The remaking of a winner

All coaches start their pre-seasons with knots in their stomachs, pacing around their bedrooms, wondering what they should tweak or who they should move in order to give their team the best chance of having success. In press conferences, they trot out their speeches and regale those in attendance with pithy one-liners, like 'We're excited to be back,' or 'We're anxious to get started!'

Steve Sarkisian made a special point to underline the word 'anxious', put it in bold, italics, parentheses, quotation marks, guillemets, brackets and every other grammatical entrapment known to man. 'Anxious' is his catch-word for the 2010 Washington fall camp.

"From the coaching staff, to our players, to the community of Seattle, we're all anxious for this 2010 season to get started," Sarkisian noted Thursday to the media in attendance that weren't sitting in traffic.

For former UW Head Coach Keith Gilbertson, he likened the fall of 2004 to a blackboard. "It feels like a clean slate," he said. "Last year was an interim year…" But with no gun-slinger like Cody Pickett around, and no Reggie Williams to catch Casey Paus' Billy Kilmer-esque heaves, Gilby's nearly had that clean slate - if not for their win over cupcake San Jose State.

Enter Tyrone Willingham, who spoke these words coming into the second fall camp of his young tenure at UW, August, 2006: "I would think first of all that our guys have history with today. A year ago they knew nothing of what this day would be like. Now they have a history. They know the testing procedure, they know what we are going to put them through. They know our style of practice and what we anticipate there. It should be vastly different than it was a year ago. With knowledge hopefully comes experience, with experience a better performance on everything that we do."

That last sentence turned out to be a bit prophetic, because by 2007 all Willingham and his vast experience had going for him was hope. He certainly didn't have a winning football team. In fact, just the opposite. By pinning all his hopes on the arm and feet of a redshirt freshman quarterback - Jake Locker - he rolled the dice and they came up a cropper when Locker missed the last eight-and-a-half games of the season with a thumb injury.

And there it was; a single digit that resulted in the Huskies' first winless campaign since 1890. And they only played one game in 1890!

So Willingham left Washington with a irreparable reputation, but a large wad of cash between his legs for his efforts. In walked former USC Assistant Sarkisian, fresh off a Rose Bowl win over Penn State and a seven-year stint of coaching at a program that literally rewrote the Pac-10 record books.

But coming into his second fall, the words sound slightly familiar: "I can tell you that heading into fall camp, we're a better football team in 2010 than we were in 2009," Sarkisian said. "Whether that equates to wins or not, I don't know that. I don't know that. That's why the football is shaped the way it is: you never know which way it's going to bounce in those key moments. But we're better today than we were a year ago at this time."

Notice Sarkisian said 'better'. Willingham said 'different'. Whether it's just the hubris of youth or whether it's actually grounded in something other than empty rhetoric, or maybe because 'better' just sounds better than 'different', Sarkisian is convincing. What has me convinced isn't his words, though. It's his actions.

Like a surgeon's lance on a boil, Sarkisian has taken a red pen to the UW roster and remade the list in his image. He's set high standards on and off the field, and based on the number of players that have either transferred or have not been allowed to come back to the team, the turnover was needed.

"We're just trying to get good football players that are good people and good students that adopt the same ideas that we have," Sarkisian said, simply - adding that if anything, he's probably more aggressive as a recruiter at UW than he was at USC. "Guys signed on…the veterans signed on for something obviously different than what we've provided. Truly, we kind of joke about this as a staff, but truly this is not for everybody. Some guys have bought into the culture that we've instituted, some guys haven't. Not that they aren't good kids or good players or good people, but it's just not for everybody, the way we do things."

For a fanbase that has been fed a Chinese-sized buffet of empty words for the greater part of a decade, it's refreshing to find a coach that actually backs up his talk with some action. From the beginning of all this, Sarkisian believed it would not take long to turn around a Washington program lost in a cul-de-sac of futility.

It all starts with the team - literally. "We look like a good football team now," Sarkisian said, matter-of-factly. "I don't know if I could say that a year ago, but today, as I start to bump into our players and see them and visit with them – not only our returners but our freshmen – we're a better-looking football team today than we were a year ago at this time. So the challenge is to continue to ride this wave."

Aloha, Sark. And like a season of Survivor, it's been interesting to watch and see which players have decided to vote themselves off the island the past couple of years. As he pointed out Thursday, attrition happens with all regime change - but he's taken that attrition and put it on a steady diet of 5-Hour Energy.

