After a successful five-year run as the head coach at Washington, former USC assistant Steve Sarkisian has made a triumphant return to Troy this spring. As his team readies itself for summer workouts and fall camp, Daily Trojan staff writer Cassandra Collins sat down with Sarkisian to get to know the man behind the headset.
DT: I saw the dance competition video from spring practice, the players were having a blast — can you tell me about that?
Sarkisian: [Chuckling] As a coach, you try different motivational techniques when you feel the timing is right and you can ascertain that the players need the change. So you switch things up and incorporate different techniques. They are always in the grind of it all; you’re going through it day-in and day-out. We have been doing some really difficult and competitive periods at practice. It could be a tackling drill, it could be the linebackers versus the running backs, and as a coaching staff we just felt like this would be a fun and constructive competition for our players. Ultimately here at ’SC we want to recruit great competitors, and no matter what the competition is, they should go for it. We take notice of the players who give it their best effort and have the ability to adapt to change.
DT: Talent aside, when you look to recruit a player, what attributes do you seek?
Sarkisian: I believe, hands down, in the following three: competitiveness, effort and energy. None of those three characteristics take talent. It takes a lion heart, it takes a want-to and willingness to extend themselves. I’m willing to invest in that player with those qualities.
In my opinion, there are innately competitive people and those who aren’t. Those are the unique people that I want on my team and that’s who we are in search of. A good coach will appreciate and work with a player’s desire to help make his team successful. You can witness it in someone on the field or sideline. That’s the key to a team’s success.
DT: You did not recruit any of the players you are coaching right now to come to USC. What steps have you taken to get to know the players? Do you feel it’s actually important to know them outside of football?
Sarkisian: Yes I do — very much so. I believe in, and have always had, an open-door policy, and now an always phone-on policy. The way our kids are being raised, this generation’s verbal communication skills are less effective. So I have to do my very best and try and make it a mission to acknowledge and verbally engage each and every one of my players as often as I can. I truly mean whenever, wherever I see them. So no matter where they are or whom they may be with at said encounter, I try to talk with them and ask several questions. I know at times I may have bordered on embarrassing them. However, my goal is next time I see them to reiterate and employ one of the answers they have given me to further understand who they are. Just to get to know them better. My intention is that they believe that I am truly listening to all of them and I am not just saying it just for the sake of saying it.
DT: Are there any moments you can recall that kept you personally motivated and helped you realize you were on the correct career path?
Sarkisian: Yes, there are several key moments and mentors. While you might not have them in your daily life any longer, you still recall their words and actions that have lifted you forward. If you are fortunate you still have the ability to speak with them as well.
As you know, I worked with Pete Carroll for seven instrumental years here at USC. He was unbelievable to me and every single day was a teaching moment which I tried to absorb. We had a tough loss at Oregon State one year and we had been number one in the country for essentially three years. Instead of taking it out on any of the coaching staff or brooding, he pulls me aside in the locker room and begins explaining to me what he is going say to the team, and how he is going to say it. He was coaching me at one of the most difficult times. That’s a leader.
DT: Since Pete Carroll was your mentor, do you try to incorporate some of his coaching strategies?
Sarkisian: When you are with someone so successful and for a long period of time, it is inevitable that you try and use their winning practices and plays. I have practice plans and things that are very similar, but we have our differences as well. First and foremost you have to work with what you have. You need to adapt to your players. So naturally different techniques become implemented. One of the last pieces of advice Pete gave me when I took the job at Washington was, “Go be you.” Because inevitably the real you will come out when adversity strikes. So be you all the time under any given circumstance. You shouldn’t switch your personalities on your team or divide them.
DT: What unique coaching strategies do you bring to USC?
Sarkisian: I think schematically the way we play is very unique. We are a no-huddle offense now. The natural thought when people hear “no huddle,” they think that means spread. Spread are schools like Arizona, Oregon, Arizona State. Then they think pro-style, which is Stanford and very traditional like USC has been for a very long time. Now we are a no-huddle pro-style team. Essentially, we have blended the two and that style makes us extremely unique.
DT: Do you use catchphrases to get the players motivated before a practice or game?
Sarkisian: We actually do. One thing we have been getting going on that I really believe in is, “Who’s got it better than us?” They respond with a rousing “NOBODY!” It’s 90 degrees today and we are going to spring practice. You are walking across this magnificent campus, of academic superiority with a beyond-rich athletic history and football tradition. I mean, who does have it better than us?
DT: If you could change one rule in football, what would it be?
Sarkisian: Wow, there is a lot I would change. It’s a hot topic, but for me, the most essential rule change would be kickoffs. I don’t believe they are the best thing for our game. When you compare the number of kickoffs to the percentage of injuries that occur during that play, you will find it’s where the majority of injuries occur. So it’s time to review these statistics, and ask yourself: Is it worth it?