The University of Washington entered the 21st century rusty at football-coach searches. They conducted just two between 1957 and 1998. Now, after head coach Steve Sarkisian left to take the head coaching job at USC earlier this week, the university will embark on its fourth in 15 years. It remains to be seen if the powers that be have kicked the rust off.
What worries me is that Washington’s highly paid athletic administration will once again pick personality over coaching ability. Here’s what I mean: In 2008, the Huskies had a chance to hire one of the best coaches in football, but chose a newbie instead. Mike Leach, then head coach at Texas Tech, had won eight or more games in seven consecutive years with his innovative spread offense. He’d just taken his team to the prestigious Cotton Bowl.
Another candidate, Steve Sarkisian, had never been a head coach. Washington athletic director Scott Woodward chose him.
It’s difficult to understand hiring Sarkisian over Leach without factoring in personality. Leach is, to put it bluntly, weird. He never played college football, he’s awkward with the media, he’s obsessed with pirates. Sarkisian is a former college QB; he’s young, attractive, charismatic—everything Leach is not. Then again, in five years as Husky head coach, Sarkisian has only won more than seven games once. That would be this season, which will conclude with the Huskies playing in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. Coincidentally, Leach ended up at Washington State, where he brought the lowly program up to a 6-6 record in his second season; he’s 1-1 against Sark.
Is Woodward once again going down the same path? From his initial statement on the coaching search: “I will work hard in the coming days to find the absolute best fit for the University of Washington . . . I am confident we will find the right man.”
That word: “man.” Even though that was an impromptu comment, it’s still significant. Woodward isn’t looking for the right coach or the right tactician, he’s looking for the right “man.” This is a mistake.
College football is a competitive business. With multimillion-dollar salaries in the balance—Sarkisian and Leach are Washington’s two highest-paid public employees—top coaches eschew social niceties in favor of football-focused obsession. If you limit your search to coaches who are the “right man,” as the Huskies did when they chose Sarkisian, you put yourself at an extreme disadvantage.