USC: Pat Haden

Odd week finally yields to football

August, 28, 2014
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Is anybody else ready for some football?

After one of the strangest weeks in the history of USC football, the Trojans get to put the focus back on the field Saturday, and kickoff can’t come soon enough.

The first hiccup of the week came last Saturday night when USC athletics director Pat Haden was unable to attend the annual “Salute to Troy” kickoff event on campus. The word given to the crowd that night was that Haden was dealing with family issues, but that everything was fine. As it turned out, Haden was actually in the hospital, and it was the second time in two days that he was there.

[+] EnlargeShaw
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsIt doesn't seem likely that Josh Shaw will be playing for USC anytime soon.
No reason has been given for why Haden was hospitalized, but he was back in the office this week, just in time to deal with the ups-and-downs of the Josh Shaw situation. The hero who wasn’t, a genuinely strange drama that still hasn’t been fully explained and might never be. What we know right now is that Shaw was suspended indefinitely by USC after admitting he lied about the original story, which combined with the ankle injuries means that he won’t be lining up for the Trojans anytime soon. In his post-practice media comments on Thursday, Sarkisian did leave the door open for a potential return for Shaw, but he gave no parameters for how or when that could happen.

Sarkisian also dealt with another off-field distraction in that Thursday media session when he responded to comments made by former USC defensive back/running back Anthony Brown, who quit the team this week but not before firing off comments in social media, calling Sarkisian a racist. Brown isn’t a name familiar to many fans outside of the USC program; he made a couple starts at corner early in his career before injuries really slowed him. Brown had requested a move to tailback this year, which Sarkisian granted, and brought a speed element. He could have found a role, but something obviously went wrong from his perspective in regard to his relationship with the head coach. Sarkisian refuted Brown’s comments and many players -- past and present -- immediately came to Sarkisian’s defense and spoke out against the remarks from their former teammate.

What does all this mean to the mindset of the team as they prepare for the season opener? After all, this was supposed to be a period of new beginnings for the Trojans. The NCAA sanctions basically a thing of the past, a talented roster capable of moving forward under their new coach, one who spent the offseason charming boosters and recruits with equal success. It would be easy to look at the distractions and think they would be an issue, but the guess here is that they will have very little impact, if any.

The most tangible impact will be the loss of Shaw on the field. You don’t just snap your fingers and replace a veteran senior who is one of the best cornerbacks in the nation, one who was just elected a team captain, no matter how talented the players are who will be stepping in. But in terms of the drama influencing the emotion, preparation or focus of the team, I just don’t see it happening. The players have been waiting too long for this. The 2013 season showed this group that they can persevere through four coaching changes and still come out with 10 wins, so what happened this past week isn’t anything they can’t handle.

Four-year promise good PR move for USC

June, 23, 2014
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Lawyers get busted on plenty. Rightfully so. They often make a living out of complicating the simple. The best lawyers elevate disingenuousness to an art form.

Yet litigation and opportunistic lawyers are forcing the NCAA -- read: college football and men's basketball -- to grow up. In the presently pitched courtroom battle of the disingenuous known as the O'Bannon v. NCAA antitrust class action lawsuit, the NCAA's already tattered credibility is hemorrhaging, and that is good news for young athletes and folks who appreciate gestures aimed at advancing toward equity and fairness in games that have long graduated from amateur to big business.

[+] EnlargePat Haden
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsUSC AD Pat Haden says moving to four-year scholarships for football and basketball will help 'refocus on student-athlete welfare.'
Take USC, which on Monday announced that it will now offer "four-year athletic scholarships to all scholarship student-athletes in the revenue sports of football and men's and women's basketball in lieu of the current practice of offering one-year renewable scholarships."

"In taking this action, USC hopes to help lead the effort to refocus on student-athlete welfare on and off the field," athletic director Pat Haden said in a statement.

First of all, we should not get carried away with this decision, which will be effective July 1. While this is unquestionably a positive move and a benefit for revenue sports athletes at USC, it's also mostly about being proactive and getting some good publicity, not institutional sacrifice.

For one, most schools, including USC, haven't been ruthlessly Machiavellian about the one-year deals. If an athlete signs, stays out of trouble and is positive in the locker room, it's rare for a school to cut him or her loose just because he or she falls short of athletic expectations.

Sure, some coaches get creative with practices that amount to cutting players. More than a few of those "injury retirements" are mutual separations between athlete and team that allow said athlete to remain on full scholarship as a student. Sure, a coach is more likely to dismiss a 20-year-old sophomore bench warmer after a citation as a minor in possession of a beer than he is a star who gets hauled off to jail for a more serious offense. And, sure, a new coach sometimes makes a few statement cuts after his first spring practices to send a message about there being a new sheriff in town.

