THE MODERATOR: Welcome to our head coaches’ press conference for the 2011 Valero Alamo Bowl. Coach Sarkisian, Washington Huskies are the visiting team this year. If you could give us an opening statement, please.
COACH SARKISIAN: Sure. Again, I’d like to thank Valero and the Alamo Bowl for the hospitality we’ve received since we’ve been here. This has been nothing short of a first‑class event thus far. The hospitality we’ve received not only from the Bowl but from the entire community of San Antonio has been tremendous. I know you our kids have enjoyed ourselves.
Just like anything, come the end of the week, I think we’re excited to go play the game. That’s why we’re here. We’ve got a tremendous opponent in Baylor, and what Coach Briles has done and his team, obviously a very exciting football team. We’re excited to play. The 8:00 kickoff is a killer, long time waiting around tomorrow, but we’ll try to find something to do.
But again, just to reiterate, it’s been a fantastic week. The hospitality has been tremendous, and very honored to represent the University of Washington and the Pac‑12 conference in the game.
THE MODERATOR: Coach Art Briles, head coach of Baylor, they are the home team this year. Coach Briles?
COACH BRILES: Thank you, Rick. Just ditto everything Steve says. First of all, we’re very respectful of the Washington Huskies and what he in particular has been able to accomplish the last three years to bring their program where it’s at today. A tremendous amount of respect for the way they play the game, and really the way the players are and the way he leads them through it.
That’s always the fun part of a Bowl game is that you really get to know people on a different level than you ever do throughout the season because during the season we’re all just locked into what’s going on within our own team within our own conference and you never step out unless you do it the first three or four games, the non‑conference games. But most of them are never at this magnitude.
We’re excited to be here, honored to be here. San Antonio, as the people from Texas know, is an outstanding city, very progressive, very family friendly, and it’s a great place to have a Bowl game because they don’t have right now a Division I‑A university around this area. It’s a big deal. It’s a big deal for the people of San Antonio and certainly a big deal for us at Baylor.
Q. Can you guys talk about how having the Heisman winner adds to the magnitude of this game?
COACH SARKISIAN: Well, now I’ve kind of been on it from both sides of the fence, having some time at SC there with some different guys, when Carson won it and when Reggie won it and heading into those games. I think it generates some obvious national excitement to the game, to where the national media is very interested in our ballgame, maybe a little bit more so than they would be otherwise.
I don’t think that Baylor ourselves are preparing any harder because of Robert winning the Heisman Trophy, but I do know it’s great exposure for both of our clubs in this game because I do think there’s going to be a few more eyes on the ballgame and the interest level is there and it’s piqued there and deservedly so. Robert is a tremendous player, and I think as we learned here, especially throughout the month of December, not only is he a tremendous player, he’s a great person, and you could see that in the interview process.
I think he represents Baylor University extremely well, and I think he represents college football extremely well. On that note, I think it just adds to the excitement of the ballgame. But again, I don’t think that we’re preparing any harder because of that or Coach Briles and his staff are preparing any harder because of that. I think we’ve prepared the same way regardless.
Q. Coach Sark, I think there’s about 25 guys on this team that were on that 0 and 12 team. I know you’ve heard this before, but how gratifying is it for you personally to have this team in two Bowl games in a row and headed in the right direction, especially for those 25 guys that were at the lowest of lows?
COACH SARKISIAN: Well, it means a lot. As you guys know, I’m not a big, kind of, reflection‑type guy, sit back and reflect on the times that we’ve had and what we’ve been able to do. But this month I have in a sense because of ‑‑ again, because of what our seniors have been through from the very beginning to where they are now, and we kind of do a senior salute here the last day of practice, which was yesterday, with the guys and brought them up and reiterated that to them, as well. None of what we’ve done in three years could have ever been possible without the efforts and the willingness that goes guys put into this thing. They deserve all of this that they’re receiving.
I’m very, very happy for them to get this opportunity to go to their second straight Bowl game, a fantastic game. Again, wouldn’t be where we were without them, and just ‑‑ you think about the roller coaster that they were on from day one to where they are today, they’ve left a mark on our program, and they should be proud of that.
Q. Art, Coach Sarkisian just talked about how he had to rebuild. Do you see some similarities there with the way y’all had to rebuild between the two programs?
COACH BRILES: Yes, I do. I mean, without question, because we initially went in there in 2008. I’m not sure, but I don’t think they had won a conference game in maybe a year or two. I remember the first time we won a conference game, that was a big deal.
