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The challenge USC's Steve Sarkisian faces on the field -- and off of it

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Trojans players back Sarkisian

USC quarterback Cody Kessler and linebacker Su'a Cravens address the media to show their support of head coach Steve Sarkisian.

If on Dec. 5, USC coach Steve Sarkisian descends into the bowels of Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, with the Pac-12 championship trophy, you already know exactly what he'll say to his team.

He'll say, "Fight the [bleep] on!" And his team will erupt with euphoria and bark the same thing back at him.

Yes, he will bellow the very phrase that humiliated him and his proud program since an intoxicated Sarkisian stumbled and slurred his way through a "Salute to Troy" booster event on Saturday night.

Winning is vindication in college football. Heck, in most things in our society. We talk fondly of process, but results are the ultimate measure.

If USC beats Stanford Sept. 19 to start 3-0, Trojans fans won't be fretting this incident. The glow of winning will relegate it to the shadows. That's why through all the apology and mea culpa and humility Sarkisian went through Tuesday morning in a carefully managed press conference, the thing he said that matters most to USC adherents was a mildly delivered boast.

"I truly believe in myself as a coach to lead this team, to be the best coach for this team to win a championship," Sarkisian said.

As it was, Sarkisian was contrite, stricken, humbled. He said all the right things. But Sarkisian has always been good in front of the media. Only he knows what is truly stirring inside.

Does he have an alcohol problem? Sarkisian said he didn't believe he did but that "I'm going to find out." He noted that his condition Saturday was aggravated by combining alcohol with a medication he wouldn't disclose. He said he will undergo treatment and not drink this season. He also added that alcohol will be banned from the postgame coaches' locker room.

He said he met with his team and it was receptive to him. He said he believes he can still be the Trojans' leader, demanding a level of discipline he has publicly fallen short of with his own conduct.

As in many things in our social-media age, the degree of sympathy and mocking of Sarkisian generated by this incident is agenda-driven. Fans who don't like Sarkisian are gleeful with I-told-you-sos. Someone who might counter that Sarkisian is going through a publicly announced divorce, unquestionably a stressful time, would be met by the not-unfair observation that the sorts of poor choices that led to his conduct Saturday could have been a contributing factor.

Not to do the ol' "Back in the day..." but, back in the day, coaches and athletes and other public figures could get away with making fools of themselves due to drinking. The news business was different, and so was the available technology for casual and happenstance observers. But that's no excuse for Sarkisian, who, at 41, is too young to plead ignorance and too old to be acting like he's in a fraternity.

Sarkisian has never suffered a true career setback. He spent one year at El Camino College before being hired at USC. When a season with the Oakland Raiders wasn't to his liking, he landed softly back at USC in 2005, displacing his former mentor Norm Chow to run one of the most talented offenses in college football history. Washington hired Sarkisian as its head coach in 2008, and when things were stagnating in Seattle, USC athletic director Pat Haden swooped in and brought him back to Heritage Hall in 2013 to replace his pal Lane Kiffin.

This, however, is a true crisis. If USC is perceived to underachieve this season, this incident will be foregrounded. Here's a guess: Sarkisian is well aware the screws are tightening.

So USC fans should take heart in that. Their team should get the most single-minded focus Sarkisian can muster this season. He needs to prove he is the "best coach for this team to win a championship." For winning is the only thing that will repair the good will he has eroded as he enters only his second season at USC.