But, really, those one-year scholarships have been typically treated as four-year agreements.

Moreover, a four-year scholarship doesn't exempt an athlete from academic and behavioral standards. Know that star players will continue to be favored with more protection than marginal contributors, whatever the scholarship papers say.

Still, this is a savvy move by Haden and USC. The Trojans' athletic department will get a headline that celebrates it for fighting the good fight, for making the life of a student-athlete at USC just a little bit better, a little more secure. When you cut to the chase, that really has been what all this ominous talk -- in some quarters -- about unionizing and pay-for-play has been about: Giving athletes a better deal.

Haden, a former star QB at USC as well as a Rhodes Scholar who made big bucks in the private sector, has long been an advocate of giving athletes a better deal, though he also is adamant that it can be done without athletes unionizing and receiving salaries. As the Big Five conferences -- Pac-12, SEC, ACC, Big Ten and Big 12 -- take irrevocable steps toward more autonomy, expect to see more individual institutions look to set their own rules. These new rules, by the way, will be about finding a competitive edge as much as nobility of purpose.

For example, while USC doesn't recruit many athletes who worry about being cut or the length of their scholarship term, it is one more selling point Steve Sarkisian can bring into an athlete's living room. It's fair to assume that more than a few mommies and daddies will like the idea of a four-year promise over a one-year one.

USC isn't alone. Northwestern administrators quickly responded on Twitter on Monday that the Wildcats have been doing four-year deals since 2012 for all sports. Kudos.

The question now is whether four-year scholarships become a rule or, at least, a popular standard, or if you see a diversity of approaches among institutions in the Big Five conferences.

USC's political imprisonment ends Tuesday

June, 9, 2014
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video

USC officially will be done with NCAA sanctions on Tuesday, so the Los Angeles Times published a package this weekend looking back and projecting forward, talking to -- or getting turned down for interviews by -- some of the key players in the most egregious miscarriage of justice in the history of NCAA enforcement.

It's not inaccurate to say the NCAA's indefensible and farcical ruling against USC football is a notable part of the organization humiliating and entirely justified downward momentum over the past four or so years, both in terms of public perception and in the courtroom, as well as the movement for autonomy among the Big Five conferences.

The NCAA is incapable of fairly and consistently policing its member organizations. That's as good a reason as any to diminish its power.

From the Times:
As many of you know, I've ranted and raved about the USC case numerous times through the years -- such as this and this and this. While some have implied that the source of my strong feelings on the matter emerges from some sort of USC/Pac-12 bias, that's simply inaccurate. It's always been about facts and fairness. Truth is, it's been a pretty easy argument to win -- over and over again.

That said: This feels like a great week for the Pac-12 blog. I am weary of the whole mess. Too often it disturbed my typical Zen-like equilibrium.

USC has spent the last four years getting justifiably mad. The Trojans best course going forward is to get even.

Neutral site or home host for title game?

May, 9, 2014
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One of the major items of interest coming out of this week's Pac-12 meetings in Phoenix was the possibility of moving the Pac-12 championship game to a neutral site -- specifically the San Francisco 49ers' new home, Levi's Stadium, in Santa Clara, California.

A neutral site would take the pressure off the host institution to prepare for a major event in just six days. It would provide a showcase game in a major population area in a shiny new venue. It would have the potential to become a major event.

That said, it also could feature a lot of empty seats, as the Pac-12 is spread out more than, say, the SEC or Big 12, which use a neutral sites for their championship games. Empty seats do not look good on television.

SportsNation

Do you favor moving the Pac-12 title game to a neutral site or retaining the current home-host model?

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Discuss (Total votes: 4,200)

It also would go against the original justification for the home-host model: It provided an advantage to the team that had the best regular season in the conference. That not only seemed reasonable, and by extension, it also provided protection for the conference's No. 1 seed as it jockeyed for postseason position. That might be even more important with the advent of the College Football Playoff this fall.

Jon Wilner provides some cogent analysis here.

Pac-12 coaches and athletic directors seemed intrigued but also skeptical about moving the game to a neutral site, particularly for teams that had short-term visions of hosting the game.

Said USC athletic director Pat Haden: "I think the current model has actually worked pretty well, the home host. I know the CEOs are debating that and discussing that. I don't think any decision has been made. Quite honestly, at USC, we don't mind the home-host model because we think we've got a chance of hosting."

Still, a packed house at sparkling new Levi's Stadium on Dec. 5 would be a pretty compelling image to showcase the nation.

So what do you think?

