, so he called the Washington Head Coach right back.

It was New Year's Eve, two nights after the Huskies' 67-56 loss to Baylor in the Alamo Bowl.

"We just spoke about a lot of things," Wilcox said Wednesday when introduced to the media as Washington's new defensive coordinator, replacing the departed Nick Holt. "We talked a lot the next day and I talked to a handful of people that a value their opinion and they all said the same things about the University, Sark and the administration. And I know what the support is like here. I've played in this stadium and I know what it's like here. That's why it was exciting to come back because I've always had a lot of respect for this place."

So Wilcox, along with Tennessee Linebackers Coach Peter Sirmon, took the position with UW less than 48 hours after that initial call. "I came from a great place, and I was not looking to leave," he said. "Tennessee is a phenomenal place, and they are going to have a great football team. I have a ton of respect for all those coaches, but (the move) just made a lot of sense.

"That was late Saturday night, and I was in the office at 11 am Monday morning."

"I felt like we were both leaning the same direction," Sirmon said Wednesday, acknowledging a desire to get back to his roots and be a part of something unique at Washington. Despite having lived in Tennessee for 10 years, the Walla Walla native said he's still a Northwest guy at heart.

"I'm glad I made it here," he added. "It took a long time to be a Husky. It's great to be here."

When Eric Kiesau got the call, he was in a hotel room in Maryland, trying to sleep. But the phone was ringing. It was Steve Sarkisian. The Washington Head Coach wanted to ask the current California Offensive Coordinator a few questions. A few more questions led to a discussion that lasted over two-and-a-half hours. By the time it was nearly daylight on the east coast, Sarkisian was ready to offer Kiesau a chance to be Washington's OC.

"My whole transaction took about 18 hours," Kiesau said Wednesday. "It was literally, and I'm talking about sleeping time, which I didn't sleep at all that night. It was a very, very quick transition. I got the call Sunday night, I got the call around midnight, I was back east doing a home visit with (Cal) coach (Jeff) Tedford, Sark was all fired up and he said 'I'm going to offer you a job right now, you want it?' and I was like "Sark I haven't even talked to my wife yet'."

Kiesau did get on the phone with his wife shortly after hanging up with Sark, and a deal was struck. Like Wilcox, it happened that quickly. "It was a quick transition," he said. "Coach (Jeff) Tedford and coach Sark spoke, Sark and I got on the phone and we hit it off instantly. Instant chemistry. Same personality, same philosophy and we've run the same system for the last 10 years or so, very similar, so it was a very easy conversation to have with him and it fit so well, it was easy to make the decision to come up here."

It was an easy decision for Sirmon too, because he nearly became a Husky back in 1996. He was a part of a numbers crunch that eventually saw Washington run out of rides before he could accept one. He eventually ended up at Oregon, where he parlayed his work with the Ducks into a seven-year NFL stint with the Tennessee Titans.

"I was happy that somebody wanted me," Sirmon said. "Oregon was a great opportunity for me. It was never resentment, there was never any ill-will. (Washington) made a decision, I made a decision, and it worked out well for me."

It's hard to think, given today's climate and rivalries the way they are that an Oregon Duck could have much respect for Washington, or vise-versa. But when Sirmon was growing up, there was nothing but love for the Huskies as far as he was concerned.

"Washington football, at the time, it was the premier program in the country," he said, matter-of-factly. "Growing up and watching them play in the early 90's, I can't remember watching any other program than Washington growing up."

That was then, and this is now - and that Washington program is a far cry from what Washington has become - but Sarkisian is trying to roll the clock back a bit, if for no other reason than to show he's capable of bringing a once-proud program back from the dead.

One way he's doing that is through his ability to recruit. And as impressive as his ability to recruit players is - and who isn't impressed with UW's quarterback haul for the 2012 class? - it's his ability to bring in top-notch assistants that should put him in good stead for the long haul. It didn't work out with the last crop of defensive coaches, but luring Nick Holt to Montlake at the time was considered a major coup.

The same could be said for Wilcox and the other four assistants - Sirmon, Kiesau, Tosh Lupoi and Keith Heyward. All were taken from big-time programs, conference rivals - or both - so he not only strengthen the Huskies, but he also helped weaken the opposition at the same time.

