A few hours after Steve Sarkisian was hired by Southern California, the coach bounded up the steps of the palatial McKay Center and went to work on getting the Trojans back to national title contention.
USC hired Sarkisian away from Washington on Monday, bringing back the former Trojans offensive coordinator to his native Los Angeles area and the storied program where he thrived as Pete Carroll’s assistant. Sarkisian immediately held a 35-minute evening meeting with his new players, easing their next transition in a tumultuous season.
”It’s awesome to be home,” Sarkisian said on USC’s downtown campus while clad in a black Trojans sweatshirt. ”A lot has gone on, but it’s awesome to be back. I’m fired up to be here. … It’s great to be back. It’s great to be part of the Trojan family again. It’s always been a dream of mine to be here.”
Two days after USC’s regular season ended with a 35-14 home loss to crosstown rival UCLA, athletic director Pat Haden replaced interim coach Ed Orgeron with yet another assistant coach from Carroll’s halcyon era at the school.
Orgeron resigned from USC when he wasn’t chosen for the full-time job despite going 6-2 after replacing Lane Kiffin in late September. USC hasn’t made a formal announcement, but players said offensive coordinator Clay Helton will be the interim coach for the Trojans’ bowl game.
The 39-year-old Sarkisian went 34-29 in five seasons at Washington, rebuilding a decimated program into a perennial bowl team with four straight winning seasons. He is the permanent replacement for Kiffin, his former co-offensive coordinator at USC under Carroll.
Sarkisian will be formally introduced at a news conference Tuesday, but he’s already at work on the transition with an evening of meetings.
”Got a lot of work to do in a short amount of time here in the next few days,” he said. ”It’s been obviously an emotional day or so for the players here, for myself and my former team, those kids up in Seattle.”
Haden declined comment on the decision while leaving the meeting, only saying the coach ”hit it off really well with our kids.” In a statement released by USC, the athletic director said he conducted a major search during the regular season, interviewing five coaches for the job.
”We kept coming back to Sark,” Haden said. ”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. He embodies many of the qualities for which we looked. He is an innovative coach who recruits well and develops players. He is a proven and successful leader.”
When Sarkisian formally takes over in late December, he’ll be the Trojans’ fourth head coach in less than three months – but his ties to USC run deep. He briefly played baseball at USC before going to BYU as a quarterback, and he served three stints as an assistant coach with the Trojans before Washington called.
”Hopefully this time I don’t have to leave again to come back again,” Sarkisian said with a laugh. ”Hopefully the fifth time is the charm.”
Sarkisian is a Torrance native who has been an impressive recruiter in California, luring dozens of talented players to Seattle from high schools within a short drive of USC’s campus. During Monday’s team meeting, when Sarkisian asked which players he had recruited for either the Trojans or Huskies, more than half the room raised its hand.
”He recognized all of us,” said USC offensive lineman Kevin Graf, who was recruited by Sarkisian. ”He did a good job letting us know it’s going to be a family again. That’s important to him.”
Sarkisian takes over one of college football’s crown jewel programs, a five-time AP national champion with a lengthy history of national prominence. He also inherits a roster stocked with solid talent by Kiffin and Orgeron, yet still laboring under the last of NCAA sanctions stemming from violations during Carroll’s era.
Next season is USC’s last year of scholarship limitations, keeping the Trojans with just 75 scholarship players on their roster – 10 fewer than other schools.
Freshman Max Browne, the top recruit in Kiffin’s last class, is a native of the Seattle suburbs. He was offered a scholarship at Washington by Sarkisian 3 1/2 years ago.
”I think guys walked out of the meeting with a positive vibe and ready to go to work,” Browne said. ”It’s something we’ve kind of got used to, the roller coaster we’ve been going through. Whoever is leading us, we’ll get behind him.”
Many USC players went online to post mixed feelings about the move.
”Words can’t explain how I’m feeling right now….just lost a father. Way more than a coach,” tweeted USC defensive lineman Leonard Williams, who was named to the all-Pac-12 first team Monday. Orgeron recruited Williams out of his native Florida.
”I’m on board Sark was very close to getting me to come with him to U Dub,” USC freshman tailback Justin Davis tweeted.
Orgeron turned himself into a candidate for the full-time job with an impressive revitalization of a program that had grown dour and stale when Haden fired Kiffin, who went 28-15, at the airport five games into the season. Orgeron’s tenure was highlighted by the Trojans’ stunning victory over No. 5 Stanford last month, but his groundswell of support for the full-time job dissipated last weekend when UCLA trounced USC. The Trojans also lost to rival Notre Dame under Orgeron, but won every other game.
Orgeron said farewell to his players in an emotional team meeting earlier in the day.
”I’ve known Coach O since I was 4 years old, and I’ve never seen Coach O cry before,” Graf said. ”It’s hard hearing (fans) yell that if we had won the UCLA game, he would still be here. That’s hard as players.”
Haden said he spoke to Orgeron about remaining at USC in some capacity, but Orgeron said he wants to be a head coach.
In a school statement, Orgeron thanked ”all the Trojan players and family members who have become close personal friends during my 11 years at USC. I am especially proud of this year’s team and coaching staff, who had to start a new season and then bonded, played together as a family and competed like Trojans.”
Haden bypassed Orgeron to poach a coach from a Pac-12 rival, although USC and Washington won’t play again until 2015. Sarkisian was in the middle of a contract that runs through 2015, and Washington will be paid $1.5 million to buy out the deal.
Denver Broncos assistant coach Jack Del Rio interviewed for the job at his alma mater, and USC was thought to be interested in Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin, Vanderbilt’s James Franklin and Boise State’s Chris Petersen. Instead, Haden went with another contributor to USC’s glorious recent past.
Sarkisian was on Carroll’s staff as the quarterbacks coach for USC’s national title in 2003. He left for one season with the Oakland Raiders while the Trojans won another title in 2004, but returned for the next four years at USC.
Sarkisian played a major role in the Trojans’ development of a string of standout quarterbacks, coaching Heisman Trophy winners Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart along with Mark Sanchez, John David Booty and Matt Cassel.
Sarkisian likely realizes he won’t win over all of his new players immediately, given their strong feelings for Orgeron. Other young players are already looking forward to a new beginning after a circus of a season.
”I say let’s kill the negativity, because this is a fresh start,” said USC offensive lineman Zach Banner, another Seattle-area product. ”We’ve got to be positive. I always dreamed about playing for Coach Sark, so I respect him. We’ve got a good man.”