LOS ANGELES – Steve Sarkisian has always had a nice sense of timing.
He had it when he was 28: Thanks to a recommendation from Norm Chow, he convinced Pete Carroll to hire him as an assistant coach. His previous coaching experience was limited to El Camino College in his hometown of Torrance, Calif.
He had it when he was 32: After interviewing with eccentric Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, he turned down an offer to leap to the NFL. Davis turned around and offered the job to another one of Carroll’s young offensive assistants, Lane Kiffin, who proceeded to go 5-15 amid endless dysfunction before getting fired four games into the 2008 season.
Now, at 39, Sarkisian is once again bumping up against Kiffin’s career and, once again, finding himself in a more favorable situation. He has accepted the job of being the USC Trojans’ next head coach. For one thing, Kiffin was so disliked by USC fans near the end of his tenure that Sarkisian’s easy smile and outgoing ways will charm them instantly. For another, USC is just emerging from the rubble of massive NCAA penalties, with the scholarship limits ending after February’s recruiting class.
In 2015, USC will finally enter a season with a full recruiting class and no roster restrictions.
If he can weather the first year or two, Sarkisian is poised to be the man who woke a sleeping giant. But the job is not without its challenges. Let’s take a look at some items on Sarkisian’s to-do list:
1. Weather the storm
According to ESPN’s reporting, interim coach Ed Orgeron declined an offer to stay on at USC in an assistant’s role and was “outraged” that athletic director Pat Haden chose to hire Sarkisian. That could make for some tricky work as Sarkisian tries to hold together USC’s recruiting class while, ideally, adding some players he had recruited at Washington.
Though it’s still early, USC’s current recruiting class wasn’t ranked in the top 40 by ESPN’s recruiting experts. Neither was Washington’s. Several of the Trojans’ top targets are scheduled for official visits the weekend of Dec. 14. Some of those players will have committed to the program, but others will have committed to Orgeron, a well-regarded recruiter, so Sarkisian will have to either change their mind or find other players to replace them. There are only two months left until national signing day.
2. Have a vision
When Sarkisian took over Washington, the Huskies were coming off an 0-12 season and Sarkisian was following Ty Willingham, who was 11-37 coaching there. So the fact that Sarkisian’s Washington teams were barely better than mediocre -- he went 34-29 -- doesn’t mean he can’t get things going in a positive direction. On the other hand, if he really had been generating momentum, you would have expected better than seasons of 7-6, 7-6 and 8-4 (along with two bowl losses) in his last three seasons.
Sarkisian is scheduled to meet with the media along with Haden Tuesday afternoon. One thing Carroll could always do was articulate his philosophy. Sarkisian is a much more articulate speaker than Kiffin, who often made football coaching sound as if it were simply a matter of manipulating pieces on a board. From his awkward opening news conference forward, he never seemed like a guy with a grand vision for the program.
Carroll’s teams fit the city and the campus, as well as the stereotypes of both. His teams were fun to watch because they had flair, but mostly because they were good. Sarkisian could restore some of the Hollywood traits, though it's a different era, with the NCAA still watching intently.
3. Assemble a strong staff
One of the reasons USC football began slipping, even while Carroll was still in charge, was that it was losing so many good assistant coaches. Chow went to the Tennessee Titans. Orgeron went to be the head coach at Mississippi. Both Kiffin and Sarkisian moved on.
It’s believed Sarkisian will have practically all the money he needs to hire assistant coaches. He should keep some of the current coaches. The defense, with largely the same personnel, seemed far more dynamic under first-year coordinator Clancy Pendergast than it had under Monte Kiffin. Receivers coach Tee Martin seems to be a young coach on the rise. If Sarkisian decides to keep a special-teams coach, John Baxter is regarded as an innovator, though his units struggled Saturday against UCLA.
Even if Sarkisian decides to call plays next season, he should consider bringing in a respected offensive coach to create some creative tension. Jeff Tedford isn’t working these days and, once the NFL firing season begins, neither will a lot of other talented football coaches. Sarkisian should have plenty of good football minds to choose from and he would be well-served to call around rather than to make hires based on loyalty and connections.
4. Name Max Browne the starter
Considering how bad the Trojans quarterbacks looked at the start of the season, it’s a credit to Kiffin that he was able to resist taking the redshirt off talented young quarterback Max Browne. Eventually, Cody Kessler began running the offense efficiently, but he was exposed in the UCLA game for his limited mobility and average arm. He’s a solid game manager and leader, but he doesn’t seem like the QB to take USC to the next level. Browne, 6-foot-5, 215 pounds and a top-20 recruit entering 2013, has the tools to be that guy. Sarkisian's reputation is built largely on working with quarterbacks, so if he believes in Browne he might as well build the program around the player most likely to give it long-term success.
5. Beat UCLA and Notre Dame
If Orgeron had managed to do that -– or, maybe, beat just one -– it’s quite likely none of this would be happening.