And just like Steve said, I’m not into sitting around and talking about what has been. I mean, we’re concerned about what will be, and that’s the way we look at it from day one. Our guys have certainly worked hard to have this opportunity, and hopefully we’ll man up enough to take advantage of it.
Q. Last year down at the Holiday Bowl, underdogs, this year a lot of attention on Baylor because of their Heisman Trophy candidate. Flying under the radar, a little less publicity, does that give you a little added incentive, put a little chip on the shoulders?
COACH SARKISIAN: I don’t know. Again, I talked about this last year, and kind of to reiterate what I said about Robert winning the Heisman. Again, I don’t think that we’re preparing any harder because we’re underdogs. You know, I think we’ve got a formula that we feel like is successful that prepares ourselves for Bowl games, and we utilize the formula. And that wouldn’t matter if we were a 30‑point underdog or a two‑touchdown favorite. That’s never going to change, at least as long as I’m here.
We’ve got a formula that we believe in, and much like last year with Nebraska, revenge last year wasn’t I don’t think a reason why our kids went out and played well in the game. I think it’s because we prepared well, and we believed in the process and believed in the plan and went out and executed the plan and prepared ourselves mentally, physically and emotionally for that moment.
Hopefully one of these days we’ll be a favorite in a game, in a Bowl game. That means we’re getting better and we’re improving. But until then, this is where we are, and we’ve just got to continue to work and grind at it, and that’s not going to ‑‑ again, that’s not going to affect the way we prepare or the way our kids believe in themselves or whatnot. That’s the perception of what’s going to happen in the game. We have to ultimately go out and play the game.
Q. Steve, I wonder if you could fill us in on Keith’s condition after the week down here and how much better off is he now than maybe he was at the end of the season.
COACH SARKISIAN: Well, probably the best he’s been since the beginning of the season, since the initial ‑‑ when he injured his first knee there early in the season there, I think it just ‑‑ from a movement standpoint he feels good, and I think from a movement standpoint it makes him psychologically feel good, too. He feels better about himself, the smile is probably a little bigger now as he’s getting going, and it’s been obviously advantageous for Keith to have four weeks to get ready for this game, not only mentally and understanding the game plan but physically to get his body right. I do know that he feels good, and it’s noticeable. I can definitely see that he feels much better.
Q. As a follow‑up to that, how will your offense be different with him being a little bit more mobile than we saw this season?
COACH SARKISIAN: Well, I don’t think that we’re going to change a whole lot. I think there were specific games this year especially where I just knew he couldn’t move very well and we had to protect him that way, whether it was via protections or whether it was via getting the ball out of his hands much quicker. I do think now that he’s got the ability to maybe extend plays a little longer like he had been earlier in the year, and so I think you’ll see a little bit more of that maybe just from his natural play maybe more so than what we’re doing schematically offensively.
Q. Coach Briles, last year you guys made your first Bowl in a long time, seemed happy to be there. What’s changed for you guys this year?
COACH BRILES: Well, we certainly didn’t finish last year like we had hoped against Illinois. You know, we played a good football team, first and foremost, and a very experienced team, a team that was coming away from two years removed from a Rose Bowl Game. They had a lot of experience on their football team in a Bowl atmosphere where we had zero. I think definitely our mental attitude this year is quite a bit different than it was a year ago. We were a little excited, a little happy, a little proud of ourselves, and we had no reason to be.
So our mentality is quite a bit different going in this year. Hopefully our guys have settled down and understand that it’s a 60‑minute game and we have an opportunity to go out and prove ourselves.
Q. In talking to some Bowl officials here, they’ve been struck by some of the camaraderie that your two staffs have shown at the functions and also how you two guys have interacted. I wonder if you can talk about maybe the association that your programs have been able to get during this week.
COACH BRILES: I mean, the dinner the other night was pleasant. It was good getting around Steve and his staff and our wives and everything, the ADs. So that was really a great time. It’s kind of like I alluded to earlier; you get to meet people on a little different level when you’re around them more like the Bowl atmosphere. It’s been good. We’re all fighting for the same thing, but we’re all fighting for the same cause, too, collegiately and athletics, football in particular, keeping the game great, but at the same time we’re fierce competitors and that’s why we’re where we’re at.
COACH SARKISIAN: I think just to piggy‑back it, I’ve been to where it hasn’t been as pleasant as this, obviously, but I think there’s a level of respect, and you respect what another staff does and what they put on the field and the way their kids conduct themselves and the way their staff conducts themselves, and I think Coach Briles and his staff have been tremendous, and I love our staff that way, as well.
