- Steve Bisheff, WeAreSC.com
There they were, sitting together for an ESPN SportsCenter interview the other day, Steve Sarkisian and Chris Petersen.
The new head coach at USC, and the coach who might have been. The former head coach at the University of Washington, and the coach who arrived in Seattle as soon as the other passed him on the way out.
Appearing there side-by-side on television seemed so appropriate, considering they will be inexorably linked for the rest of this fascinating transition season, for the season after that and probably for the remainder of their college coaching future. Their unique career paths literally dictate the constant comparison.
"Sark" and "Coach Pete." Which school got the better deal? Which one improves and which one regresses with this sudden job switch at two schools that have, at different times, dominated a conference suddenly loaded with big-name coaches?
Sarkisian was hired by USC Athletic Director Pat Haden, but Petersen interviewed for the Trojans job before he signed with Washington. Details of how this all played out remain hazy, with some claiming Petersen never could have acclimated to the megalopolis that is Los Angeles, and others whispering that he might have had the likely higher-paying job if he hadn't insisted on handpicking everyone he wanted to come with him.
The "couldas" and "wouldas" in this scenario are almost too juicy to dismiss.
Sarkisian was a safe, non-controversial choice by Haden. A former Pete Carroll assistant, he seemed more prepared and, certainly, more personable than his infamous predecessor, Lane Kiffin. Still, "Sark" didn't overwhelm anybody in his five years at Washington. He clearly elevated the program after an 0-12 disaster in 2008, but he never finished higher than third in the Pac-12 North. And in his last four years, he went 7-6, 7-6, 7-6 and 8-4 (he didn't coach in the bowl game the team won).
Petersen, on the other hand, has a résumé so glowing you almost need shades to read it.
He went 92-12 at Boise State, turning the tiny, previously unknown Idaho school into a legitimate national power. Four times his group, full of guys nobody in the big conferences wanted, finished in the AP's Top 10. He won two BCS bowl games and five conference titles and, along the way, beat up on such noted heavyweights as Oklahoma, Oregon, Virginia Tech and Georgia.
There are plenty of Trojans boosters who are comfortable with the choice of Sarkisian, "an SC guy," as they like to say. Someone who will be terrific at all those alumni cocktail parties and is more than familiar with prowling the fertile recruiting grounds of Southern California high schools.
But there are also others who compare the credentials of these two guys and shake their heads in wonder. To them, it is as if USC had a shot at the coaching equivalent of Andrew Luck and wound up, instead, opting for Jay Cutler.
A recent NFL.com survey rated Petersen as the second best coach in all of college football, behind only Alabama's Nick Saban. An earlier piece on an Athlon internet site ranked Petersen, who has yet to coach a Pac-12 game, the second best coach in the conference. Stanford's David Shaw was first. Sarkisian? He was an embarrassingly low eighth.
None of that will mean anything once the 2014 games start, of course. But it was interesting watching the two of them go about their business of trying to impress people at the Pac-12 media sessions this past week in Hollywood (Oh yes, for the sake of Commissioner Larry Scott, we can't forget to mention the supposedly glitzy Paramount Studios site, even if the only people media members saw on the less than glittering back lots were maintenance workers.)
Sarkisian came off as humble and optimistic, refusing to use the final shred of NCAA sanctions that limit his roster to 67 scholarship players as any kind of excuse heading into the season.
"We'll have to see how much depth we have," he said. "I think we have enough." He seemed to think his practice strategy will make a difference. "We had one season-ending injury last year at Washington," he said. "SC had 19."
The slimmer, more intense Petersen said he realizes the competition in the Pac-12 will be much tougher than it was in the Mountain West. "I'm under no illusions," he said. "I know my life just got a lot tougher by coming here."
Sarkisian realizes he left some disappointed athletes in Washington, kids he recruited and promised to coach throughout their college careers. "I can honestly say that when they're not playing us, I'll be rooting for them this year," he said. "I put in a lot of time and effort with those kids and I want nothing but the best for them."
Petersen and Sarkisian. "Sark" and "Coach Pete."
They are two different men with two different coaching challenges, and yet, somehow, as they each prepare to go their separate ways, one thing is clear:
They remain undeniably linked.