"Anytime you hire five new coaches to a staff, there's a lot of moving parts that take place from the standpoint of…not only from a football coach standpoint, but a recruiting standpoint, a personality standpoint, a character standpoint," Sarkisian said Wednesday. "I think with all five of these guys, that all fit that role really, really well. Couldn't be more excited to have these guys on board; having them now for, some of them a month, some of them a couple of weeks…I think they've already left an impression upon me and other people around the university of the type of people that they are, the type of recruiters that they are, and now in just a short amount of time they type of football coaches that they are - some of their knowledge and their ability to communicate those things in meetings in just a short amount of time."

For Heyward's line of thinking, it was time to get out of the bubble of Benton County. "Coach (Mike) Riley does it right," Heyward said of not only Oregon State's head coach, but also the coach that recruited him to play for the Beavers back in 1997. "He wants to do it the right way. He's a stand-up guy, and I love that about coach Riley.

"Being there and going through the process, it wouldn't be right to come up here and just start naming guys that we could recruit. Washington had a couple guys they were already recruiting, and there were a handful of other guys Washington had no idea of. And it wouldn't have been right to let them know that; it wasn't the right thing to do. I had no control over the guys they already had on their board - other guys on the staff were already recruiting them and those kids made their decisions."

That being said, Heyward couldn't pass up an opportunity to learn and grow with a staff that's quickly earning a reputation for being young, smart, tough, and hungry - especially out on the recruiting trail. Those adjectives are the same ones you would use when describing Washington's new defensive line coach, Tosh Lupoi. Lupoi, the pup of the group at 30, proved to be Sarkisian's biggest challenge. While the other coaches agreed to join the Huskies within a matter of days, it took Sark two weeks to reel in Lupoi, known around the country as a killer whale in a recruiting sea full of guppies and minnows.

Lupoi has nearly been lured away from his alma mater Cal, most notably by Wilcox when he took the job at Tennessee and almost took a similar position at Texas. "It was one of the toughest decisions I ever had gone through," he said. "It was a process that felt like I was set, I was going to be there at Cal, and that's when Justin (Wilcox) came over here and Pete (Sirmon), and I was the late one in the process to say ‘no' to this opportunity and just did some thorough homework in the process for those couple of weeks of what this opportunity was all about, and what it meant.

"It finally got the point where I felt like it was right, something I couldn't say ‘no' to from what this place and what coach Sark represents and that resulted an immediate competition of trying to go about it the right way, but to begin competing with the place I was just at, so it was difficult, but I thought that coach Sark had tremendous advice in that process and truthfully a lot of the individuals that were being recruited from the other place, he approached it really of going about it the right way and at times, backing off of certain guys where he had already established a relationship with the young men that we were recruiting there and then I could kinda get in there and mingle with the staff and not so much make it about me but doing it the right way making it about Washington and all of the things that this place has to offer."

Having been named College Recruiter of the Year in 2010 by at least one major publication, Lupoi was kind enough to share some of his secrets for success on the recruiting trail. "I would like to say that it's some of the similar attributes that carry over to coaching: The effort that's involved; being very thorough, and being genuine and honest," he said. "Being able to separate myself from others from that standpoint of not just going through the motions, but to honestly retain information - personal information. At the end of the day, I strongly no matter what I'm saying or how I'm recruiting, it's going to be the product I represent. Knowing that, that had a major role in making this decision. By me coming here, I represent something very powerful, so I'm going to do my best to inform and educate the student-athletes on what this place has to offer."

With Lupoi, Kiesau and Heyward, it was a matter of going into a home one day wearing one school's gear, and then going in the next day with different colors. Talk about a recruiting head-flex! It's the one thing Lupoi has regrets about when asked about the timing of the decision.

"I'm a real passionate individual and doing all the thorough research and the homework about this place, for me, making the transition, felt like I had done such thorough homework on it that it was kinda natural for me to begin speaking on behalf of this place and I think that kinda shocked some families and some young men," he said. "To them it was a matter of a day or two of the transition, and now I'm speaking on behalf of this place and for me those first few days were continuing on myself and the relationship that we had established and then I think that was kind of a shock. Now, looking back on it, of how I would redo it or a regret, was just that transition being so quick. For me it was a 14 or 15-day process of learning about this place, whereas obviously I hadn't spoken a word to the recruits representing a different place, so going into this, now going into the homes wearing a different polo, it was a little bit shocking."

