They fired Lane Kiffin in an airplane hangar, launched an intensive national search and were prepared to pay his replacement $6 million a year. So why did Pat Haden and the USC Trojan Men settle for a coach whose departure from meh/yawn Washington, which wins the Apple Cup but can’t challenge Oregon, is viewed as welcome relief in some Seattle precincts? Jon Gruden, Jack Del Rio, Chris Petersen and Kevin Sumlin were supposedly the glittering candidates, but in the end, Haden did little more than hire Kiffin’s close buddy.
Steve Sarkisian is the latest attempt to rekindle the extinguished flame of Pete Carroll. He and Kiffin ran Carroll’s offense during part of USC’s dynasty run last decade, and in that period, the affable Sarkisian made recruiting inroads and lots of friends in his native southern California. Al Davis even wanted to hire him to coach the Raiders, and when Sarkisian wisely said no, he suggested his BFF Kiffin, who said yes and started his multi-stop professional free-fall. A marquee hire and sexy name, Sarkisian is not. He has much to prove in his new workplace, which shouldn’t be standard procedure in an operation of this magnitude.
Which got me thinking about similar Mount Rushmore programs. if Florida and Texas also rank with USC among college football’s elite, why are they clinging to coaches unworthy of the pedigree?
Everything is ass-backwards. The sport is flush with money, nowhere moreso than in a Pac-12 Conference booming with new facilities and a soaring street cred just behind the Southeastern Conference. Yet USC, despite its Los Angeles address and built-in hype-and-tradition machine, eschewed the established superhire who would have transcended the Coliseum and exploded into a Hollywood/sports happening. Carroll became that neon beast, but while Sarkisian is a protege, he is not the next Carroll in any way — results, swagger or aura. There isn’t a smidgen of show business in his DNA, and in L.A., it’s a must to attract eyeballs amid the myriad entertainment options. It would be cool to call him Sark The Shark, but he doesn’t exactly ooze of charisma. In fact, the only people who really know much about him are USC diehards, most of whom assumed Haden was thinking bigger.
“We are delighted to welcome Steve Sarkisian back to the Trojan Family,” Haden said Monday in a statement. “We conducted a very exhaustive and thorough search, pinpointing about 20 candidates and interviewing five of them. We kept coming back to Sark. He is the only one who was offered the job. I believe in my gut that he is the right coach for USC at this time.”
At least Haden realized Ed Orgeron wasn’t the right man. Taking over as interim head coach after Kiffin’s September ouster, Coach O, as the players called him, became popular in the locker room and on campus by turning gloom to glee and upsetting Stanford. But then came the thud — a blowout loss to Jim Mora Jr. and UCLA — that reminded folks how Orgeron was a washout years ago at Ole Miss and wasn’t going to win championships at USC. When Haden offered to make him assistant head coach with a whopper raise, an angry Orgeron said no and resigned.
The hope is that Sarkisian, 39, used his Washington experience as batting practice for the big show. He was imbued in the Carroll culture, rising to assistant head coach and offensive coordinator in 2007. He worked with Matt Leinart and Carson Palmer, among other quarterbacks, and was 22-3 as offensive coordinator. “He embodies many of the qualities for which we looked,” Haden said. “He is an innovative coach who recruits well and develops players. He is a proven and successful leader. He connects with people. He has energy and passion. He knows how to build a program and create a culture we value. He is committed to academic success and rules compliance. And he understands the heritage and tradition of USC.”
In other words, Sarkisian has many traits that the aloof, doofus-y Kiffin lacked. But that doesn’t mean he’s the answer to the always-pervasive question: Will USC win more national titles?
Florida is in the same gray area. An athletic program committed to producing marquee coaches — Urban Meyer, Steve Spurrier, Billy Donovan in basketball — swung and missed on Will Muschamp. Athletic director Jeremy Foley rushed to hire him when Meyer left, but while a flood of devastating injuries hasn’t helped this season, Muschamp’s paradigm is all wrong: all defense, no offense. In a program accustomed to pinball offenses and major playmakers, the emphasis is wrongly lopsided. Foley has thrown his support behind Muschamp, who fired the offensive coordinator and line coach over the weekend, but the Gators better win big next season. Already, one more year of Muschamp means one more year of setting back the program in a state where Florida State will play for a national championship and Central Florida will play in a BCS game.
Texas, too, has a decision. Mack Brown let the coaching game blur past him, hard to do in America’s wealthiest athletic program. With megadollars coming in from good-old-boy boosters and ESPN, which wants to see returns on its lagging Longhorn Network, there is no excuse for Texas falling out of national prominence since losing the BCS title game almost four years ago. The big-money people tried to pry Brown out of the job last January, after Nick Saban’s agent made contact with them. They politely asked him to consider leaving, but it had to be Brown’s idea, and Mack took a knife to the plan and said he was staying until his contract expires in 2020. This year, Texas stumbled early and recovered but again isn’t anywhere near a BCS bowl, much less the national title hunt. This time, they needn’t show loyalty to Brown. Just pay him off and thank him for one distant championship and Vince Young.
The timing is perfect for a Saban-Texas marriage. If Saban and his wife thought underappreciated while he was winning three national titles in four years, what is he now after being outcoached by Gus Malzahn and losing an all-time thriller to Alabama’s bitter rival? What more can he accomplish in Tuscaloosa? AJ McCarron will be gone, and Auburn has most of its stars back for another SEC run next season. If Saban says the word, the Austin good old boys will throw around $8 million a year at him.
I happen to like a traditional definition atop college football. USC, Florida, Texas — they were the premier programs of the last decade. It’s time they re-introduce themselves to sporting America.
But will they anytime soon?