Do you favor the home-host model or moving the Pac-12 title game to a neutral site?

Video: USC AD Pat Haden

May, 8, 2014
May 8
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USC athletic director Pat Haden talks about Pac-12 meetings and the College Football Playoff.

Pac-12 spring meetings: Day 2 recap

May, 7, 2014
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PHOENIX -- The overriding message coming out of Pac-12 meetings is that major changes in college football governance are now inevitable, even if the details and long-term consequences of those changes remain unclear.

The Big Five conferences will meet in August and almost certainly obtain a new autonomy level within the NCAA structure. At that point, major rules changes, including those that significantly bolster the support and benefits provided to athletes, will start to be formulated. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott intimated that things could move fairly quickly thereafter, so his message to conference coaches and athletic directors was basically to buckle up.

"Quickly is a relative concept, but deadlines are good," Scott said. "I think if we get the autonomy that we've asked for, the commissioners will be setting out a very aggressive timetable to put proposals out ... I expect we'll have a very intensive process over the next four months -- September through December -- where practitioners from our campuses are working on different agendas, including those with a deadline of January, specific proposals that can be voted upon by the 65 schools [in the Big Five]."

So "quickly" might mean?

"The goal is to implement whatever changes we're going to implement for the 2015-16 year," Scott said.

Chief among those would be cost of attendance scholarships, which could vary significantly by team and conference. Scott, however, noted that doesn't create a massive change of direction and complication because the pure value of tuition scholarships also vary by team and conference.

What does need to be implemented to prevent any fudging is a clear formula that all 65 schools apply to calculate the new value of their cost of attendance scholarships.

"I don't think it will that big of a deal, but there will be issues to work through in terms of a common method of determining the full cost," Scott said.

There is a significant degree of consensus within the Big Five conferences for adopting the cost of attendance scholarships, and it appears there is unanimity within the Pac-12.

"These are a lot of things that are going to be costly for us but I think are necessary and in line with what I believe we should be doing for our student-athletes," said Washington State athletic director Bill Moos, echoing other conference ADs.

While Scott was unwilling to admit that the Northwestern football union challenge and Ed O'Bannon lawsuit against the NCAA were driving the oncoming changes, he did concede the legal challenges to the NCAA governance structure and the publicity surrounding them weren't too far from administrators' minds.

"Is it some of these external challenges driving it? I would say no. There's been a recognition for some time [about these issues]," Scott said. "But I'd say external pressures bring a helpful focus and helpful push to get these things done."

[+] EnlargeLevi's Stadium
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezLevi's Stadium, the new home of the San Francisco 49ers, could be the new home of the Pac-12 championship game as well.
As for the other major item on the Pac-12 agenda, it was more based on the West Coast: The location of the 2014 Pac-12 championship game. There were earnest discussions over the two days about changing it from a game hosted by the conference's top team to a neutral site, specifically the San Francisco 49ers' new home, Levi's Stadium, in Santa Clara, California.

While the potential move was an intriguing idea, it also isn't a done deal.

"I think there was a lot of positive feeling about it," Scott said. "Some objected. There are some pros and cons."

Said Moos: "Personally, I think [Levi's Stadium] is the way to go."

Said USC athletic director Pat Haden: "I think the current model has actually worked pretty well, the home host. I know the CEOs are debating that and discussing that. I don't think any decision has been made. Quite honestly, at USC, we don't mind the home-host model because we think we've got a chance of hosting."

Shrugged Washington's Scott Woodward: "I'm ambivalent. I trust the league and what they want to do. I have no problem one way or the other."

If the title game is going to be played in the new 49ers stadium on Dec. 5, a decision almost certainly would be announced in June, when the Pac-12 presidents meet.

"If we are going to make the move, it wouldn't be later than that," Scott said.

So it appears that the summer, once a quiet time for college football news, will be anything but that this year.

Pac-12 lunch links

April, 24, 2014
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7's the key number here. Think about it. 7-Elevens. 7 dwarves. 7, man, that's the number. 7 chipmunks twirlin' on a branch, eatin' lots of sunflowers on my uncle's ranch. You know that old children's tale from the sea. It's like you're dreamin' about Gorgonzola cheese when it's clearly Brie time, baby. Step into my office.

Find some time for the defense

March, 12, 2014
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The first practice was on speed dial. The tempo was frenetic. The energy was palpable.

The Steve Sarkisian Era opened in a blur with the new head coach happily immersed in the middle of his revolutionary -- for USC, at least -- no-huddle offense, calling the plays, communicating with his quarterbacks and carefully positioning his running backs and receivers.

It was a happy, upbeat afternoon full of unbridled hope and surging optimism.

