Holt a Needed Jolt to the System

Steve Sarkisian, knowing it was his last game as a USC coach, wanted to savor the flavor of the Rose Bowl: All the sights, the smells, the good and the bad that had come from the Trojans' two-touchdown victory over Penn State. Of course nearly all of it was good, but there was a lingering thought as he took one last look around. When would he be back again for the Grandaddy of Them All?

"I told myself that someday I'll be back - sooner than later," Sarkisian said Tuesday. And ever since he signed the deal making him the new Head Coach at the University of Washington, Sarkisian has stressed the idea of recruiting, and bringing in the best of the best: The best players and the best coaches should come to Montlake to help him resurrect a once-proud west coast program.

This week Sarkisian pulled off the biggest recruiting coup of his young tenure at Montlake, signing former USC Defensive Coordinator Nick Holt to a three year, $2.1 million deal that makes him the highest-paid assistant ever at UW by a furlong. Along with running the defense, Holt will be Sarkisian's lead assistant. "He's going to speak to half the team every day," Sarkisian said of Holt. "He's going to be talking to 50 guys every day, spreading the message on what we're about, who we're about, and what we're going to become."

Holt, talking to the Seattle media on Tuesday, looked more like Stone Cold Steve Austin, but at times sounded more like Stuart Smalley.

"We have to recruit the guys we have here on campus; we have to get them on the boat, teach them, love them, get them to believe in us and get them to play at a whole different level then what's gone on around here," he said. Truth of the matter is, after four years of 11-37 football under Tyrone Willingham, these vicious dawgs had been neutered by what can only be described as coaching malfeasance by the leader of the pack.

"They are starving for attention, starving for some enthusiasm, starving to have some fun in life," Sarkisian said. He wasn't talking about strays at the local shelter either: He was talking about a team of young men kicked to the curb after 14-straight losses - and counting. He was talking about a team that has to get back up off the mat one more time, only to face teams like LSU and USC in their first three games in 2009.

So why did Holt, architect-in-name for statistically the second-best defense in the country this past season, bolt for the 110th-best? "That's a good point," he said with a hint of a wink, the media's nervous laughter just slightly contained. "I'm sure a lot of people are looking at this move and are scratching their heads."

Yes they are, coach.

But in listening to Holt weave his way through a thicket of questions, you begin to understand a few things. First, he realized this particular opportunity was a decent jumping off point for a new challenge. Second, he is a sucker for a Steve Sarkisian recruiting pitch. Third, he just might be that insane. And I mean that in the best possible sense, because anyone that has seen Nick Holt in person knows what I'm talking about. The man came out of the womb screaming 'RUN!', with a clipboard in one hand and a broken pencil stuck between his teeth.

"This was more than just money," Sarkisian said of Holt's decision. "This was an opportunity for him to get the notoriety that he deserves as a great defensive mind, a great defensive coach. As we win more games and move forward toward championships, this springboards him toward great head coaching opportunities."

That was it, coach? "That, and calling him every five minutes," he added with a laugh. "I remember telling my wife (after the Rose Bowl) that the biggest recruit I have right now is Nick Holt. That's where I put a lot of my energy and it worked out."

"Coach did a great job of recruiting me," added Holt. "At first I was probably going to stay down there (at USC) and I was happy. But as I found out more about the job, he turned me. What made it so fun at USC was going from mediocrity to such greatness. And knowing how great a place this is, the opportunity really inspired me to take a chance. I could have stayed there and done the same thing, but I wanted to step outside of the box and do something different.

"It's a big leap of faith, no doubt. It's getting out of your comfort zone, but at the end of the day I feel great about it. Today, I feel awesome."

I doubt a day goes by where Holt doesn't bask in the awesomeness of what he's been able to accomplish in college football. He's already been a head coach at a D1 program (Idaho), and part of a west coast dynasty complete with seven conference championships - and counting, not to mention a national championship and a couple of Heisman Trophies.

Awesome hasn't been in Washington's vocabulary for nearly a decade, but the dynamic duo of Sarkisian and Holt talk like they are on the verge of leaping tall buildings with a single bound.

"He's the best offensive mind in college football, without a doubt," Holt said of his boss, the platitudes flowing like a champagne waterfall. "And I wanted to be part of that. I knew he would be a head coach some day."

"He's the best defensive coordinator in the country," Sarkisian said, returning serve. "We went out and got the best offensive line coach in America in Jim Michalczik to be the offensive coordinator, and the next step was to get the best defensive coordinator in America, and that's Nick Holt. And we've been able to accomplish those things."

"I'm working for the best head coach in America now," Holt said, the retorts becoming more and more saccharine by the mouthful. But at the same time there was a palpable energy in the room with these two, something that hadn't been felt in years. Maybe it was Holt and one too many triple lattes; maybe it was just Holt.

"Is there any question why I wanted to get this guy here to lead our defense or what?" Sarkisian queried to the media, adding that many of us were starting to get on edge ourselves after one of Holt's rambling, yet incredibly visceral responses for how he was going to return Washington's defense back to prominence. It was if you could hear him thinking, 'I am not intense. I am IN-TENS-IT-Y'."

Or, as he told us later - it may have just been the coffee.

"This guy has a presence on the football field," Sarkisian said. "He's a tremendous teacher."

"I guess it's just the way I'm wired," Holt would say later. Rumor had it Lorenzo Romar was ready to put on the pads after hearing Holt talk about getting Husky defense back to its rightful place in the world.

"There are two national programs in the Pac-10," Washington Athletic Director Scott Woodward said. "And they came from one (USC) and we're the other one."

That's heavy talk for a fan base used to walking home after games with their tails between their legs lately, but the hire of Holt signals a sea change in the way Husky football is perceived - not only locally, but also on the bigger stage. Press conferences usually aren't held for defensive coordinator hires, yet this one didn't seem out of place at all. The post-conference applause didn't necessarily seem out of place either, especially when you pair it with Sarkisian's grand entrance exactly one month ago.

Yes, the spectacle of it all felt just a bit contrived, but pretty damn refreshing considering the jolt of electricity Sarkisian has sent through the lines of Husky Nation. Heck, he didn't even let Holt unpack before taking him along for an in-home visit Monday night.

"We have to go to work," Holt said. "We have to recruit our butts off."

Who knows if it's going to work. But right now Husky fans are drinking it all in, and who can blame them? After boozing for four years on Old English, they've been given a Super Big Gulp of 5-hour Energy.

"This is a sleeping giant," Holt said. "Coach Sark can get this done."

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