The opportunity to select a new coach for a high-profile program like USC is an important moment that doesn’t come along often.
Ever since Trojans athletic director Pat Haden fired Lane Kiffin earlier this season, there has been a lot of talk about the need to make a “home-run” hire or, as Haden put it recently, someone who could lead the program for the next 10-15 years.
There were a lot of names tossed around -- from Jon Gruden to Jack Del Rio to Kevin Sumlin and Chris Petersen -- all coaches who brought legitimate credentials to the table. At one point, Steve Sarkisian was on that list of names mentioned, but his candidacy seemed to fade with a mid-season losing streak at Washington while, at the same time, USC interim coach Ed Orgeron’s candidacy was rising as the Trojans put together a five-game winning streak that included an emotional win at the Coliseum over then No. 4-ranked Stanford.
In the aftermath of the USC loss to UCLA last weekend there was an avalanche of rumors that centered around Petersen and James Franklin but not a mention of Sarkisian. That could be one reason why the announcement today of Sarkisian as the next USC coach has hit in such a surprising fashion.
Make no mistake about it, this choice is a controversial one for many USC fans. Those questioning the hire will point to his overall 34-29 record in five seasons with the Huskies and the fact that he never won as many conference games in a season as Orgeron did this season -- six.
The comparisons to the popular Orgeron are going to be there and it’s part of the reason for the mixed reaction today for Sarkisian. What Orgeron did at USC was unique, and he carved out a special place in the hearts of Trojans fans everywhere. Haden and Co. surely knew that reaction would be coming by choosing a different direction. But a closer look at Sarkisian's background and coaching style indicates that there is plenty of substance to the hire.
One area where I think Sarkisian will shine is his temperament and the way he deals with players, alumni and the media. He trained both as a player and a coach under Norm Chow -- which is about as good as it gets if you want to learn offensive football -- and he was at USC as an assistant during a glory period of dominant football. He knows the Southern California recruiting landscape and made it a priority area during his time with the Huskies. And the fact that he had head coaching experience in the Pac-12 was another important factor for Haden.
It will be important to watch which assistants Sarkisian brings with him from Washington. The UW athletic department had stepped up in recent years with big money contracts for defensive assistants such as Justin Wilcox, Tosh Lupoi and Keith Heyward, and when you factor in the news that Orgeron tendered his resignation to USC, it would make sense that Sarkisian would be looking to move his staff with him to USC.
There’s no doubt there is an element of “rolling the dice” for Haden with this hire, and judging by the reaction from USC fans on the WeAreSC message boards today the dice are not coming up in Haden's or Sarkisian's favor at the moment. But also remember that Sarkisian has yet to hold a single press conference, hasn’t coached a practice or a game and hasn’t signed a single recruit. As those things start to take place, the Trojan family is going to see that there is a lot to like about Sarkisian, it just remains to be seen if there is enough to like to make him the “10-15 year guy” that Haden talked about. Only time will tell.