And while this is not meant to deflate anything that is just starting out and beginning to build, if Sarkisian wants to succeed where his predecessor failed, he needs to understand one major facet of the job that Lane Kiffin never grasped.

He needs to spend at least a portion of his practice time with the defense.

Granted, it was just one practice, but the truth is he didn’t do much of that on Tuesday. He is an offense-oriented coach, and it is understandable. His priority is on that side of the ball. Moreover, he trusts the talented new coordinator he brought with him from Washington, Justin Wilcox, to take care of the defense.

But to many of those USC fans who suffered through the Kiffin regime, that tendency is more than a little scary. They watched Kiffin spend all his time at practice with the offense, rarely, if ever, wandering down to observe a defensive drill. They saw him during games staring at his now infamous play card, even while his team was desperately trying to stop an opposing offense. They would see him talking to a quarterback or a wideout but never to a linebacker or safety.

Whatever else you thought of him, there was no denying that Kiffin was a one-dimensional coach.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsSteve Sarkisian talks with USC quarterback Cody Kessler at practice.
Sarkisian must be careful not to fall into that same trap.

The great Trojan coaches of the past never did. John McKay was famous for developing Tailback U, but the rock-solid foundation of his teams was always a ferocious defense. Mike Garrett, O.J. Simpson, Anthony Davis and Co. were electrifying, but so was The Wild Bunch.

It was the same with John Robinson, who preached a strong, power-running game while making sure there were guys like Ronnie Lott, Chip Banks and Joey Browner to attend to the less-glamorous side.

And then, of course, there was Pete Carroll, who was a defensive guy first and foremost, although he did manage to recruit plenty of athletes like Matt Leinart, Mike Williams and Reggie Bush to light up scoreboards around the country.

The point is, the coaches who have been overwhelmingly successful in college football are those who have taken equal interest in offense and defense.

Now, this is not to say Sarkisian won’t do that. Maybe he will. But as a noted offensive guru and, like Kiffin, a coach who refuses to give up the play-calling duties, it definitely is more difficult. You naturally become more attached to that facet of the job.

Based on his time in Washington, the evidence is that Sarkisian definitely has room for improvement in that area. In his first couple of seasons with the Huskies, while the team’s offense and overall record were better, the defense was deplorable. In 2011, Washington finished 105th or lower nationally in scoring defense, pass defense and total defense.

Once he brought in Wilcox, those numbers changed dramatically. By 2013, Washington was in the top 35 in scoring defense and 11th in pass defense.

But while Sarkisian seems to have found the right defensive coordinator, he also has to show he is not just there to delegate on defense. Make no mistake, the players will know.

One of the main reasons Ed Orgeron was so warmly embraced in his time as interim head coach a year ago is that the kids saw how involved he was on both sides of the ball. When Dion Bailey or Devon Kennard made a big, rally-killing play on defense, Orgeron wasn’t standing 10 yards down the sideline studying his next play-calling options. He was right there, cheering and enthusiastically slapping them on the backs.

Again, it is way too early to predict precisely what kind of coach Sarkisian will be for the Trojans. And one practice is far too soon to evaluate his methods.

But the warning signs are there, and if he’s as smart as Pat Haden, J.K. McKay and others seem to think he is, Sarkisian will not only be aware of them, he will do something about them.

Remember, Sark, in your rush to become the next great coach at USC, the mantra is really simple:

Defense matters.

Season wrap: USC

January, 15, 2014
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The big news for USC's 2013 campaign wasn't the season itself but the firing of coach Lane Kiffin. That, however, also was the transformative moment of the season, as the Trojans bounced back from a dispiriting 3-2 start to finish 10-4 and rank 19th, rallying under interim coach Ed Orgeron.

The Trojans went 6-2 under Orgeron, but his hopes for earning the full-time job were likely dashed by two losses to Notre Dame and UCLA, USC's two chief rivals.

The second big news for the Trojans was the hiring of Steve Sarkisian away from Washington, which received a mixed reaction. But that points toward the future. Our concern is the 2013 season.

You can read our graded review of USC here.

Offensive MVP: The Trojans' offense struggled much of the season, ranking ninth in the conference with 29.7 points per game, but its most consistent weapon was receiver Nelson Agholor. With Marqise Lee in and out of the lineup with injuries, it was Agholor, a sophomore, who led the Trojans with 918 yards receiving and six touchdowns. His 16.4 yards per reception also was tops among the team's receivers. Further, he led the conference and ranked second in the nation with a 19.1-yard average on punt returns, which included two returns for touchdowns.

