On Tuesday, Steve Sarkisian was introduced as USC’s head football coach at the John McKay Center, ushering in a new era for Trojan football. The introduction comes one day after former interim head coach Ed Orgeron resigned from his position and held an emotional final team meeting.
“It’s obviously difficult, but at the end of the day it’s a business,” redshirt sophomore quarterback Cody Kessler said. “I think our team has done a great job of understanding that — especially this year, [since] we’ve had three head coaches in one year … [But] we’re very excited to have a great leader like Coach Sark. I’m excited to get started with him.”
Sarkisian, 39, was a quarterbacks coach, assistant head coach and offensive coordinator for USC under former head coach Pete Carroll from 2001 to 2003 and 2005 to 2008. Most of that time was spent alongside Lane Kiffin, who was fired from his head coaching position in September and replaced by Orgeron for the remainder of the season.
Orgeron guided the Trojans to a 6-2 record to complete the season, headlined by a massive upset of No. 5 Stanford, and gained support from many fans who believed he deserved to have the “interim” tag removed.
Athletic Director Pat Haden, however, decided to hire Sarkisian, who helped win five Rose Bowls in his seven years at USC and reconstructed a Washington program that was 0-12 in the season prior to his arrival.
“Steve resurrected a moribund program in Washington,” Haden said. “He has relationships with local [high school] coaches, and he knows the Pac-12 and USC.”
Sarkisian brought his wife and three children to the press conference, where he declared his passion for USC and seemed at ease with the media horde surrounding him.
“To be home, to be the head football coach at USC, is just awesome,” Sarkisian said. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity that I felt like I had to take advantage of and jump on the first chance I got it.”
The Torrance, Calif. native didn’t hold back from explaining his expectations for the program, saying he expected USC to resume competing on a national level immediately.
“We are not rebuilding at the University of Southern California,” Sarkisian said. “‘Rebuilding’ is not a word around here. Coach O proved that we can win right now.”
Orgeron certainly reinvigorated USC’s fanbase — not to mention, its team — and was offered an assistant head coaching position and pay raise by Haden. But the man affectionately known as “Coach O” chose to pursue a head coaching opportunity in lieu of his success at Troy, and held an emotional meeting with the Trojans on Monday afternoon to inform them of his decision.
“I respect his decision; it wasn’t like he abandoned us or left us,” Kessler said. “When he started talking yesterday in the meeting, you could see it in his eyes and his voice that he was beyond crushed.”
The team was likewise dismayed, as several players left the McKay Center in tears, feeding the notion that some of the squad’s players who are eligible for the NFL Draft might be encouraged to leave school early in wake of Orgeron’s withdrawal.
Some of those knee-jerk, dejected emotions seemed to dissipate after a team meeting with Sarkisian later that night. But only time will tell if the new head coach can convince some of the Trojans’ most talented players to don the cardinal and gold for one more season.
“Right now, emotions are high,” said redshirt junior safety Josh Shaw, who said he’s currently leaning toward staying at USC. “Maybe a guy feels like he wants to leave right now. But in two weeks he gets to sit down and talk with Sark and see the new staff, see the new scheme, then he’d probably be encouraged to stay.”
For now, the Trojans are looking forward to participating in a yet-to-be-determined bowl game, in which they’ll be coached by offensive coordinator Clay Helton.
“We’re gonna go out there and do it for ourselves,” Shaw said. “We worked hard this whole season; we’ve been through a lot. It’s another opportunity for us to go out and have a 10-win season, which is a positive for all we’ve been through this year.”
With a permanent head coach in Sarkisian, it seems as though the chaos that has surrounded USC football since the disappointing 7-6 campaign last year might finally be coming to a close.
But the program still has plenty of work to do before it can claim a return to national relevance — a charge Sarkisian hopes he’ll be the one to lead.
“I came here to win championships,” Sarkisian said. “We’re gonna recruit the kids with the desire, the kids with the character that can embrace that [mentality] and want to do something special here.”
Follow Will on Twitter @WillLaws