Sarkisian’s first task: Building faith, trust in locker room

LOS ANGELES — In the wake of his emotional, unceremonious departure from the USC campus, outgoing interim head coach Ed Orgeron’s presence continued to be felt throughout the McKay Center.

While USC athletic director Pat Haden introduced his new head coach Steve Sarkisian on Tuesday, he couldn’t help but pay homage to Orgeron as he appeared to get choked up.

“A special thank you to Ed Orgeron — one of the greatest Trojans of them all,” Haden said.

The job done by Orgeron, who led the Trojans to a 6-2 record after taking over for fired coach Lane Kiffin in September, was not lost on the new head of the program either. As Sarkisian — a former USC assistant who left to become head coach at Washington five years ago — returned to Southern California, there was something he carried with him in his new job that he learned from Orgeron.

“We are not rebuilding at the University of Southern California,” Sarkisian said.

“Rebuilding is not a word around here. Coach O proved that to us that we can win right now.

“We all owe Coach O a great deal of gratitude as he left this program in a better place than where it was before.” 

Never mind that the Trojans have a defensive rotation consisting of 13 players, scholarship limitations and injury issues. Those are all part of the process. Excuses weren’t given under Orgeron’s watch, nor were they tolerated.

Sarkisian took note.

As a member of a staff at USC under then-head coach Pete Carroll that had one of the most impressive runs in NCAA football history, Sarkisian knows well the role he’s inheriting.
A 7-6 season is enough to make the USC faithful cringe. Sarkisian had three of those in his five years as the head coach at Washington.

At USC, he understands the standard for the Cardinal & Gold is national championships, with Rose Bowls as a legit consolation.

Unprovoked, he stated his expectations as USC’s new leader.

“We will not shy away from the expectations here,” Sarkisian said. “We’re going to embrace them. We’re here to win championships.”

The Trojans head coach is still months away from running his first practice on his new job.
Before he can make any inroads toward winning any championships, he has to do some emotional damage control.

The current players on the USC roster have been taken on an emotional roller coaster ride over the last two-plus months.

Including Sarkisian, the program will have had four head coaches since September if you include “interim interim” head coach Clay Helton, who will coach the team in its bowl game.

Watching Orgeron walk out of the door for the final time on Monday afternoon took an emotional toll on the team. To many of the players the Trojans, former interim coach was a father figure.

“The mood around here (Monday) was kind of like you lost a close family member,” said safety Josh Shaw, recalling Orgeron’s final meeting on Monday.

When he arrived on campus Monday night, Sarkisian immediately began taking steps toward winning over a team that is emotionally drained by conducting a team meeting centered around “building the faith and trust” for the team.

About 10 minutes into Sarkisian’s first meeting with the team on Monday night, he asked Haden and the other dignitaries to leave the room. It was just he and his new players.
He had a point he wanted to get across.

“He took off his suit (jacket) and put on a USC sweatshirt and was like, ‘I’m home. I want you guys to know I’m home,'” USC quarterback Cody Kessler said. “I’m very happy that happened. After the Coach O meeting emotions were everywhere. It was crazy. Guys were freaking out.

“For Coach Sark to walk in and face this thing head on and attack it right away like he did and settle everybody down was awesome.”

That was Step 1 of many more to come as Sarkisian reacclimates himself to being back home at USC and the players adjust to another head coach.