The Trojans will kick off Spring Camp next week with new head coach Steve Sarkisian at the helm, and the new head coach of USC football is already implementing sweeping changes to former head coach Lane Kiffin’s formula. Greg Katz of ESPN spoke on some of these changes in an article published online on March 3.
Sarkisian’s biggest change to spring camp is to open practices to the public. Fans will be permitted to view practices from the top of Dedeaux Field. Kiffin closed his practices off to the public, no doubt due in part to public perception and as a part of his strategy. Kiffin then cited the fact that the majority of college football programs in the nation also close their practices. Regardless, the move was seen as very un-USC.
When I first covered practices for USC last spring, I’ll admit it was pretty exciting to wear my press pass to the practices and feel like an undeserving member of an exclusive contingent (which included a couple folks peeping from the ultra-high bleachers at Cromwell Field) to see the Trojans in action.
What was a bit disappointing, however, was Kiffin’s lack of direct involvement with the players. During practices, Kiffin was a non-interventionist leader, letting his defensive line coach, Orgeron, and position coaches do all the talking. He was the quiet mastermind, simultaneously standing in the thick of practices while observing from afar.
I’m going to be honest. When I first heard about how former USC head coach Ed Orgeron was getting along with the players following the departure of former coach Lane Kiffin, my first inclination wasn’t to praise Orgeron for his leadership skills. It was to blame Lane Kiffin for creating a culture that seemed to psychologically imprison his players.
If a leader reveals no passion, if a leader does not bare his humanity, his troops will undoubtedly feel emotionally restricted. It almost seemed as if the players were equal parts relieved to be done with Kiffin and overjoyed to buy in to Orgeron’s optimistic, family-like culture. The two coaches, it seemed, were diametrically opposed in their approaches.
The fact that Orgeron received such an overwhelmingly positive response only shows that change was sorely needed. The Trojans delivered in Kiffin’s absence, with an injury-torn roster somehow eking out a 6-2 finish under Orgeron. If the emotionally intense team that vanquished Stanford showed up to the Washington State game, Lane Kiffin might still have his job — but Kiffin could never get that emotion out of his players.
Sarkisian’s decision to open practices shows that his coaching approach is closer to Orgeron’s than Kiffin’s. Though Katz seems to look at the open practice policy from a public relations standpoint, I think it’s important to note that including viewers adds a different element of energy and accountability to practice. In addition to parents and the media, fans and boosters will be present, holding players at least somewhat accountable for their actions. The overall feel gives practices a heightened feel of performance. And why shouldn’t it, at the best film school in the country?
The move to open up practices also invites a different tier of comparison to Sarkisian: the coaching philosophy of Pete Carroll. The former USC head coach and current head coach of the Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks gave a talk at Bovard Auditorium last week emphasizing the importance of creating an open environment.
“Create a vision, and then put together an environment that fosters success and achievement, accomplishment, support and empowerment,” Carroll said. “[I was] really proud to prove that you can do it [at the professional] level.”
By opening practices to the public, Sarkisian is fostering just this sort of environment. Knowing that the public is watching changes the dynamic of any performance — practices included. And then there’s this: the former Washington head coach and USC quarterbacks coach under Carroll received his former head coach’s blessing.
“From early on, I tried to get the administration here to guarantee [Sarkisian] would be the next coach when I was leaving, because I saw it that early in him,” Carroll said. “I’m just thrilled he has this opportunity because he gets it. He knows what ’SC is all about.”
Sarkisian’s decision to open up practices may seem like a step backward for the Trojans when considering the overall college football landscape. Many people might feel that the open practices were what invited NCAA scrutiny in the first place. But the fact is the Trojans have nothing to hide, and Sarkisian wants the lights bright; he wants the public to see what his team is doing. Because to Sarkisian, strategy and sleights of hand take a backseat to performing, competing and giving 100 percent like the world is always watching — and that’s what being a Trojan is all about.
Euno Lee is a senior majoring in English literature. He is also the Managing Editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Euno What Time it is,” runs Wednesdays.