When Steve Sarkisian left USC to become the head coach at Washington in 2008, he did so facing an uphill climb. Without any head-coaching experience and at an unfamiliar place, he was tasked with turning around a once-proud program that had gone 0-12 the season before.
Moderate improvement was the realistic goal and an accepted expectation -- at least early in his tenure. Five years and four bowl games later, the Huskies are in a better place and Sarkisian is back home, ready to do it all over again at USC.
This time, however, there won't be mixed opinions about how a seven- or eight-win season should be viewed. At USC, that's failure, and Sarkisian knows it.
“We will not shy away from the expectations that USC football embodies, we will embrace them," he said. "I came here to win championships and so did all of our players.”
The Trojans return eight starters apiece on offense and defense from a team that went 10-4 and finished ranked No. 19, but they'll be without five players who left early for the NFL. Those departures will keep USC below 70 scholarship players as it enters the last of a three-year period in which the NCAA capped its scholarship total at 75.
“We’re not worried about who we don’t have on the roster or what our numbers are,” said Sarkisian. “What we do know is we have a roster of very talented football players who are hungry to do well.”
Having taken over a new program once before, Sarkisian is undoubtedly more prepared to begin his reign at Troy.
"You just have a better understanding of what's coming your way," he said. "There's so much going on. Turning on that fire hose and spraying water ... you can get overwhelmed.
"Whatever we're doing, we'll focus on doing that well and then it'll be on to the next thing. You can't try to do it all at once. Focus is much better the second time around; we feel good where we're at."
The Trojans begin spring practice Tuesday with Sarkisian set to place a heavy emphasis on walkthroughs and meetings. That's partially because the new staff needs to implement its schemes, but also because nearly 20 players will be either sidelined or limited throughout the spring due to injury.
With so many players unable to practice, Sarkisian admitted the staff won't get a full gauge of the roster. Regardless, he and his staff are set to begin evaluating on Day 1.
"We're going in with an open mind and a clear slate for every player," he said. "I don't want to go out there with preconceived notions ... rather them show me who they are. That's the mindset."
The biggest question facing the Trojans before their opener against Fresno State on Aug. 30 is at quarterback, where returning starter Cody Kessler will see competition from highly touted redshirt freshman Max Browne and early enrollee Jalen Greene. Sarkisian said the timetable for when a starter is named will depend on what plays out on the field.
"There's no deadline," he said. "When you make a deadline you tend to wait. We don't want to do that. When it feels right, we'll [name the starter]. If it's one, two, three days or into fall ... I don't think it'll be something that'll linger."
The Trojans will have three practices this week, all of which are open to the public. USC will then take a week off for spring break and practice three times a week until the spring game on April 19 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.