- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- By the time USC head coach Steve Sarkisian hit the big Four-Oh, he had earned two national championship rings as a Trojans assistant and pulled Washington football out of the ditch. Five years ago, the guy everyone calls Sark took over an 0-12 program in Seattle. The Huskies went 8-4 last season before USC called Sarkisian to come back.
Sarkisian won 34 games in Seattle. That's 15 more victories than John McKay won before he turned 40, not to mention 34 more than John Robinson and Pete Carroll won before they did.
McKay, Robinson and Carroll are the last three head coaches to lead USC to a national championship, and yes, that is the ultimate measuring stick for Trojan football. All of which is to say that if ever Sark was a boy wonder, he is no more.
If you ask Sark how he handled turning 40, which he did March 8, he laughs long and loudly and says, "Not very good."
And then, standing in the middle of Howard Jones/Brian Kennedy Field after practice one day last week, Sarkisian said what everyone at USC wants to hear: "I didn't change. I haven't changed. I'm having a blast out here."
He is older and the stakes are higher. USC hired Sarkisian not only because he brings the desired connection to the Carroll Era, but because he is every bit the people person that his predecessor and close friend, Lane Kiffin, is not.
The day before, Sarkisian wowed 1,200 Trojan boosters in Orange County. He likes people, and people like him, and if Sark hasn't changed, he represents a big change in Trojan football.
"Those people matter," he said of the boosters. "... You go into a room to speak, you go shake all their hands, because this university wouldn't be what it is without everybody. We're a private institution. We're essentially funded by donations."
He listed the new John McKay Center, the gutted and refurbished Heritage Hall, the new building in the School of Communications and the new swim stadium.
"I'd be wrong not to go and thank them for the next thing we might ask for," Sark said, and then he smiled. "We want to redo the Coliseum."
When USC signed a 98-year lease for the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum last year, the university promised the city of Los Angeles that it would spend $70 million in the next decade. That will pay for cosmetic surgery, not the reconstructive work that the 91-year-old grande dame needs.
USC didn't hire Sark to be a fundraiser, but the football program has a long history of football coaches interacting with alums. If McKay, Robinson and Carroll blanched at the thought of schmoozing 1,200 Trojans over lunch, they kept it to themselves.
But the biggest group that Sark won over may have been the players. They loved playing for Ed Orgeron, another former Carroll assistant who went 6-2 as interim coach last season. They wanted him to get the job. But they quickly bought into Sarkisian. Like Kiffin and Orgeron, said junior center Max Tuerk, Sarkisian has "the mindset of, get better every day. Trojan football obviously has a ton of tradition. We're really trying to bring back the tradition to be a great football team."
Sark has installed his up-tempo offense, an interesting decision on a team hamstrung by NCAA scholarship penalties.
"The tempo is definitely something a lot of us haven't seen before but we're really getting used to it. I really like it right now," Tuerk said. "... Definitely, you get a lot more fatigued quickly, so it's a lot of mental toughness. You got to prepare yourself mentally for the next play. Your legs start getting a little bit sore when you start drive blocking guys. Honestly, it's a big mental game."
Nothing his new players have done has impressed Sarkisian more than their mental game.
"What I appreciate about them, when I challenge them with something ... they make it a point to really apply themselves to fix the issues we think we have," Sarkisian said. "That to me is the sign of a team that has a high football IQ, has a great deal of willingness and is really mature. I think this team is mature. They're a mentally tough group. Maybe part of that is what they had to endure the last couple of seasons."
USC's numbers are down and its players are young. Somehow, measured by a coach's yardstick, they are mature.
"But they've played a lot," Sarkisian said. "They've all played a lot of football."
The belief that USC football is back to where it wants to be is an accepted part of preseason buildup among the alumni. Sarkisian's arrival has flushed the toxins of the Kiffin Era out of the Trojan system. The new coach is an optimist by nature. He believes in his heart that life begins at 40.