For a good part of this past decade, Steve Sarkisian and Pete Carroll were inextricably linked.
Serving as Carroll’s assistant for seven years at USC, the Washington head coach was part of a talented coaching staff in Los Angeles that compiled a 75-15 record and made berths to BCS bowl games seem awfully easy (in 2004, Sarkisian left the Trojans’ staff to become the quarterbacks coach for the Oakland Raiders before returning the next season).
With great success comes much recognition, which is why many of Carroll’s top assistants were able to land head gigs across the country, including Sarkisian, who was hired before last season to turn around the program at the University of Washington.
Following the 2009 campaign, in a move that some thought was crazy yet others saw on the horizon, Carroll left sunny L.A., as well, choosing to embark on a new journey of his own.
Now, the two coaches are linked once again, this time, in the state of Washington, where Sarkisian has the Huskies primed for a true renaissance and Carroll is trying to resuscitate the Seattle Seahawks — and his own NFL coaching career.
Finally, the head guy
With the losses piling up and an increasingly apathetic fan base, Husky Nation was searching for the perfect tonic to cure the program’s ills. Sarkisian’s winning background made him the logical choice to rebuild the program in Seattle.
No one could have imagined such a quick turnaround, however. Perhaps not even Sarkisian.
But with a five-win improvement from 2008 — including a victory over Carroll and the Trojans — the expectations are sky high for 2010 within the program, around the state and across the country. In Sarkisian’s first season, the Huskies netted four wins over opponents who finished with at least eight victories. This, just one season removed from an 0-12 campaign in which the team lost every game by an average of more than 25 points per game.
All indications are that a productive offense can become even more prolific next fall, led by the potential top pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, quarterback Jake Locker. Nine offensive starters return to the unit led by the dual-threat signal-caller, who made huge strides under the guidance of Sarkisian and quarterbacks coach Doug Nussmeier. With Locker expected to improve by leaps and bounds in his senior season, running back Chris Polk coming off a season in which re ran for over 1,100 yards, and three receivers — Jermaine Kearse, Devin Aguilar and James Johnson — who combined for 131 catches, 1,881 yards and 16 touchdowns in ’09, opposing Pac-10 defenses should be worried.
The Huskies aren’t all about offense, either, as 10 starters return to coordinator Nick Holt’s defense. Where did Holt make his mark as an assistant? At USC, of course, where he coached the linebackers under Carroll before landing his head gig at Idaho. Throw in a highly rated recruiting class, and Sarkisian has Washington in midst of a rebirth and back on track to become national power.
The old college try in a pro league
If the NFL Draft was equivalent to a Pac-10 championship, Carroll would have won yet another title in his successful coaching career. But it’s not, and now the real work begins for Carroll as the new face of the Seahawks.
Whatever the reason for his departure from L.A. — the thought that he accomplished all that he could at the college level, impending NCAA sanctions, the need to prove doubters wrong at the next level, etc. — no one can deny the impact he had on the USC program. He turned the team into a dynasty at the college level while essentially running a professional program.
But as he prepares for his first season back on an NFL sideline, Carroll now faces nothing but questions. Can he prove that his time in New York with the Jets and his tenure in New England with the Patriots were learning experiences and that he’s ready to translate his success in college to the pro ranks? Does he have an eye for pro talent and can he recruit big-name free agents as he recruited 17- and 18-year-old kids to the USC campus?
If last week’s draft was any indication, the Carroll regime in Seattle is off to a nice start.
In addition to finding a potential long-term replacement for Walter Jones in offensive tackle Russell Okung and a much-needed safety in Earl Thomas in the first round, Carroll brought in wide receiver Golden Tate and cornerback Walter Thurmond in the second and third rounds, respectively, along with finding value in safety Kam Chancellor and tight end Anthony McCoy in the middle of the draft. While any incoming rookie is unproven, Carroll’s ability to evaluate talent should serve him well in future busy NFL offseasons.
Not content with just finding young talent in the draft, Carroll traded for both the Titans’ LenDale White and the Jets’ Leon Washington, two players who will replenish the Seahawks’ backfield and push returning backs Justin Forsett and Julius Jones. You only have to look back at the running back battles at USC to see that Carroll loves competition, and you only have to glance at last week’s draft to know that Seattle has a plan under its new leader.
The obvious question now surrounding Carroll is whether he can win at the pro level. In his first and only season with the Jets in 1994, the team started out 6–5, only to be thrown off track by Dan Marino’s “clock play” in week 12. Carroll would never see victory again on the Jets sideline as the team finished the year 6-10.
When he took over the Patriots in 1997, he was replacing Bill Parcells — a tough job in itself. But he was able to win the AFC East that season and advance to the playoffs the next campaign, only to be fired after a late-season slide in 1999.
In reality, were his stints as head coach in the league really that unsuccessful? Has too much been made of his supposed “failures” in the league?
We’ll find out soon enough whether Carroll is made to be an NFL head guy, but it’s clear just months into his new job with the Seahawks that he has a plan and is focused on turning around a franchise with a passionate fan base.
And if his new gig doesn’t work out? He could always give his buddy Sark a call. The protégé may owe his mentor a favor.
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