When it came time to go to battle with the Pac-12 heads of state for the signatures of such recruits as Shaquille Thompson and Arik Armstead, Sarkisian was comforted with the thought that the right guy was finally on his side of the fray. "Tosh, quite honestly, has been a thorn in my side for probably about the last five or six years on the recruiting front," Sarkisian said matter-of-factly. "The old adage, 'If you can't beat 'em, get 'em to join you' - right? It took a little longer than I would have liked, but we got Tosh on board. I think so much of what can be said about Tosh - everyone wants to talk about the recruiting aspect of it all, but he's a tremendous football coach. You look at what his defensive lines have done there at Cal in recent history I think speaks to the volume of…yeah, he's a tremendous recruiter and he works at it, but he's also an excellent football coach, and I think we'll see that here in time."

Even though Signing Day has come and gone, the shock hasn't worn off for the recently hired coaches, let alone the reality of their new surroundings. For Sirmon, who turns 35 in 10 days, he's still in a hotel while he gets his wife and four kids situated. He promised them a mid-March cruise, and as he said Wednesday, he's not going to 'be that Dad' that backs out of a family vacation like that. So while he gets to work with his new group of linebackers in early April, his family will be re-acquainting themselves with the great Northwest. But as Sirmon said, they come back every summer to Lake Chelan for a family reunion, so the transition shouldn't be too difficult.

With his linebackers already identified and committed for 2012, it was Sirmon who started to lay the groundwork for a twist on the makeup of a typical UW recruiting class. Of the 125 listed offers made by Washington in the Scout.com database, only two of them were made in territories not normally associated with Washington football - Texas and Samoa. So far in 2013? The Huskies have offered kids from Texas, Pennsylvania, Georgia, New Jersey and Virginia, and expect that list to grow as they move into the May Evaluation Period.

"Part of our job is, if we choose to branch out a little bit, we need to take it upon ourselves to say - what are we known for?" said Sirmon. "What's going to be the opening line of what we're trying to convey and what we're trying to educate those people on that didn't grow up on the west coast and aren't really in tune with Pac-12 football."

For his part, Lupoi feels like the Huskies have a lot going for them. "The bigger picture in priorities, I think there's great carryover from the product I'm used to selling in Cal when you look at it from the Washington standpoint: You've got a top-5 rated education, you've got an incredible football tradition, a very successful head coach, and an alumni association that's very powerful," he said. "When those priorities are put forth, that's what I think will be winning these young men over in the long run."

Sirmon agreed. "Washington is a great education," he added. "Seattle is an easy place to get to, there's a lot of airport access. We have great majors and the traditions here with the new facilities, obviously the resources and the investments made from the donors and the athletic department and the university that you're willing to put in…it's not really about the new facility, but more about what it represents of what the program is capable and willing to do."

Sarkisian is earning well-deserved plaudits for what he was able to put together this off-season. A great head coach is one that can recruit the best assistant coaches available, and he's done that. On paper it appears that he's upgraded the recruiting IQ, as well as the commitment to getting Washington back to where it can be Washington once again.

"I think the common theme for all these guys is - they're young, they're bright, they're energetic coaches," he said. "They provide a great amount of knowledge from a football standpoint, and ultimately they're all tremendous recruiters. Couldn't be more excited to have them. It's fun that we've gotten through the recruiting signing period and now we're getting into some football stuff. It's been fun as a new staff, and ultimately the challenge for myself is going to be to not just incorporate these guys to our staff, but really get the camaraderie and cohesiveness that I think can be there."

In talking to the new assistants, they all mentioned to a man how easy it was to fit in as soon as they found their way to Montlake. "It was so awesome," Wilcox said of the first UW coaches meeting he attended not long after arriving in Seattle. In fact when he left the room, he looked at Sirmon and said, 'Oh my gosh! How about that?'

"I've been on great staffs before, but everybody was on the same vibe in terms of their positive energy, competitive, go-getter-type personalities. One staff meeting, and you could tell. It all starts with Sark. When we were talking to Tosh and trying to get him out of the nest, I brought that up a lot. That's important. It's not a knock on others, but the guys here are all kind of very similar. And it's exciting to go to work with that every day."

With all the coaches seemingly on the same page, this coming spring looks bright for Washington, and the fall even brighter. And for the future? At least one of the new coaches thinks the Huskies have a chance to re-capture some of that lustre that has faded over time.

"In terms of long-term sustainability, I don't think there's a better program on the west coast for building something," said Sirmon. "And I haven't been here very long, but it's very, very close."


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