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LOS ANGELES -- When Steve Sarkisian and Lane Kiffin coached together at USC they developed a nickname during their time leading the Trojans' offense.
Sarkisian was the assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach. Kiffin was the offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach. Together they helped guide USC's offense when Pete Carroll and Norm Chow parted company after the 2005 season. Carroll knew his two young protégés would soon be coaching teams of their own. Sarkisian and Kiffin talked about it all the time and they have remained tight over the years.
When the Oakland Raiders called Sarkisian in 2007 to offer him the head-coaching job, Sarkisian turned them down but suggested Kiffin to Raiders owner Al Davis. When the Tennessee Titans sued Kiffin over his hiring of Kennedy Pola in 2010, Sarkisian took a picture of the headline "Titans Sue Kiffin" scrolling in Times Square and jokingly texted it to his friend. When Kiffin made his first on-camera appearance after being fired at USC, he did it from Washington's campus after spending the weekend with Sarkisian.
Sarkisian's relationship with Kiffin shouldn't be a knock against him, of course, but in hiring Sarkisian USC appears to stay curiously close to the path the program was on under the coach it fired in September.
Hiring the next head football coach at USC was athletic director Pat Haden's first chance to set a tone and begin an era of his own design. He inherited Kiffin from his predecessor, Mike Garrett, and turned to Ed Orgeron in a pinch after firing Kiffin. This was his chance to set a new course.
Instead, Haden went with what feels like a safe pick, a comfortable pick. He went with a coach he knew and a coach who knew USC, it's true. He went with a coach who is familiar with the football talent in Southern California and one who has proved himself an able recruiter, both in his time at USC and with the University of Washington. But he didn't go with a coach who would genuinely shake up the program, who would come into the situation with a fresh perspective or with the clout to truly overhaul a program that has struggled to define itself, and has struggled to win, in the post-Carroll years. In a moment that called for a bold stroke he chose what feels like a gentle tap.
Landing a big-name coach with a stellar résumé (like Jon Gruden or Chris Petersen) or an energizing coach with a high ceiling (like James Franklin at Vanderbilt) would have put the Pac-12 on notice that USC is serious about reclaiming a spot atop the conference. More importantly, it would have made a splash with the players and fans, signaling a commitment to do whatever it takes to win.
Sarkisian has had success at Washington, helping to restore a program that suffered an 0-12 season in 2008. But his record at Washington was 34-29 and just 24-21 in the conference. His lone bowl win came in the 2010 Holiday Bowl. Washington has lost in the Alamo and Maaco bowls the past two seasons. He was 5-7 in his first season, followed by three 7-6 seasons. He finished this season 8-4 after beating Oregon State and Washington State. Solid. But this moment at USC, with the team finally approaching the end of the impact of NCAA sanctions against the program, called for something spectacular. It called for a statement.
Sarkisian isn't Kiffin. He'll be more charismatic with the media than Kiffin was and more welcoming to boosters and alumni than Kiffin was. He will work tirelessly and with a sense of appreciation for the history of the program. He gets it. But that may not be enough.
Ed Orgeron's popularity with players and fans had a lot to do with him doing the exact opposite of everything Kiffin had done when he took over. He knew a culture change was needed.
The question now is, can an old friend of Kiffin's understand that Orgeron's changes must be only the beginning of a complete USC overhaul.