Open practices a seismic shift in policy

SEATTLE - Today was 'Tell the Truth Monday'. As in the day before the first spring practice at the University of Washington under first-year Steve Sarkisian, where the four-year cloak of silence surrounding Tyrone Willingham's football program was lifted, and with it a new day where stands packed with fans and recruits are viewed as a welcome sight instead of an unwelcome distraction.

Gone are the practices where media would only be limited to the first 25 minutes of practice; gone are the policies where coaches and players would meet reporters before practice. As of Tuesday, Washington's spring football practices will be open to the public, and all coaches and players will be available after practices to speak with the media.

Tuesday's practice at Husky Stadium will be the first of 15 throughout the month of April, topped off by the Spring Game on the 25th. Three scrimmages are anticipated - the first one should be held a week from this Saturday - but Sarkisian acknowledged Monday that he'll be fielding a thin team. So the challenge for them is to get their physical work in without having to butt heads all day.

"It's one thing to be very physical, but we also have to learn the game the way we want to play it," Sarkisian said.

For the fans that choose to check the Huskies out this spring, they may have a hard time differentiating between scrimmage periods and team periods. "Our team periods are very upbeat, very up-tempo," Sarkisian said. "We don't have to tackle to the ground to scrimmage real well and play full-speed football."

So after years of walking around in darkness, Husky Nation is on the verge of being let out of the cellar. But why? A new staff could just as easily use their honeymoon with the public to keep their plans under wraps and away from media scrutiny. Sarkisian laid out three big reasons that make the concept seem so simple a caveman could figure it out.

For starters, he wants to get his players used to performing on a big stage. "I want them used to having eyes on them," he said Monday, matter-of-factly. "I want them used to feeling like people are watching them."

Secondly, he feels it's important for the fans and media to realize how hard the coaches and players work and appreciate how they go about their work.

Lastly, Sarkisian wants to continue to put Husky football back on the front burner, even during the off-season. One way to make that happen is by putting technology to work. "We've kept the buzz alive about our football program," Sarkisian said. He has his own personal feed through Twitter and also recently set up a personal web page, CoachSark.com. "We want people to be excited about Husky football. We want people's interest level to be high."

For fans that sit in the nosebleed section for games, they can come to spring practice and really feel and hear the contact that goes on, as well as the speed. "Those are experiences, especially with young kids, that you don't get every day," Sarkisian said.

"To get that opportunity is big, and I think people enjoy it."

And his goal? To get Husky Stadium rocking in the spring. Impossible? Probably. "I'd imagine on Saturday we're going to have a pretty big crowd," he added. "As we grow and as practices become more enticing, we can get more people in."

The weather report for Saturday is 56 and partly cloudy.

Face it; it's going to take a while to thaw out something that's been frozen for the past four years. But Sarkisian and his brand-new staff have the blow-torch in hand. It's called competition and accountability.

How are they going to do that? Themes, for starters.

Tuesdays will be 'Competition Tuesdays'. Every day is different, and there will be different themes for different days: Turnover Thursdays, No-repeat Fridays, Tell-the-Truth Mondays.

'Tell the Truth Mondays'? Apparently this will be essentially a review of the previous weekend's game, a frank assessment of what took place. "It's my chance to be the Monday morning coach," Sarkisian said.

And within the themes will be very specific competitions, like Blitz Drill competition and First-and-10 competition. And guess what?

Sark is keeping score.

For example, during the First-and-10 competition, if the offense has a four-yard run or they complete a pass, offense wins. If the defense holds them to less than four yards on a run or an incompletion, it's a win for them. The staff will keep score all the way through practice and remind the team of the running tally.

And Sarkisian's message? "You don't get to take downs off," he said. The team has to learn to compete down after down, day after day. It doesn't matter what the emphasis of the day is, or if they are padded practices or not - the effort remains the same.

"We're developing a mentality where even if guys lose a down, they come back looking to win," he added. "It's about a mindset that's always looking forward."

The only real winners and losers on Sarkisian's scoreboard is the team, because ultimately that's how they will be judged. There are no rewards for winning in practice, other than bragging rights for the day.

With high-level competitors, that should be all you need. "The challenge is to light that fuse and get that fire burning again inside of them," Sarkisian said.

To fuel the fire, the staff will show the whole team the film of the previous day's one-on-one drills, so they all know what's going on with their teammates. It's very much a 'warts and all' situation: The coaches want to show those who are doing well, as well as those who are struggling.

"There should be some chatter in the locker room," Sarkisian said with a smile. "It's a motivational factor. When your peers are watching you win or lose, there's motivation there."

A side benefit of the team watching film should be an absence of a lot of negative talk in the locker room. The film will tell the whole story.

"That creates some chatter, and that's natural," added Sarkisian. "We're not going out to practice for the sake of practice. We're trying to make it so they feel like they have to perform. Win or lose, everyone's going to know it."

Especially the players. Sarkisian's methods have already attracted the attention of the team's leaders. Daniel Te'o-Nesheim admitted to sleeping in the locker room to avoid being late for 6 a.m. runs. Apparently the couches offer a sufficient substitute.

The rest of the team is watching. "You pretty much go through hell if you miss," Te'o-Nesheim said.

If it worked at USC, why not bring it to Montlake?

"There's obviously things that will carry over from USC," Sarkisian said. "But I'm not trying to be Pete Carroll. I'm trying to be Steve Sarkisian. We're going to be the University of Washington Huskies. But there are things that are very valuable that we learned in our time there that we're going to incorporate."

How Sarkisian gets returning quarterback Jake Locker up to speed will be an interesting point of comparison. In Sarkisian's first year at USC, they were assigned the task of getting the most out of junior quarterback Carson Palmer. "As year went on, he finished well and it took off his senior year," Sarkisian said of the current Cincinnati Bengal.

Took off indeed; in 2002 Palmer won the Heisman Trophy.

Whatever happens this spring for Washington football, it will all be done out in the open - a far cry from the party line fed to Husky Nation by Willingham as he kept his program in the shadows - and as far away from the bright lights of Division-1 football as possible.


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