By Brent Stecker
The final stretch of road on the Washington Huskies' 2013 season has turned out to be trickier than anybody could have expected, with former head coach Steve Sarkisian leaving for USC well before Friday's Fight Hunger Bowl and new head coach Chris Peterson yet to take over.
To navigate the last weeks of the season, the Huskies turned to quarterbacks coach and former UW star Marques Tuiasosopo, and luckily for Washington, its interim coach has been able to relate to the players about the uncertainty of being between coaches. That's because Tuiasosopo went through the same situation himself, having started his Washington career playing under Jim Lambright, only to see Rick Neuheisel take over the program before Tuiasosopo became the starting quarterback as a junior in 1999.
"I've been through it (a coaching change). So I basically just talked to them (the UW players) through my experience when I went through Lambright and then the hiring of coach Neuheisel," Tuiasosopo said last week. "Really it's just kinda to walk it with them."
Tuiasosopo knows first-hand what goes through the minds of college players after their head coach is gone.
"You just kinda wonder, all the work that you've done, where does that leave you? And you got a new coach coming in," he said. " You just keep competing. If you love being here, if you're interested in doing something special, it doesn't matter if it was with your old coach or your new coach.
"And if I decided to leave, where does that leave me with that new team? You might be in the same place that you were here. So I was like, 'I might as well stay here.' I committed not only to the coach, but I committed to the university, I committed to the team that I met when I came on my visit, and I wanted to build something here."
Even with the Fight Hunger Bowl against BYU looming on Friday in San Francisco, the Huskies had a lot to get through before they could even think about preparing for the game.
"Obviously it's very emotional for them. Kind of what they knew or what they signed on for Husky football, what that was all about, was gone in an instant," Tuiasosopo said. "And now all the uncertainty, all the questions -- 'Is this now the place for me? What am I gonna do?' It's a lot of things that, as we looked at getting ready for a bowl game, have nothing to do with getting ready for a bowl game. And so to be able to get back to some normalcy, focus on the things that really matter for us to get ready to go play a bowl game, be competitive and ultimately go try to win the game, was very important for me to do that."
Keeping some semblance of consistency has been a big point of emphasis.
"Some coaches had left, but there's still a handful of the guys that had been here the whole season, and they've done just an outstanding job of being there for the guys," Tuiasosopo said. "Because a lot of it is just making sure the guys are OK. I think when we're on the field they don't feel any of that, and they handled it great. I think it's a tribute to the young men but also the coaches that have stayed, and just say, 'Hey, we've had a pretty good year.' This didn't happen because we were not a good football team."
Keeping everything in perspective, like the success the team has seen this season before the upheaval created by Sarkisian's departure, is another thing Tuiasosopo has concentrated on.
"You just want to make sure that no one does anything rash," he said. "Just say, 'Hey, I totally completely understand if you're not very happy. I understand if you're down in the dumps, and we're here to help you through it.' But also, 'Hey, we've still got something to play for. It's a special year for you guys. You created an uproar here in the Seattle region, bringing Husky football back, eight wins with the chance to go nine.' ... So there's a lot of positives that we can focus on that can kinda get lost in the shuffle."
The bowl game will be Tuiasosopo's first chance to head coach a college football game, and he appears comfortable in the role.
"It's an awesome deal. It's a lot of fun. It's a great learning experience," he said. "There's a lot more duties and there's a lot more responsibility, you know, administratively.
"It's something I would love to do at some point down the road. This is just giving me a look at it. I was joking with one of my buddies, I'm like, 'I don't know if I can go back.' … It's just been a great experience."