Sunday, December 8, 2013
Change is in the air for the Trojans
By Garry Paskwietz
It was a crazy week for the USC football program with the hiring of a new football coach, the search for his assistants and the departures of former beloved coaches.
Things got started last Monday with Trojans fans still feeling the emotions of the loss to UCLA and wondering how long it would take Pat Haden to settle on a full-time coach. Well, it didn’t take him long as the news broke late in the morning that former USC assistant coach Steve Sarkisian, who had been the head coach at Washington for the last five years, would be the choice.
New USC football coach Steve Sarkisian talks with reporters after his hiring was announced.
Unfortunately for Sarkisian, the news came out about the same time that Ed Orgeron -- who had guided the Trojans to a 6-2 record as interim coach -- had resigned effective “immediately.” There was a very strong reaction from USC players who had developed a strong connection to Orgeron and the final team meeting when Coach “O” said his goodbyes was filled with tears on both sides.
USC players and fans wondered why Orgeron wasn’t being given a shot at the job and, even if he wasn’t, what could have happened to bring such a strong reaction that caused him to leave right away. Orgeron had preached a “one team, one heartbeat” motto that resonated with the players and now he wasn’t sticking around for the bowl game. The answers likely lie in the conversations between Orgeron and Haden, about what was promised and how the process went, because things certainly didn’t go well at the end.
There were also those who felt Haden had generated expectations for a “home-run” hire when he talked about casting a search where “there is no coach we can’t call” and the need to set the program up for the next “8-10, 15 years” with the hire.
Into this situation walked Sarkisian, who despite his successful tenure as a USC assistant and status as a one-time baseball player at the school, wasn’t exactly being welcomed with open arms. There were questions about his record at Washington, which stood just above .500 at 34-29, and a lack of signature moments that would warrant getting the USC job.
To his credit, Sarkisian met right away with the USC players and admitted that he wouldn’t win them over in one day. At his introductory press conference, Sarkisian said that he knew he wasn’t entering a rebuilding stage at USC, that the standard is to compete for championships. Haden also outlined the reasons for his choice. Haden said Sarkisian offered “energy and passion” for the job and was “uniquely qualified” to manage the transition of the USC program moving forward.
As the Sarkisian hire began to settle in on the Los Angeles college football landscape, there came news from Westwood that Bruins coach Jim Mora would be staying at UCLA, after listening to overtures from his alma mater Washington. Mora had another one up his sleeve for USC fans with the bombshell that he would be hiring former Trojans running back coach Kennedy Polamalu. This wasn’t just any coach that Mora was luring across town, Polamalu was a one-time USC fullback who was among the most passionate coaches and recruiters during his time on the Trojans staff. Polamalu was available, however, after being fired by Lane Kiffin last February.
It was a strange reality for Trojans fans, to see Polamalu heading to Westwood and Orgeron driving home to Louisiana with his family. Two of the most powerful voices within the USC program in recent years, and arguably the two best recruiters, were now gone and it wasn’t clear who was going to replace them.
There was a lot of talk when Sarkisian was hired that he might look to bring his entire Washington defensive coaching staff with him. There were certainly some up-and-coming names with DC Justin Wilcox, LB coach Peter Sirmon, DB coach Keith Heyward and DL coach Tosh Lupoi. It was also known that assistant head coach Johnny Nansen --who had coached RB, DL and special teams in his UW tenure -- would also be looking to head south with Sarkisian.
Before he added any new coaches, Sarkisian made the announcement that wide receiver coach Tee Martin would be staying from the current USC staff. That was welcome news to USC fans as Martin has developed a reputation in his short time with the Trojans as being a popular coach with the players and a solid recruiter.
With the news that Mora turned down Washington, there caused a shift which made things unclear for Wilcox and Lupoi. Wilcox was briefly a candidate for the Huskies head job and was then thought to be a possibility to join new Washington coach Chris Petersen -- who he had coached under before at Boise State. Lupoi was also reported to be weighing an offer to stay with the Huskies. He has become known as one of the most successful recruiters on the West Coast in recent years and is a key piece of the coaching puzzle at both USC and Washington.
USC announced the hirings at the end of the week of Sirmon, Heyward and Nansen, which led to speculation that Wilcox and Lupoi would eventually join them. As of the writing of this article on Sunday night that has not happened, but it does bring an end to a crazy week as far as the USC football program is concerned.