Defensive MVP: Defensive end Leonard Williams became one of the nation's best defensive linemen as a true sophomore. He ranked second on the Trojans with 74 tackles, including 13.5 tackles for a loss and six sacks. He also had four quarterback hurries and two forced fumbles and was named a first-team All-American by ESPN.com and third-team by the Associated Press. He is almost certain to be a 2014 preseason All-American.

Best moment: No. 4 Stanford had rallied from a 10-point first-half deficit to tie the score at 17-17, and it had the ball with more than three minutes remaining on its 40-yard line. There was plenty of time to drive for the winning field goal, but Stanford QB Kevin Hogan threw his second fourth-quarter interception to Su'a Cravens at the USC 44. The Trojans then got a 47-yard field goal from Andre Heidari, who had struggled for much of 2013, with just 19 seconds left to notch the upset, and recorded the fourth and best win of what would become a five-game winning streak under Orgeron.

Worst moment: While the 10-7 loss at home to Washington State was horrible -- the Trojans had just 193 total yards -- and was the beginning of the end for Kiffin, the 62-41 loss at Arizona State was the defeat that ended his tenure. Athletic director Pat Haden was so dismayed with the white-flag performance -- the Trojans gave up 612 yards -- that he fired Kiffin at LAX in the early morning hours of the next day. Of course, that low moment seems to spur the season's transformation so some may see Kiffin's firing as a good thing.

Mailbag: More Sankey-Carey kerfuffle

December, 17, 2013
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Postseason awards and All-America teams are a hot, and always controversial, topic this week.

Chris in Lake Stevens, Wash. writes: (Ka'Deem) Carey over (Bishop) Sankey? Are you an idiot or an Arizona grad? Sankey had more yards, more TDs and a better YPC. You've lost all credibility as far as I'm concerned.

Kevin Gemmell: Really? All credibility? Idiot? For picking a first-team All-American, a Doak Walker finalist, a guy who finished ahead of Sankey in the Heisman voting and the offensive player of the year as selected by the coaches?

Guess the coaches are idiots as well.

I’m happy to re-open the debate (and I will below). But your note smacks of uneducated fanaticism.

Chris L in Memphis writes: In making his case on East Coast bias, Ted wrote this: "Arizona RB Ka'Deem Carey is the nation's best running back." Please make the case as to how Carey is even the best back in his conference.

Kevin Gemmell: I’d be happy to, Chris. And thanks for your letter. I know this particular Chris to be an extremely educated Washington fan -- the kind that makes Washington fans look good.

First off, as I stated in last week’s mailbag, I thought Ted’s East Coast bias column was one of the strongest pieces I’ve ever read from him.

Obviously, the Sankey vs. Carey debate will rage for years. And it should. It’s fun to debate the merits, of which there are many, of two fantastic players. Washington fans will always back Sankey -- which is right. And Arizona fans will always back Carey -- which is also right. There's just a right way and a wrong way to do it (cough, cough, Chris in Lake Stevens). Because both are outstanding running backs with the physical build and skill sets to be successful running backs at the next level.

Sankey had more total yards and more touchdowns. Carey had more yards per game and 10 fewer zero or negative rushing plays (Sankey had 45, Carey 35). We won’t get into the debate of playing time because I know Sankey sat the second half of some games and Carey missed a game, etc. etc. Carey had more carries because his team didn’t have the passing attack that Washington did. The Huskies averaged 271.3 yards through the air per game with 24 touchdowns. Arizona had just 186.8 passing yards per game with 14 touchdowns. Washington leaned heavily on Sankey, but I think we can all agree that Arizona leaned more heavily on Carey.

The little separation that exists in my mind is because of Carey’s consistency. I broke this down in a column earlier this month and essentially Carey did his best work -- more than 20 yards above his average -- against the top competition.

Sankey and Carey had six games this year that involved common opponents: Oregon, ASU, California, Colorado, UCLA and Washington State. In those games Sankey averaged 144 yards with eight total touchdowns. Against the same competition, Carey rushed for 152.5 yards with 11 touchdowns.

Sankey was outstanding. But his overall season takes a hit from the ASU game (13 carries, 22 yards) and, yes, the fact that Carey’s team beat Oregon and he was a huge reason why has to weigh in.

Again, this is a Fujis vs. Honey Crisp discussion. But when you look at overall consistency -- essentially zero bad statistical games for Carey -- the fact that he did better against head-to-head competition and that he was at his best against tougher defenses, I think that justifies making a case for him as the best back in the league.

