Forget emotions, Steve Sarkisian, USC just need to beat Washington


It’s the ultimate break-up line: “It’s not you, it’s me.” It’s the rhetorical turn that’s supposed to grease the escape hatch, one that provides dignity to the spurned and thereby allows the rejecting party to ennoble itself.

So it seems notable -- ironic, perhaps -- that both Steve Sarkisian, who broke up with Washington after the 2013 season to marry USC, and Chris Petersen, who concurrently flirted with the Trojans before breaking up with Boise State and soul-mating (mid-life crisis-ing?) with the Huskies, are using a derivation of the phrase to diminish the obvious media angle for their meeting Thursday.

Is it a distraction that Sarkisian will lead the Trojans against his former team? Nope, the coaches say.

“I’m a firm believer that it’s about us, about focusing on us,” Sarkisian said. “You have to practice what you preach. Everybody understands that I was the head coach at University of Washington for five years, but that doesn’t make me want to win more Thursday night. Shoot, I want to win every game.”

Petersen, who endured and fought off a similar line of inquiry in advance of the Huskies' opener at Boise State, said, “Our focus is always on ourselves.”

It’s not about them. It’s about us. And so it should be. Neither of these teams, who are dealing with much different levels of expectation, can afford to focus on a fan/media angle that won’t block or tackle or win a 50-50 battle over a thrown ball. The rugged Pac-12 doesn’t offer much support to navel gazers.

Further, with the game at USC and not in Seattle, where there are decidedly mixed sentiments over Sarkisian’s tenure, the potential for emotion-fueled heckling bubbling over from the stands and then flowing through the players and suffusing the game itself is far less.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t considerable stakes on the table other than this being a conference game that USC can’t afford to lose. Emotions won’t matter but coaching will, and Sarkisian's reputation will be front and center. If the Trojans are well-coached in this game, they win. Simple as that. They are far more talented arguably at all but one or two starting positions. They have a senior, three-year starter at quarterback in Cody Kessler, who is a Heisman Trophy candidate matched against true freshman Jake Browning, who is making his first road Pac-12 start.

A little over half of the players on the Huskies' depth chart were recruited by Sarkisian. Five members of the Trojans' staff worked for Sarkisian at Washington. There will be significant familiarity between the Trojans' coaches and the Huskies' players. There will be some emotions that are different than in a typical game, though it’s unlikely either party will use colorful terms to express either affection or dislike.

It’s likely some Huskies feel Sarkisian abandoned them. They might feel varying degrees of ill-will. Some will see Sarkisian leaving for USC as a business decision. They, too, will have personal interpretations of the situation. It’s certain some veteran Huskies preferred Sarkisian’s style -- “looser” is probably the most general way to describe it -- to Petersen’s, while others believe Petersen’s style is superior.

Petersen, with consistent diplomacy, admitted on a regular basis last year there were some growing pains as players tried to adjust to his style; talented but mercurial cornerback Marcus Peters was a most obvious example when he got kicked off the team in November. Petersen called it “a different way of doing things,” though he always qualified himself by saying his different didn’t automatically mean “better,” though it is not unreasonable to interpret it that way.

Emotions felt by Huskies eyeballing Sarkisian on the opposite sideline will not have much bearing on the game itself, on who wins and who loses. If Washington notches an upset, it might get set up that way, and a few players might go along with that storyline because it scratches a superficial itch, but the residual emotions from Sarkisian leaving are too thin after nearly two years to fuel a magical performance.

Many Huskies fans don’t view Sarkisian warmly. They describe his tenure as starting well then plateauing at mediocrity, marked with unfulfilled promise. They see the best wins reduced by inexplicable losses. They see talent wasted. Some have adopted the “seven-win Steve” insult they used to fight off from rival fans. More than a few eagerly jumped in with their own tales and rumors of Sarkisian partying after he embarrassed himself at a preseason USC booster event with intoxicated behavior.

That Sarkisian took over a rudderless program that went winless in 2008 and then went a respectable 34-29 under him doesn’t matter. They see Sarkisian’s and the Trojans' struggles, on and off the field, this year and last, as confirmation of his lack of that special coaching touch, that eye for detail and discipline that great coaches have.

Of course, Sarkisian doesn’t see his Washington tenure that way.

“When you think about what we were able to accomplish when we got there -- a program that essentially hadn’t won a game in almost two years, hadn’t been to a bowl game in nearly 10 years. To think that we went to four consecutive bowl games,” he said. “Did I want to win more games? Yeah, of course. Are there games that I would love to have back? Of course ... but I’m proud of the fact that the program was in a better position the day we left than the day we got there.”

Petersen's team is at least a year away from being nationally relevant, but he can gain some traction with Huskies fans by giving validation to their feelings on Sarkisian with an upset win.

Sarkisian doesn't have any leeway. He needs to win, Thursday and over and over again, this year and the next and the next if he intends to remain the Trojans' leader. A part of him certainly will register the symbolic value if he wins Thursday, but he would then quickly turn his thoughts to a visit to Notre Dame on Oct. 17.

A loss? It would be freighted with so much symbolic as well as tangible devaluing of him that it would entirely background his tangled feelings over his old team and become only about pure survival.