- Ramona Shelburne, ESPN.com
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The clip sounds bad when you play it back now. Steve Sarkisian, in a previously scheduled radio appearance Monday morning with KJR in Seattle, is asked whether a breaking news story that he's interviewed with USC is accurate. Sarkisian deflects as best he can, saying that he had a conversation with USC, but wouldn't call it an interview, then goes on to say how much he loves coaching at Washington and downplays the seriousness of USC's interest.
An hour later he accepted the job as the new head coach of the Trojans. So yeah, not the most graceful exit.
It's hard to know exactly where the negotiations with USC and Washington stood at exactly that moment, but it's not hard to imagine that Sarkisian may have been in the final stages of negotiating with USC on the framework of a new contract, and figuring out his $1.5 million buyout with the Huskies.
What if the deal had collapsed or hit a snag? What if Washington had come back with a counteroffer at that moment that compelled him to stay? He wouldn't have been able to take any of what he said back. So instead he deflected and chose self-interest over full disclosure. Would it have been better if he'd simply come clean and said all that? Sure. Honesty and transparency are always admirable qualities in a leader. But since when did we start expecting that from head football coaches?
If anything, being media savvy and ethically nimble are positive traits for a football coach. The job requires that you project different images to different groups of people. Recruits need to see and hear from one guy, boosters from another. Players want to hear passion, the media wants to see poise. Sometimes a coach needs to close ranks and protect his players publicly, other times he needs to bare his soul. There are five hats a head football coach has to wear in a day and six costume changes. That's the job.
UCLA coach Jim Mora is about to navigate a slope similar to Sarkisian's. In the next 24-48 hours he'll have to decide whether to stay in Westwood or perhaps leave L.A. for the Huskies job Sarkisian just vacated. If he leaves, you can bet the video of his stirring postgame speech to his team Saturday night after UCLA's win over USC at the Coliseum will be replayed over and over.
"It's an exciting time to be a UCLA Bruin. You want to play for a fun, tough, hard-nosed football team that can go and win games everywhere, come to UCLA," he said.
To some, he will seem disingenuous. Just the next college coach who chose himself over the school he's led for the past few years. The latest example of a coach who didn't really mean what he'd been selling.
Sure, folks will mention that Mora is from Washington and has always pined after the Huskies job. The memorable clip of him calling into KJR in 2006 and saying that if the Washington job ever opened up, "you'll find me at the friggin' head of the line with my resume in my hand ready to take that job."
The comments cost him his job with the Atlanta Falcons, and Mora has since said he was joking when he made them.
But we all know how this narrative will go. If Mora leaves, he becomes the guy who used UCLA to build up his brand and put himself in position to land his dream job. If Mora stays at UCLA -- and by now you can bet he and his agent have already drawn up a list of demands UCLA needs to meet to try to keep him -- he's the guy who leveraged the Washington job for a bigger payday at UCLA.
Neither of these narratives is entirely true, though. They both are. Can't a coach be both self-interested and a great leader of a group of men? Shouldn't he be? If anything, denying that college football is a business is more disingenuous than pretending it isn't. Why can't Mora have been absolutely genuine in his postgame comments Saturday night, and also leave for Washington within 72 hours? Isn't it possible that he really, truly loves being at UCLA, and really, truly loves the idea of coaching at his alma mater? And for some of the same reasons it's possible that Sarkisian really loved being the coach at Washington but still left the Huskies to return to his hometown?
That's not that hard to understand, right? If anything, you'd wonder about a guy who wasn't conflicted by a choice like that, wouldn't you?
And what about Ed Orgeron? Last week he was ready to pledge lifelong allegiance to USC. On Monday, he resigned when he was passed up for the job. Does that make him any less loyal? Absolutely not. It makes him more real.
For some reason we seem to understand Orgeron's plight better than Sarkisian's or Mora's. He's the guy who was wronged, of course he's entitled to stand up for himself. He should.
Really, though, it's all the same thing. A reminder that the job is still a job. A well-paying, high-pressure, all-consuming sort of job, but still a job.
And part of what makes a man good at that job is being able to say and do whatever needs to be done to get it.
Like Steve Sarkisian, Jim Mora now faces a decision about where he wants to do what he does best.