Weston in Costa Mesa, Calif. writes: Hello Kevin, I was curious to know what your view is on the state of USC football going into the next few seasons. Where does the program go if Sark doesn’t work out and is he in the hot seat right away if he doesn’t deliver in the first year (by deliver I mean anything less than an 8 win season).ThanksWestonps. I’m a Stanford fan living in a USC ruled area and everybody is talking about this.

Kevin Gemmell: This is sort of a two-parter. The first part, the state of USC football over the next few seasons, is essentially asking what do I think Steve Sarkisian can do for the program. The second part is if he doesn’t succeed, how quick will he get the hook.

I can’t imagine that if he only wins seven games in his first year that Pat Haden would put him on the hot seat. Haden showed an amazing amount of patience with Lane Kiffin and gave him the opportunity to right the ship in 2013. When it was clear the ship wasn’t being righted, he made his move.

This was a high-profile hire for USC and for Haden. A lot of eyes will be on this decision for the next few years. And my best bet is that Haden is going to do everything possible to convince people he got his guy.

As for how they’ll do? Well, there are some really, really talented players on both sides of the ball. And it was pretty clear that the Trojans underachieved with Kiffin as their head coach because they clearly had the talent to rip off five in a row and beat the No. 4 team in the country in Stanford.

We’ve said this before … USC is a brand. It is always going to attract high-profile recruits simply because it’s USC. You combine that with a bulldog of a recruiter in Sarkisian and you have to expect the Trojans will be just fine.

The question is what happens once he does get those elite athletes into the program. How does he develop the talent? How does he handle the X’s and O’s? He did an amazing job of bringing Washington back to respectability. But he never got them into the elite class. Perhaps with a few more years in Seattle he would have? We’ll never know. But that certainly plants a lingering question about what he can do at USC.

I think given the way the South sets up for the next few years, USC could certainly win it. Or ASU could repeat. Or UCLA could win its third division in four years. Or Arizona could make a run when their potential All-Universe scout team starts playing in games.

The South is so wide open right now that there really isn’t one clear-cut team that is a favorite. And I think USC has to be considered in that mix. The Trojans could win the South next year. Or they could finish fourth in the division.

I’m willing to give Sark and Haden the benefit of the doubt that they can get USC moving in the right direction. Sark might not be the biggest name nationally, but he has the pedigree that fits very well with the culture in Southern California.

Peter in Washington writes: Did you intentionally leave off the second common opponent between BYU and UW? Both teams played FCS Idaho State year as well as Boise State.

Kevin Gemmell: The simple answer would have been yes, it was intentional, because Idaho State is an FCS team and it wasn’t worth mentioning. But truth be told, I just missed it. So thanks for keeping me honest. And in the interest of getting all of the information out there, Washington beat Idaho State 56-0 on Sept. 21. BYU beat the Bengals 59-13 on Nov. 16.

Mike in Boston writes: I thought I'd give you a heads up that you came in fifth in the Cardboard's (an independently run Stanford fan community) "Predict the Score" game for predicting Stanford's game outcomes. We entered the predicted scores from your weekly post on Pac-12 games. Note, Miller sits all the way down at No. 15.

Kevin Gemmell: Awesome! Had no idea you guys were doing that. Since I finished 10 spots ahead of Ted, I think it’s fair that the next 10 rounds of non-alcoholic eggnog are on him.

Sun Devil Ric in San Diego writes: I thought I understood the politics of trophies and All-American teams, but I guess I'm still clueless. Why did ASJ win the Mackey award, but isn't named on a single All-American team yet?

Kevin Gemmell: You understand them? Really? Please share. Because I've been at this a long time and I still don't know.

Tight end was a deep position this year. And ASJ did get named third-team AA in the AP All-American team. Like every single postseason award, there is a level of subjectivity that is tough to comprehend because it's different for everyone. I wish I could climb into the minds of the voters and give you a clear-cut explanation for why things are the way they are when it comes to postseason awards. But I can't.

All I can say is I think the Mackey folks got it right.

Ryan in New York writes: Kevin, Great work by you and your partner Miller on the ESPN.com AA team. I think the Pac was well represented, and that's testimony to you and Ted spreading the good word and fighting the good fight. Well done. Happy HolidaysRC

Kevin Gemmell: Back atcha Ryan. There will never be a perfect postseason list. And I would have liked to see Anthony Barr on our list also. But the fact that Barr appears on others, as does Trent Murphy, shows just how deep and talented the Pac-12 was this season.

Looking forward to another year of why UCLA is overrated mailbag drops from you. But for now, enjoy the bowl season and the holiday season.

That goes for the rest of you, too. (Yes, Chris in Lake Stevens, even you).