By Willingham's second year, almost a quarter of his 2005 class of 13 - a whole problem by itself - was already gone. In Sarkisian's second season, he had already lost five of the 19-man 2009 class. That's over a quarter of his guys that either didn't make it in, or didn't last - for one reason or another.

That's part of the reason why there was room to sign 30 in February, and room to add a transfer in Josh Shirley, who has an opportunity to be an instant-impact player as a rush specialist.

Here's a quick list to show the amount of retention in Washington's recruiting classes from 2003 on. It will show the total number of signees, number of players that matriculated, and the retention rate. After that will break down further how the players that didn't make it through ended up being part of the final attrition numbers:

2003-2007: 28/16 = 57 percent retention rate

2004-2008: 22/15 = 68 percent retention rate

2005-2009: 13/8 = 62 percent retention rate. Four (E.J. Savannah, Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, Ben Ossai) utilized all five years. That means 31 percent of Willingham's first class made it all the way through. Chris Stevens is the only player from Willingham's class to utilize his four years of eligibility in four years.

2006-2010: 22/10 = 45 percent retention rate. Seven (Tolar, Elisara, Locker, Matthews, Houston, Habben and Goodwin) are on track to utilize all five years. Three (Homer, Morovick and Butler) finished off their four years of eligibility in four years. Two left during Sark's tenure (Matt Mosley and Matt Sedillo).

2007-2011: 27/15 = 56 percent retention rate. Two graduated, seven have left during Sark's tenure, one never qualified - Emeka Iweka, and two retired - Brandon Yakoboski and Alvin Logan.

2008-2012: 26/16 = 62 percent retention rate. Eight have left during Sark's tenure, one never qualified - Dominique Blackman, and one retired - Craig Noble.

2009-2013: 19/14 = 74 percent retention rate. Two left during Sark's tenure and three never qualified - Daniel Mafoe, Johnny Tivao and Dominique Gaisie.

2010-2014: 31/29 = 94 percent retention rate. Two never qualified - Chris Young and Darius Waters.

Two things immediately come into view: Willingham was apparently happy to stick with the guys he had - even if they weren't his guys, and Sarkisian clearly doesn't feel that way. If players haven't done anything going into their third or fourth year of the program, they should be wary of the proverbial pink slip clogging their mailbox shortly thereafter.

Take a group like the offensive line. With seven true freshmen coming in, you would think the UW coaches would want around veterans like Scott Shugert and Mark Armelin. You would be wrong. Washington Offensive Line Coach Dan Cozzetto hinted that the two needed to really step it up in the spring.

The result of the spring? Both Shugert and Armelin left the program, and as of Thursday Shugert had become a Portland State Viking.

That's not to say Willingham didn't try. His 'Suddenly Senior' mishap of 2006 reeked of desperation and disarray, not to mention one of the worst losses in the history of Husky football; nothing in Sarkisian's method of trimming suggests either. He's gone about his paring of the roster in a way that has shown to be best for the player involved, as well as the school.

It may be a callous way of doing business, but that's exactly the point - major college football has most definitely become a business, and coaches like Steve Sarkisian - coaches in the midst of a full-frontal culture change - have no time or room for passengers. Even though the Pac-10 has bumped the number of available traveling players in-conference from 64 to 70, it doesn't mean extra space for a walk-on quarterback or a fifth-year nobody.

"From a challenging point of view we've lost some guys, but I think we've replaced them with good players, good people that have helped us change the culture in a way to where we want it," Sarkisian said. "I don't know if it's exactly to where we want it yet, but I think we're getting close. The more guys we recruit that truly believe in what we believe in…it's going to grow and grow and grow."

Though that total number will continue to hover around the 85-limit allowed by the NCAA for scholarship players, Sarkisian wants his team to be lean and mean on the field. And hopefully fast too, because speed is the name of the game in college football, circa 2010.

"The game is about speed now, it's about speed and explosiveness," Sark said. "I thought we got faster last year, I thought we were lighter and faster."

That was in reference to Ivan Lewis' rebuild of the players' bodies in the off-season; you could have said the same about Sark's rebuild of the Huskies' roster during the same time. And he is far from finished, because Sarkisian is not afraid to mix things up to find the perfect balance of players committed to battling, winning and ultimately doing things the right way.

The game nowadays certainly isn't about the 'c' word - continuity. And as much as the coaches would love to consider themselves artists at molding and shaping all that raw talent into the superstars we see today, attrition suggests otherwise - especially if those departing happen to be players they also recruited.

The remaking of Husky football in the Steve Sarkisian era tells us that it's all about the Jimmies and Joes. Or the Jakes and Joshes, if you happen to follow the Huskies. Top Stories