I think, again, as Coach Briles touched on, we’re obviously both here to win. That’s why we’re here, to play the game. But there is a level of respect for what guys have been able to accomplish and what they’ve been able to do, not just this season about what they’ve been able to do since 2008, what we’ve been able to do since 2009, and then comes just can you get along, do conversations flow or don’t they, and I think it’s been natural for Art and I from day one, and I think it was for our staffs the other night, as well.
Q. How do you think Robert has handled all the Heisman distractions and remained focus in practice?
COACH BRILES: As you know, that’s the great thing about Robert. Robert is Robert. He’s not going to let outside influences deter his determination and his effort and his discipline. That’s why he’s who he is and that’s why he’s what he is. None of this has caused any distractions for Robert one bit. He’s a guy that is okay being by himself. It’s caused him maybe a little more private time, but that’s Robert in general.
That part of it has not been an issue. The great thing about him is that he’s ‑‑ his focus entirely since he got back from New York has been prepping himself and getting ready for this Bowl game.
Q. Coach Briles, most of the media predicted that Robert would indeed win the Heisman. In that time leading up to the announcement did you let yourself believe that, and what was your thoughts once that announcement came out?
COACH BRILES: You know, I didn’t watch the video on how to respond when a player wins the Heisman, so I was ready to scream and holler, and I looked around and everybody is sitting there straight faced. I was certainly in different company. I needed to be back at Waco where people were getting to show their emotions a little more.
We thought he had a good chance going in, simply for the fact of how he’s played, and he hit some big plays in some high time viewing areas across the nation. That certainly plays into it, especially toward the end of the season. But when you look at the full body of work, what he’s been able to accomplish not only this year but last year, it’s pretty impressive.
Q. Steve, as a former quarterback, did you find yourself getting impressed with Robert a little more watching game film and having an appreciation for what he does on the field?
COACH SARKISIAN: Robert, he’s just a tad better athlete than I was when I played (laughter), so yeah, I appreciated the heck out of the guy. I mean, he ‑‑ you watch him, and before you do anything, you always look at a guy’s stats and you look at a team’s stats and you’re wondering, okay, what’s going on here. To think, okay, at I don’t know how many games of the year, Coach, but at one point he’s got more touchdown passes than incompletions, and I think it’s about four games into the season, and you think to yourself, well, he must just be dinking and dunking the ball around, and then you turn on the film, and they are chunking the ball down the field. So the accuracy down the field, I think, was what first got me going, wow, this kid is special.
And then obviously the play‑making ability, his understanding of their scheme, his ability to keep the tempo at the up‑tempo speed that they play at, and then to throw in the fact that the guy can run. He’s just one of the best players I’ve seen, and I’ve been around some pretty good ones. But I think more so than just being a great quarterback, he’s a great football player, and that’s what makes great quarterbacks. He’s a great football player.
Q. I know both of y’all are kind of offensive minded, but can you talk about facing the challenge of balanced offenses on the other side?
COACH SARKISIAN: Well, I think that’s the beauty of football in the sense that why I love offensive football, and I’m sure Coach Briles does, as well. The more things you can do really well, the tougher it is to stop, and to have balance on your offensive football team where you can run the football, throw the football, utilize the play action pass game, spread people out, run with the quarterback, the more you do well, the tougher it is to stop. Ultimately in this game these are two teams that can do a lot of different things, and that’s what makes the challenge of playing defense.
I don’t envy our two coordinators in this game, at least on the preparation side of it. Nick was pulling out whatever hairs he had left there getting ready for the game here. That’s a challenge, but that’s the beauty of football. That’s why we do what we do. You love that side of it and you love the preparation aspect of it. You love the teaching to the players of getting them prepared, and it’s in all three phases quite honestly. But these just happen to be two very balanced offensive football teams that are extremely challenging on defenses.
COACH BRILES: Great answer. Great answer.
Q. Art, Robert Griffin, your quarterback, receives an awful lot of acclaim for what you guys have been able to accomplish. I wonder if you could tell us about Robert Griffin, the offensive lineman, and what he’s been able to do for you this season.
COACH BRILES: Big Griff? The good thing about Big Robert, first of all, is that he’s done an outstanding job for us, came less than two years ago from JC, so he’s kind of been on the fast track. He was a two‑year guy at JC and a two‑year guy at our level, so he’s had to kind of get there in a hurry. Now, the thing that helps him is he’s very gifted physically. He’s a big kid that carries his weight and carries his body really well.
It’s hard sometimes to stay as mentally tight as you need to when it’s on that fast of a track. So I respect the way that he’s been able to hold everything together, to come in and develop the leadership role for us, especially through some tough personal times for him, which he’s actually going through right now. That makes it even that more evident of his maturity and his growth since he’s been with us.
