Those lamenting the departure of Steve ("Washington is my dream job") Sarkisian to conference rival USC as evidence of the increasingly depraved state of college sports, would do well to remember that the Huskies themselves once benefited from a similar naked grab for cash.
That was in the realm of men's basketball: The coach was Marv Harshman, the year was 1972 and the Huskies won big at the expense of the Cougars. The stakes may be higher this time, but little has changed in college sports. Or in life.
In an industry that places no value on loyalty, both Harshman and Sarkisian lit out for the better deal while they had leverage.
Dismaying as it was to some fans and players, this possibility was first forecasted by me and others after Sarkisian’s first press conference five years ago: If successful at Washington, I said, he would return to his hometown and the more prestigious program at the first opportunity. A few more completions by Washington State's Connor Halliday in the Apple Cup, and the opportunity may not have been there for Sark. Unless, of course, UW athletics director Scott Woodward made him a free agent by firing him, as a minority of fans fervently wished.
It's worth keeping in mind the conditions under which Sarkisian was given the UW job: Woodward couldn't find a plausible Division I head coach to take on the fetid mess that was coach Tyrone Willingham’s 0-12 2008 season. Huskies fans may never forget that embarrassment, but they often fail to connect the dots between the years of scandal, probation, controversy, mistakes and mismanagement that contributed to the 2004 hiring of Willingham, whose reputation as a law-abider trumped everything else in his faded skill-set.
From the university presidency through misbegotten coaches down to miscreant players, Huskies sports programs generally were an unhealing canker sore, complete with a decrepit stadium with no clear future.
Woodward filled the football job with a 34-year-old who had never been a head coach at any level, and had only seven years as a Division I assistant.
Then and now, it was a reach. Then and now, it was a transition hire.
Woodward knew what success would look like: If the gamble worked and the Huskies became respectable and competitive, with a few bowl trips to pacify the party hounds among the donors, Sark would take his buffed resume to USC at the first opportunity.
The week that the Huskies went 4-0 and 15th in the polls was the same time Woodward’s Trojans counterpart, Pat Haden, fired coach Lane Kiffin. Woodward is way too savvy not to have started building his short list that day.
Much remained unknowable – the Huskies' subsequent failure to beat the Pac-12's elites, the openings in other programs, the lust of other coaches seeking a much more attractive UW job than five years ago – but the permutations were not so many that Woodward wouldn't have imagined Sarkisian on the phone to his agent and USC boosters to make his potential interest clear.
By the time he took hold of the Apple Cup Friday night at Husky Stadium, Sarkisian and some of his assistants knew the real game was on. Less than 48 hours later, they knew he had his real dream job.
Understanding the Sarkisian saga informs the process of selecting his successor. A return to a younger coach or assistant coach would mean a return to the training wheels Sarkisian bore throughout his tenure. Anyone who remembers the third-down direct snap to Bishop Sankey that the UCLA defense crushed, will see training wheels the size of Portugal.
The pursuit will be for a veteran coach, probably one who is secure and considered a fixture. Woodward will have in his argument the strength, stability and vast wealth of the Pac-12 Conference, the dynamism of a big city on the edge of world-class status, a premium stadium and years of distance between the corruptions and ditherings of the past.
And probably a $4 million or so annual income. Although that may be a little light.
Woodward will need to disrupt a strong program with big buyout money for the coach's contract, and predictable wails will be heard from an aggrieved constituency. It will be a cutthroat maneuver, but that is hardly a big deal – even former AD Barbara Hedges had the guts to stealth-poach Rick Neuheisel from Colorado. And two years later, the Huskies were back in the Rose Bowl, where they haven't been since.
Most of the big boys and girls who formed the private portion of the stadium renovation will be all in behind Woodward. They will tell him this is not another transition hire, and will insist that Washington not be a stepping stone.
But truth be told, almost every college coaching job is. Think about it: USC (Pete Carroll), Oregon (Chip Kelly) and Stanford (Jim Harbaugh) were recently stepping stones. The good news is that Washington now has most everything it didn't when Sarkisian was hired.
Especially money. Practice your sticker-shock face.