In January 2010, then-Athletic Director Mike Garrett offered the job of head football coach to a former USC assistant after the departure of Pete Carroll. Steve Sarkisian, who a little over one year earlier had been named the head coach at Washington, declined the offer, insisting that he felt uneasy about leaving Seattle after just one season.
On Monday, the timing was apparently just right, as Sarkisian was announced as the Trojans’ next leading man.
Sarkisian’s history with USC dates back to his college days when he briefly was a member of the USC baseball team in the fall of 1992 before transferring to El Camino Junior College. He coached quarterbacks at USC from 2001 to 2003 and 2005 to 2006 before being promoted to assistant head coach and offensive coordinator from 2007 to 2008.
For most of his tenure at USC, former head coach Lane Kiffin worked alongside Sarkisian on the offensive coaching staff. From 2005 to 2006, Kiffin served as the team’s passing game and offensive coordinator, while Sarkisian coached quarterbacks, and the two have remained close friends since their time together at USC. Kiffin made his first media appearance following his firing from USC on ESPN’s College GameDay pregame show in Seattle, and reportedly stayed at Sarkisian’s house to watch the Washington-Oregon game.
Sarkisian’s friendship with Kiffin should not be held against him when evaluating his hiring. Kiffin’s name might be considered toxic around the USC program, but Sarkisian is very different from Kiffin, both in terms of personality and coaching philosophy.
Kiffin’s main shortcoming was his inability to connect with the Trojan fanbase and local media. His aloof and sometimes off-putting demeanor didn’t win him many supporters once the losses started to pile up. In contrast, Sarkisian is outgoing and fiery. He has the communication skills to deal with the Los Angeles media in a much more effective way than Kiffin did during his three-plus seasons at USC.
As far as offensive styles, Kiffin and Sarkisian are vastly different, despite their shared career beginnings. Under Kiffin, USC used a pro-style system, operating mostly under center and using at least one tight end or fullback on the field at all times (though seldom utilizing either as a pass catcher).
Kiffin was reluctant to use an up-tempo attack, both as a matter of personal preference and as a result of his roster’s low numbers, rationalizing that running more plays on offense would lead to more injuries. In his three full seasons, USC had only one running back finish the year with 1,000 rushing yards.
Sarkisian’s Washington teams have looked more like contemporary college offenses. The Huskies use a spread offense with multiple-receiver looks and mostly operate out of the shotgun. This season, Sarkisian opted to use a no-huddle approach that has been very effective, with Washington ranking second and third in the Pac-12 in total and scoring offense, respectively. The Huskies have produced a 1,000-yard rusher in all five seasons of Sarkisian’s tenure.
Other critics of Sarkisian’s hire will point to a plethora of other reasons why he is not fit to be the face of the USC football program — prior to this season, his Washington teams never eclipsed the seven-win mark, he has no other head coaching experience and his hire will not be viewed as a “big splash” move that many feel USC needed to make in light of the past two seasons’ struggles. Just five years after being the dominant team in the Pac-12 and one of the most successful programs in the country, USC isn’t even the best team in its own city, with UCLA now holding that title after winning two in a row in the Battle for Los Angeles.
But making a big-name hire is not Haden’s job — his job is to hire the person he thinks will best lead the Trojans into the post-NCAA sanctioned future, and he clearly believes Sarkisian is that person. The sanctions left the USC football program in disarray, and through the efforts of Kiffin and former interim head coach Ed Orgeron, who resigned on Monday after Sarkisian was hired, the Trojans appear ready to move on from a difficult four-year period.
Sarkisian inherited a Washington program in 2009 that was in an even worse position than USC was in following the NCAA sanctions. In 2008, the Huskies went 0-12, and after improving to 5-7 in his first year, Sarkisian has qualified for a bowl game each year since. This year’s eight wins are tied for the most for Washington since 2000, when the Huskies went 11-1 and won the Rose Bowl.
These results are not earth shattering, but it says something about Sarkisian’s ability to get good results quickly. Perhaps with USC’s resources, brand recognition and location in talent-rich Southern California, Sarkisian will be able to eventually have the Trojans competing for conference and national championships again.
It’s difficult, though, for anyone to call Haden’s decision to hire Sarkisian a bust this early. Every other reported candidate for the USC job — Orgeron, Jon Gruden, Chris Petersen and James Franklin, to name a few — had their fair share of flaws. Orgeron could be dismissed as a flash in the pan after a successful eight-game stretch to end the season. Gruden hasn’t coached since 2008 and has virtually no college coaching experience. Petersen has never been a coach at a big-time program, and while Franklin’s Vanderbilt teams have won 17 games over the past two seasons, the Commodores have yet to knock off any of the SEC’s top programs.
Immediately following any coaching hire, the easiest thing to do is to pick apart the flaws in the decision, and this one is no different. Fans like to believe that USC should compete for national championships each year, but those expectations were simply unrealistic in the past four seasons. Though the program is still in somewhat of a transitional phase, Sarkisian has dealt with worse in his brief coaching career, and with a roster full of players who have now had to endure two midseason coaching changes, his familiarity with the USC program will serve him well in minimizing what could be an awkward acclimation period in the wake of Orgeron’s departure.
Given the relatively healthy state of the USC program compared to when Kiffin took over, Sarkisian might have all the tools he needs to complete the Trojans’ resurgence as a national power.
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