Q. Coach Briles, you ended the regular season with five straight wins. How much of that momentum do you feel like you still have, or is it dampened any by the break?
COACH BRILES: You know, you hope you keep it, and the thing we were saying, toward the end of the season, we did get hot there toward the end and that’s the way you want to be as a football team, and when you get hot at the end you just have to maintain it for a two‑ or three‑week period. You don’t have to carry it the whole season. If you start out hot, it’s hard to maintain the whole season. So we finished up on a pretty good note as a team.
How much we’ve lost in the last 23, 24 days, you know, we’ll find out tomorrow night. But I feel good about our effort. I feel good about our spirit. We still have a lot of enthusiasm. That’s tough to have when you start August 3rd and guys still feel good about being on the practice field and still believe that they have an opportunity to be better. That’s the thing that we talk about. We want to finish with the best game that we’ve played this year because why shouldn’t you. You get three more weeks of practice, you get to play another quality opponent, you get to get on the field for another 60 minutes. You should be better, and that’s kind of the way we’ve approached it.
Q. Coach Sark, RG III getting a lot of attention, rightfully so, but just your thoughts on your running backs and what Chris Polk means to this team?
COACH SARKISIAN: Well, a tremendous career, first of all, for Chris, up to this point. To go over 1,000 yards three consecutive seasons and to be knocking on the career rushing record’s door here at the University of Washington says a great deal when you look at the quality of backs that have come through this University.
As I’ve touched on with Chris, the growth that he’s made from the day we stepped on campus, not only on the football field but in his personal life, in the classroom, has been the thing that has probably been most impressive to me and makes you as coaches ‑‑ there’s little things that make you proud along the way, and he’s definitely one of them.
The fact that he’s already earned his degree from the University of Washington, the fact that he’s probably been, and this is not to take anything away from a guy by the name of Jake Locker, away from him, but he’s probably been the biggest reason why we’ve climbed as quickly as we’ve climbed from the depths of 0 and 12 is our ability to win all of the times that have gotten tough on us, to rely on No. 1 to run the football, to win tough games late in the season, and his not only physical but mental toughness to take on those amounts of carries and to practice the way he’s practiced speaks volumes.
I think back to the beginning of the season. There’s so much that happened since August to get to this point. Eight days before our first ballgame he’s having knee surgery to get himself prepared to play, and he wasn’t not going to play in that game. He was playing in that game, and he goes out and I think he rushes for 130‑something yards, and it’s just ho‑hum. Chris goes for 130 and ho‑hum.
I couldn’t be ‑‑ I couldn’t thank probably one player more than this guy for what he’s given to our program and hopefully we get him for 13 more after this one, but we’ll see. Chris and his family and myself have a tough decision to make after this game, and we’ll put all the facts and the much needed information on the table, and again, we’ll make a really educated decision. He’ll make an educated decision, one that he feels great about and his family feels great about and one which we can support him with, whatever that is.
Q. With Demetrice Martin leaving down to UCLA, can you talk a little bit about practice the last couple weeks without him there, how the guys have responded, anything really different?
COACH SARKISIAN: I didn’t notice it, quite honestly. I think Donte Williams has done a tremendous job, our graduate assistant, stepping in and coaching the corners. That’s his specialty. As you guys all well know, our practices are pretty spirited as it is, and so quite honestly no, and that’s not to slight Demetrice. Demetrice is a very good football coach. I just think that one individual or two or three aren’t going to change the way that 130 go out and approach the day, and so I thought our guys have practiced extremely well. It’s been spirited, it’s been competitive, and so that’s where I feel like we’re at. I feel like we’ve had a nice month to get ready for the game.
Q. Coach Briles, a bunch of people have asked Robert about his decision. Obviously after this game, he’s mentioned he’s probably going to make it after the Bowl game, but there’s clearly some thought there leading up to this after theHeisman about going pro. Can you just talk about the discussions, if any, that you’ve had with him about that decision and again how he’s handling his thought process, controlling all the media hype around whether or not he could be a top ten pick in the NFL?
COACH BRILES: Well, I mean, how he’s handled it, we kind of touched on it earlier. Robert is a guy that’s extremely focused and disciplined into what’s in the moment, and that’s his first objective is to go out tomorrow night and help us win a football game. That’s really all he’s been concerned with, like I said, since he got back from New York.
He’s certainly got, and his family, have a great opportunity, a great decision to make, and their plan all along for the last two months has been we’ll talk about this once the game is over.
Q. Coach Sark, with Baylor’s potent pass offense with Kendall Wright and RG III, how do you prepare players like Sean Parker and Cort Dennison mentally?
