Jack Del Rio. Kevin Sumlin. Chris Petersen. James Franklin. Nope, nope, nope, and nope.
Those were the names most often mentioned as candidates to be the next coach at Southern California—but none of them is.
Trojans athletic director Pat Haden hired Steve Sarkisian away from Washington Monday and many USC fans are feeling as if they’ve been given a consolation prize. Not quite the home-run hire they were expecting. And Huskies fans didn’t seem too broken up by Sark’s departure.
Maybe it’s because Sarkisian in many ways is so similar to the coach Haden fired in September, five games into this season.
Sarkisian and Lane Kiffin rapidly climbed the coaching ladder together as assistants under Pete Carroll during USC’s not-so-distant glory days. They were offensive whiz kids and buddies who both became head coaches by the time they reached their mid-30s.
As good as the Carroll days were at USC, it’s fair to wonder if the Trojans need to move on. And if Haden wanted a coach who would provide a link to the past, couldn’t he have just kept Ed Orgeron? USC players and plenty of Trojans fans pledged support for the endearing Coach O during his eight-game stint as interim coach.
Instead, Haden brought in Sarkisian, who was 34–29 in five seasons with Washington. This just completed regular season is the first in which Sarkisian has led his team to more than seven wins. After a string of three straight 7–6 seasons, the Huskies are 8-4 heading into the bowl season. It was not exactly the breakthrough that Washington fans had hoped would accompany the opening of newly renovated Husky Stadium at a cost of $280 million.
But a closer look at the resume suggests Sarkisian is being undervalued.
Sarkisian took over a Washington program that was below rock bottom. The Huskies were 0–12 in 2008, the worst of five straight losing seasons. While the Huskies were descending, Oregon was blossoming into one of the elite programs in college football. Chip Kelly was promoted to Ducks head coach the same year Sark was hired by the Huskies. That same year was Jim Harbaugh’s third at Stanford. The Cardinals were on the cusp of becoming a powerhouse.
Sarkisian has been something of a victim of his own early success. Washington went 5–7 in his first season with a memorable upset of USC and Carroll.
The Huskies were 7–5 in Year 2 and by Year 3 they were being pegged as a possible breakout team and Sarkisian as a fast-rising star. Then reality caught up to the Huskies and the rebuild got stuck in neutral.
But make no mistake, the talent level of both the roster and the coaching staff has steadily gone up during Sarkisian’s time in Seattle.
The Huskies this season were a very good team stuck in an excellent conference, the best Pac-12 in recent memory.
In Sarkisian, USC gets a coach who has combined the pro-style offense that has always been the Trojans’ calling card with the fast-pace approach that has become a Pac-12 signature. The native of Los Angeles knows the territory, having already won a fair share of recruiting battles up and down the West Coast.
And while Sarkisian and Kiffin are friends, Sark is no Lane. Where Kiffin could come across as aloof and arrogant, Sarkisian has a lot of laidback California dude in him.
Simply put, at 39 years old Sarkisian seems to be getting better at his job. We’ll see if that’s enough to make USC a champion again, and to make Trojans fans stop longing for Sumlin, Petersen and Franklin.