I remember the first time I saw Steve Sarkisian run an offense. It was during a BYU scrimmage at the end of spring practice in 1995, when the Cougars were in desperate need of a quarterback, and the transfer from El Camino College was next up.
Pressure arrived alongside that move, coming as it did back when Ty Detmer was a recent memory — and so many of the other Cougar greats had made major marks in the college game and/or were hauling hardware in the NFL. Steve Young just had won his Super Bowl MVP, and BYU still was Quarterback U.
Sarkisian was a punk-assed, fresh-faced kid who had done pretty well against L.A. Harbor and Bakersfield and Citrus colleges, but could he handle bigger and brighter lights?
"I was excited, 100 percent positive," he said back then. "It was a dream come true. All I could envision was points on the scoreboard, championship rings, bowl games, domination."
He’s probably envisioning the same things now as he takes over as the coach at USC, where expectations for his success will exceed anything he’s experienced in the past, including his 34-29 run at Washington. Sarkisian, who wasn’t at the top of the Trojans’ coaching list, is well aware of the squeeze in L.A., having worked previously as an assistant there and appearing, at least, to relish the new steep ascent.
He did likewise at BYU.
But there were skids and bumps along the way.
The new Cougar QB led the Blue team to a 24-16 win at the scrimmage that day, completing 11 of 17 passes for 130 yards and three touchdowns, and he made it look as though it was no big deal. He didn’t have great size or a monster arm. He just methodically moved the ball down the field, getting it to the right place at the right time.
He was more a plumber than a maestro.
But there was something about Sarkisian that automatically stood out. Even though he was new to that offense, having signed to play at BYU just a few months before, he seemed able to grasp it and get it.
After that scrimmage, offensive coordinator Norm Chow said of Sarkisian: "We got a winner in this kid. We looked at three of the best junior-college quarterbacks in the country and got the right one. He’s only been here for 14 practices and already he understands. He has an innate ability to understand what we’re doing. We’ve thrown a lot at him and, surprisingly he has assimilated all of it. He’s a young man who knows what it means to be a quarterback."
Still, the undulations rolled in like sets of waves off Manhattan Beach.
Sarkisian and the Cougars got crushed in his first start — at Air Force. He fumbled away a game at Arizona State, losing the handle at the BYU 1-yard line, which allowed the Sun Devils to come back from an eight-point deficit. He also threw an interception. He threw four more against Utah. And in one sorry-but-funny moment in the loss against the Utes, lined up behind Elias Faupula to take the snap, which would have been fine had Faupula been his center. He wasn’t. He was the right guard. Utah defensive tackle Henry Kaufusi finally guided the confused QB back to the proper spot.
In Sarkisian’s first season, try as he might, BYU failed to make a bowl game — for the first time since 1977. "That’s what was so frustrating," he said. "The harder I tried, the worse it got."
During that season’s last game, though, Sarkisian caught fire. Against Fresno State, he hit 31 of 34 passes for 399 yards and three touchdowns. And he learned a key lesson about football: You can’t thrive at it when you’re clenched up tighter than a Mike Tyson fist.
"I was relaxed going into that game," he said. "I told myself, ‘I am going to have fun, I am going to enjoy this, I am not going to put pressure on myself. I am going to remember that the only reason I started playing this game as a kid was because I loved it.’ ... At times this season, I wasn’t having fun. I put too much pressure on myself. I tried to go out and win games. But the times when I just did my job and everybody else did theirs, we performed our best. I’m excited about next year. I’m going to relax, sit back and enjoy it. Take time to soak it up and to have fun."
That next season, Sark led the Cougars to a 14-1 record, including a big win over Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl.
Sarkisian will have to find that same relaxed state in the highest-profile football position in Los Angeles and one of the most scrutinized football jobs in the country. He learned some lessons in Seattle, but none of those will be more important than what he learned in Provo.
Everybody should have known he was on the coaching path when during that terrific run in 1996, before the Cougars played a winless UNLV team, Sarkisian uttered these words: "They’re a young team, but they are improving every week." The Rebels were allowing 50 points a game and ranked dead last nationally in four defensive categories, including rushing, passing, total yards and scoring.
He went on to become a coach. Now, in earnest, he’ll see — we’ll all see — if it’s any fun.
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