COACH SARKISIAN: Well, I think the first is, especially early on in our preparation, the one thing that is the hardest to simulate when you’re getting prepared for an offense like Baylor is the speed factor. Kendall Wright is a tremendous receiver, and the speed at which he plays the game, he’s got tremendous football speed.
So one thing we did try to do earlier in this preparation process is we did a lot of ones versus ones to where Sean Parker, Cort Dennison, Desmond Trufant were defending Jermaine Kearse, Kasen Williams, Devin Aguilar, Keith Price, Chris Polk, so to get the speed of that to where it needs to be to get themselves prepared, but ultimately you’ve got to understand schemes and you’ve got to understand leverage, and you’d better know which guys are fast and which guys aren’t so you take good leverage, because if you don’t they’re going to run right by you.
Q. Coach Sark, you talked last night right out of the gate at the pep rally about the pageantry of everything going on. Can you expand on that and what you meant by what you said?
COACH SARKISIAN: Well, at first, I do what I do because I love college football. I think this is the ‑‑ this sport just epitomizes why we love athletics in general. You’ve got 105 kids or so on your roster, some of which are Heisman Trophycaliber type players, some of which may not play a snap all year or all career long. But as the team comes together and that locker room comes together with coaching staff and with fans and with alumni, that pageantry of college football, our dog walk in pregame when we’re at home, the band playing, the pep rallies last night, those emotions are why our kids do what they do, and that’s why I do what I do. I love seeing it.
I am the biggest fan of Bowl season. I love watching teams play. I can’t wait tonight to watch Cal versus Texas. That stuff is why we do what we do. So that event last night was just another opportunity to embrace, to enjoy, and hopefully our kids are doing the same.
Q: The tempo that Baylor plays at is very similar to that of Oregon. Do you feel as though your experience with that helps?
STEVE SARKISIAN: I think it’s helpful for sure. Our guys have seen the speed at which they go and I think that what we’ve done offensively in incorporating some no huddle stuff and an up-tempo level of play dating all the way back to last spring has helped in that as well. That was strategically part of why we did it. It’s added a dimension to our football team that has been good for our offense, but has helped our defense to feel comfortable in that setting. I think that so much of the no huddle offense is that it doesn’t feel comfortable for many; it almost feels chaotic and that’s the worst-case scenario for a defense. You’ve got to find your comfort zone and I think our defense has done a better job of that.
Q: Is there a key to substitutions when facing the no-huddle offense?
STEVE SARKISIAN: I think they key is that you need to sub early in the game. You can’t wait until a guy gets tired. You have to have a rotation in place. You have to sub early so that in the third and fourth quarters of the game, your guys are still somewhat fresh and not so fatigued.
Q: You’ve been through this situation before where you’ve had quarterbacks who have pondered entering the NFL draft. How different is the dynamic of a running back in Chris Polk?
STEVE SARKISIAN: The dynamic is just the different position and assessing the draft that way. For Chris at this point, this is a business decision. This isn’t a matter of what feels fun or what feels right. He’s earned his degree and played great football for us. Now the question is, ‘Is this the right draft for me?’ and ‘Am I projected in the right spot to do what I know I’m capable of doing?’ and ‘Could I benefit more and could I improve more by coming back next season and what might the draft look like next year?’. That’s what a lot of the discussion needs to be about. It’s not about emotion or taking a certain number of carries. That’s the tough realities to go through. We’ll go through it all and we’ll do it the right way.
Q: Do you have an idea when that evaluation might come?
STEVE SARKISIAN: We’ll assess it right when we get back, quite honestly. The NFL advisory is back, we know.
Q: What is the status of safety Will Shamburger?
STEVE SARKISIAN: He’s doubtful.
Q: Are the practices down here being closed off to the media part of the game planning for you guys?
STEVE SARKISIAN: Yeah. I felt like it was needed for us. We’ve been exposed now for quite some time and I felt like when you come down here and we get ready for the game, we needed an intimate setting for us. I thought it has gone very well and our kids have responded to it. In some aspects, they’ve almost embraced it. That’s not forever. For these five practices, I felt it was needed and it’s gone well for us.
Q: Should we expect a big change from the way your team plays with the time behind closed doors?
STEVE SARKISIAN: I don’t think you can change everything. I think as always when you have good coaching staffs that there’s going to be new wrinkles to different things. You can’t install a brand new offense or defense in three weeks. But there will be some wrinkles I’m sure for both teams that will be unique to this game. Some will go unnoticed quite honestly and some will be obvious to the common fan’s eyes.