Sark vs. Pete -- the epic debate begins 

December, 9, 2013
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LOS ANGELES -- If you’re a USC fan, you’ve already heard the news that Washington has hired highly successful former Boise State head coach Chris Petersen as its new head football coach, replacing the departed Steve Sarkisian, who left the Emerald City for the bright lights and glitter of the USC Trojans.

Of course, what makes this all the more tantalizing is the fact that the Trojans did make contact with Petersen regarding its coaching opening. As history has unfolded, USC athletic director Pat Haden decided that Sarkisian was a better fit for the Trojans, which opens the door for even further scrutiny of Haden’s decision down the line.

Sarkisian might be Haden’s answer for the future, a good coach with great recruiting skills and a dynamic personality. Although Sarkisian’s overall record at UW was just above average at 34-29, he did an admirable job resurrecting a Huskies program that was 0-12 the season before he arrived in 2009.

Stuck in the powerful Pac-12 North Division, which features powerhouses Oregon and Stanford, Sarkisian was up against it. For the past four seasons, the Huskies finished with a 5-4 conference record, which doesn’t get you to a BCS bowl and would give you a pink slip at USC faster than you can say Tommy Trojan.

Trojans, Sarkisian trying to forge ahead 

December, 5, 2013
12/05/13
11:00
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LOS ANGELES -- The voice at the other end of the phone was new USC head football coach Steve Sarkisian. He was encouraging fans to get excited about the future and what he hopes to bring to the program.

Hand it to the USC marketing department, it doesn’t miss a trick, as thousands of Trojans football fans heard from USC’s 23rd head coach in a mass voicemail blitz shortly after Sarkisian was hired. The words were inspiring, enthusiastic, and the message was clear: The Men of Troy are about to embark on a new era.

With his hiring, the Sarkisian popularity campaign is now in full throttle. It was preceded with Tuesday’s coronation and highly orchestrated press conference, which began with more Ed Orgeron damage control in the opulent John McKay Center.


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Sarkisian's to-do list

December, 2, 2013
12/02/13
4:44
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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.

[+] EnlargeEd Orgeron and Steve Sarkisian
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/USA TODAY SportsNew USC head coach Steve Sarkisian will start swimming in rough waters after interim coach Ed Orgeron, left, resigned after being passed over for the job.
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.

Assistants hoping for permanent ride 

November, 21, 2013
11/21/13
10:30
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LOS ANGELES -- While a majority of the attention is focused on USC’s astounding football turnaround -- specifically the audition and future of interim head coach Ed Orgeron -- almost lost in translation has been the performance and future of the Trojans assistant coaches.

There are nine assistants whose livelihoods and potential family relocations might be at stake, pending the outcomes of the Colorado and UCLA games. It’s a tenuous position, as Trojans athletic director Pat Haden will soon make the difficult decision on the next USC head football coach, which will affect some, if not all, of the current assistants.

Be assured that Haden has empathy for Orgeron, his assistants, and their limbo status, as this coaching staff attempts to finish the regular season in spectacular fashion and state their case for further employment at USC.


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Orgeron makes Haden's search complicated

November, 18, 2013
11/18/13
3:30
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We could try to quantify how much better USC is under Ed Orgeron the past six games compared to Lane Kiffin during the season's first five, but that really is pretty easy. We don't need numbers. We need only three words:

Everything is better.

USC is less sloppy. It's more disciplined. It's protecting the football. USC is playing better offense. It's even playing better defense, if you consider the schedule. It's better on special teams.

[+] EnlargeOrgeron
AP Photo/Don RyanUnder interim coach Ed Orgeron, the Trojans are 5-1. USC faces Colorado on Saturday.
The epidemic injuries that were once an excuse for poor play are now further grounds to give credit to Orgeron and his staff for finding a way to get it done under adverse circumstances.

Obviously, USC is playing with far more passion. And you can't undersell this: Its players are having way more fun.

"We absolutely love him," USC quarterback Cody Kessler said after the 20-17 win over Stanford. "We'd run through a brick wall for him. He has that look in his eye that you can tell that when he talks to you he really does care. I gave him a hug after the game, and I don't know if he'd want me saying this, but I saw his eyes water up. It's awesome when you play with someone who has that same passion."

How can you dispute or diminish that? You can't.

But the question then becomes: Is that enough to hire him to be the next USC head coach? That is, reportedly, the $6 million question.

When you look at how USC is playing and the Trojans' 5-1 record since Orgeron took over, it's impossible to not give his candidacy legitimacy. Further, that already strong résumé will become measurably stronger if the Trojans win out, which would include a victory over highly ranked rival UCLA, and they would thereby finish the regular season with a 10-3 record and a high national ranking.

