Kragthorpe: Steve Sarkisian seeking encore success at Rice-Eccles
Kyle Whittingham hardly needs any reminder that he's aging, but here comes Steve Sarkisian anyway.
Long before they would meet Saturday as head coaches at Rice-Eccles Stadium, Whittingham was Utah's defensive coordinator, dealing with BYU offenses quarterbacked by Sarkisian. In one memorable episode, that meant standing on the sideline, watching Sarkisian repeatedly hand off as the Cougars rushed for 366 yards in a 37-17 victory in 1996.
"They ran the ball down our throat pretty good," Whittingham said this week.
That's Sarkisian's only competitive experience in Salt Lake City, predating the stadium's renovation.
He's returning to town with the Washington Huskies for Utah's first Pac-12 home game, which is easily framed as Sarkisian's dynamic offense vs. the Ute defense coached by Whittingham and Kalani Sitake.
Whittingham, 51, laughed about the coaching matchup with a player he once schemed against, saying, "I'm officially old for a lot of reasons, that being one of many."
Sarkisian, and Gary Sheide are the only junior college transfers to become part of BYU's great quarterbacking legacy.
As a non-Mormon who blended in well, Sarkisian started every game for two seasons.
"From the moment he stepped on campus, everybody liked him," said former teammate Ed Lamb, now Southern Utah's coach. "It didn't matter what your background was or where you were from, everybody rallied around him."
Whittingham's defense intercepted Sarkisian four times in Utah's 34-17 win in Provo in '95, when BYU went 7-4. Sarkisian then was highly productive as a BYU senior, although the Cougar running game was so powerful against Utah that Norm Chow then BYU's offensive coordinator, now Utah's had him attempt only 12 passes.
Sarkisian won the Sammy Baugh Trophy, a national QB award, as the Cougars went 14-1 with a win over Wyoming in the inaugural Western Athletic Conference championship game and a Cotton Bowl defeat of Kansas State. After playing in the Canadian Football League, Sarkisian launched his coaching career at his old junior college in California. His big break came when Chow helped him get hired at USC in 2001, although their lives diverged three years later.
Lamb, who once worked for Jim Harbaugh, likens Sarkisian's energy and charisma to the San Francisco 49ers coach's personality. Harbaugh dramatically turned around Stanford's program, and Sarkisian, 37, gradually is doing the same with the Huskies. Having inherited an 0-12 team, he stands 15-14 in his third season, with seven wins in the last eight games.
"What he's been able to do in that time frame has been remarkable, in my opinion," Whittingham said.
That may well be Chow's view of his former QB too. But let's just say serving as a resident historian and sociologist is not Chow's favorite part of his job description. With another big game to be played Saturday in a season full of them for Utah, "he's a good coach; he was a good player" is pretty much the complete transcript regarding their relationship.
These reunions of Chow with his former employers, co-workers and players in the Pac-12 are new to us but old to them, considering he spent the previous three seasons with UCLA.
"We had a great run and a lot of tremendous wins there at BYU, and then to go on and work with him at USC, I learned a great deal," Sarkisian said. "We've faced each other before, so I don't feel like this is some monumental moment that I need to be concerned about."
Saturday's game really is about Sarkisian vs. Whittingham and Sitake when the Huskies have the ball and Chow vs. defensive coordinator Nick Holt, another former USC colleague, when Utah is on offense. Yet the comparison of the play-callers is inevitable. This much is certain: Each of them will call a lot more than 12 passes.