Sarkisian winning over his players


When former USC head coach Ed Orgeron sent in his resignation to Athletic Director Pat Haden, Trojan fans must have been experiencing that “Here we go again” feeling. Two months earlier, following a 21-point loss to Arizona State, Haden chose to make a coaching change midseason. Two months later, after USC’s 21-point loss to UCLA, its second straight loss to the Bruins and first at home since 1997, USC players were again forced into a transitional phase.

Steve Sarkisian was announced as USC’s newest head coach on Dec. 2, 2013, and though the decision was met with shock and excitement, it also brought about questions: Was he a “big name?” Who else was available? And why make this decision now?

But perhaps the biggest question was how Sarkisian would be able to earn favor among his new players, and whether or not the team’s morale would plummet after yet another change in the coaching staff.

Ever since the bottom fell out of USC’s 2013 season during the team’s abysmal 1-5 finish to the season, a black cloud seemed to loom over former coach Lane Kiffin and the rest of the program. When Kiffin was let go and Orgeron was chosen to replace him, his tenure got off to a rocky start after a seven-point win over Arizona and a 14-10 loss to rival Notre Dame.

The team’s fortunes turned around in a hurry, with Orgeron preaching love and toughness and the players embracing the new mantra, “One team, one heartbeat.” The wins piled up and team leaders such as redshirt junior quarterback Cody Kessler and redshirt senior linebacker Hayes Pullard constantly pledged their loyalty to the man they called Coach O.

But just as quickly as Orgeron seemed to brighten spirits around the John McKay Center, the atmosphere surrounding USC football changed. When Sarkisian was tabbed as the new head coach, Orgeron immediately resigned and was reportedly “outraged” about being passed over. Current offensive coordinator Clay Helton was named interim head coach for the Las Vegas Bowl, a middle-tier bowl game against feisty non-BCS Fresno State that appeared to have all the makings of a letdown performance from the Trojans.

Unlike last season’s Sun Bowl, USC didn’t lay down for this game. Instead, the Trojans dominated with a 45-20 dismantling of the No. 21 Bulldogs behind a career-high 344-yard passing performance by Kessler.

From that day forward, a buzz has surrounded the program, and Sarkisian has wisely embraced it. In his first meeting with the team, Sarkisian took the approach that he needed to win over his new locker room. In the months since, it appears as if he is well on his way to doing just that.

“He’s a great coach, and we look up to him as a defense,” Pullard said. “We’re buying into everything he’s doing and looking to be able to capitalize on it when we come on the field.”

Where Kiffin was often tense and reserved with the media, Sarkisian is relaxed and outgoing, attributes that translate to the practice field with his players.

With an offense predicated on quick pace, Sarkisian and his assistants are constantly running, diving and hollering with players during drills and scrimmages. Shouts of “No walking!” are routinely heard, with players scrambling to their proper assignments in a frenzy of controlled chaos.

An emphasis on speed has naturally led to an increase in mistakes as the players adapt to a new system. These mistakes are not punished, or even reprimanded, but rather embraced and viewed as opportunities for improvement.

“When you make a mistake, you don’t want to get yelled at, because it puts you in a mood like you don’t know how to play,” said redshirt freshman cornerback Chris Hawkins. “When you make a mistake, and [Sarkisian] says, ‘Don’t worry about it, we’re gonna fix it,’ that keeps you in the spirit, and you can still play fast.”

With a philosophy centered on positivity and constant activity, Sarkisian seems to have found a winning combination.

“When I was a player, I always appreciated the practices that went quickly, where you get a lot of work done in a short amount of time,” Sarkisian said. “I think [the players] appreciate that they’re not standing out here for three hours and losing focus and interest. We keep them focused, we keep them upbeat and energized. We have a lot of fun, but we work hard, and I think the players appreciate that.”

Though last year’s 10-4 record, given the players’ adverse conditions, was somewhat of a miracle, the harsh reality is that more wins will be expected, basically immediately. With a bevy of talented players returning on both sides of the ball, losses to UCLA and Notre Dame will not be tolerated, and Sarkisian is fully aware of that fact.

With the team’s season opener a long five months away, however, positive practices will have to do when trying to assess the Trojans’ new head coach, and by that measure the new era of USC football is off to a good start.

For a team that’s seen so much change in the past year, perhaps the players can finally settle into a routine — move quickly, and ask questions later.

 

Nick Selbe is a senior majoring  in communication. His column, “Inside the 20s,” runs Tuesdays. To comment on this story, visit dailytrojan.com or email Nick at nselbe@usc.edu.

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