At that point, Orgeron would own the locker room and probably have significant momentum with the Trojans' fan base. That would make it difficult for athletic director Pat Haden not to hire him.

The expectation when Orgeron took over for Kiffin after a humiliating 62-41 loss at Arizona State was the Trojans would play better because the season-long hot-seat talk surrounding Kiffin would be over, thereby allowing players to breathe easier and play looser. That improved play, however, wasn't expected to include a 5-1 record and a win over Stanford, ending a four-game losing streak in the series.

In fact, the Pac-12 blog's expectation was the "Hire Coach O!" talk would end with losses to Stanford and UCLA. The Pac-12 blog was wrong, at least so far. Further, when the Pac-12 blog conceived of writing this column about USC's improvement under Orgeron, it expected to, after giving Coach O a tip of the cap, recommend against hiring him, no matter how the now seemingly charmed season ended.

Yet, after further review, there is not enough evidence to overturn the ruling in the stands and the locker room, at least if USC wins out and wins its bowl game.

The only advice the Pac-12 blog has for Haden, though, is this: Don't allow the emotions of the moment to overrule your long-term vision for this coaching hire. A serious evaluation of Orgeron should begin now, if it hasn't already, and there are myriad considerations besides his popularity among the players.

One doesn't have to look far for examples of internal promotions producing great results: Chris Petersen taking over for Dan Hawkins at Boise State, Chip Kelly taking over for Mike Bellotti at Oregon and David Shaw taking over for Jim Harbaugh at Stanford. Although those three programs were already successful, you could make the case that USC's circumstances are similar because, well, it's USC.

The next USC coach isn't rebuilding a program. His job is to maximize the potential of a college football superpower, one that no longer will be yoked with NCAA sanctions after the 2014 recruiting class. Orgeron just might be able to do that.

Of course, we also have precedents that suggest that promoting from within or hiring an interim coach because of his initial success and support of the locker room doesn't always yield long-term success.

Larry Coker took over in Miami after Butch Davis bolted and won a national title in his first season. He went 35-3 his first three seasons, in fact, losing the national title game in Year 2 and winning the Orange Bowl in Year 3. But then things went south and, after a 7-6 season in 2006, he was fired. Coker was a strong short-term answer but not one for the long term.

As interim coach after Rich Rodriguez left for Michigan, Bill Stewart led West Virginia to a stunning upset of No. 3 Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. But after three consecutive 9-4 seasons and an off-the-field controversy, he was pushed aside in favor of his head-coach-in-waiting, Dana Holgorsen.

We know what great college head coaches look like: Urban Meyer and Nick Saban top the list. I'd throw in Bill Snyder at Kansas State. But after them, there are no sure things. Petersen is not a sure thing because he has never been a head coach in an automatic-qualifying conference. Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin has an impressive recent track record, but that track record in an AQ conference is only two years and includes one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in college football history.

The NFL guys such as Jon Gruden, Jeff Fisher and Jack Del Rio? Not sure things by a long shot.

So the risk of hiring Orgeron isn't that much greater. Sure, he went a dismal 10-25 at Ole Miss, but his thus-far-successful audition running the USC program provides a strong counter to that. He's not only learned from his mistakes; he's also coaching in an environment he knows how to navigate. It's also noteworthy that he's clearly motivated his assistant coaches to care about and focus on their present jobs instead of giving USC 60 percent while the other 40 percent pining about their future employment.

The apparent formula for an Orgeron administration would go like this: He plays the CEO and lets his coaches coach, which means Clay Helton runs the offense, Clancy Pendergast runs the defense and John Baxter runs the special teams. Orgeron leans on his strengths: motivation, chemistry, emotions and recruiting.

The big question would then be whether Orgeron can be consistently and obsessively detail-oriented as all good head coaches are. Can he maintain discipline and run a tight ship? Will he lead a recruiting effort based on insightful evaluation rather than star rating? Can he skillfully handle all the off-the-field responsibilities that head coaches deal with?

My guess is that Haden immediately realized after the Stanford game -- and not before -- that Orgeron deserved at least a raised eyebrow. Haden will be practically forced to make a more thorough evaluation of Orgeron if the Trojans beat UCLA.

"When you have a father figure like Coach O treating us all like sons and putting us under his arm, we want to run through a brick wall for him," linebacker Hayes Pullard said. "One team, one heartbeat, we wanted to carry that over. We wanted to show him that we are with him no matter what."

That's inspiring and meaningful. But there's more to being a head coach than getting your players to run through brick walls.

At this point, however, Orgeron is not only getting his guys to run through those brick walls, he's also getting them to hit the wall in the correct place and use good technique while doing so.

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