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Thursday, January 16, 2014
USC's youth movement on coaching staff

By Greg Katz

LOS ANGELES – Judging by the physical youthfulness and charismatic exuberance of USC coach Steve Sarkisian’s assistant coaching staff, the Trojans' famed, off-campus fraternity row on 28th Street might need to construct one more Greek house.

Sarkisian stressed at Tuesday’s “media fraternity rush” in the lavish John McKay Center that it was of great importance to him to get the right staff on board -- with the right chemistry -- and judging from the coach’s selections, you just might, in a good way, want to refer to the Cardinal and Gold’s newest coaching fraternity as Phi Sarka Assisto.

New USC coach Steve Sarkisian has brought a young coaching staff to the Trojans.
Now don’t get the impression that USC football followers are in store for college football’s version of Animal House with John Belushi-like behavior -- far from it. There was, however, a refreshing atmosphere among Sarkisian’s newly gathered assistants. There were no gruff, chiseled veterans in the house with a been-there, done-that stoic look.

Upon meeting Sarkisian’s new “brothers,” you are taken aback at the perception that these are not your average assistant coaches. None of those in attendance looked like a veteran. There is no pretense with this group, and talking to these guys is as easy as applying a dab of Clearasil.

Maybe it’s the fact that a majority of this staff is still in their mid-30s, but there is a real sense of almost high school friendliness. If anything, the newcomers from the Great Northwest might have been just a bit awed at the large turnout of media. Hey, bro, this ain’t Seattle.

For the record, the octogenarian in attendance was Clay Helton (quarterbacks), at 40, while the young whippersnappers included Tee Martin, Keith Heyward, and Marques Tuiasosopo, all of 34 with Heyward and Tuiasosopo looking even younger.

Of course, it should be noted that Sarkisian’s incoming offensive line coach, Tim Drevno, who was unavailable due to Sunday’s NFC Championship Game, is 44 years-old, and new defensive line coach Chris Wilson, 45, formerly of the University of Georgia, supersedes Drevno, instantly qualifying him for the AARP card on this staff.

This coaching youth movement is, of course, being orchestrated by Sarkisian, who himself is still two months shy of his 40th birthday. Trust me, it’s no coincidence that Sarkisian’s staff is a reflection of his own boyish appearance and extroverted personality. If you think that’s going to be a bonus when the new Trojans staff goes into the living rooms of some of the most attractive recruits in the nation, you are correct.

The newcomers on Tuesday showed no naiveté in understanding that coming to USC means they are coaching one of college football’s most storied programs. It didn’t take long for one of those newbies to understand the change in dynamics and expectations.

Secondary coach Heyward, who is returning “home” having played his prep ball at Taft High in Woodland Hills, Calif., recognized a big difference right away.

Heyward said he realized the change of coaching scenery when he and Sarkisian recently went to recruit a big-time recruit and LSU’s Les Miles was in the house and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer was waiting outside in a car. As Heyward suggested, you know where you are when you know whom you are now recruiting against.

First-year Trojans defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, a former University of Oregon defensive back with a bachelor's degree in anthropology, looks like the All-American boy. The 37-year-old said one of the first things he did upon arriving at Troy was take a number of photos “of all those Heisman Trophies” and sent them out to his friends and colleagues.

The son of NFL Hall of Famer Dave Wilcox, Justin said his father remains friends with former Trojans Hall of Fame coach John Robinson and a tackle “whose name I think is Ron Yary.”

Hey, Justin, Yary just happens to be arguably the greatest offensive tackle in USC history, a College and NFL Hall of Famer, and the only Trojans lineman to win the Outland Trophy.

Then there is new recruiting coordinator and linebackers coach Peter Sirmon, 36, who recalled his University of Oregon playing days in the late 199’s and the Ducks' battles in the Coliseum. Sirmon remembers one trip to the Coliseum and the fact that the Trojans fielded “11 guys that seemed so different” than normal college players.

When asked about how different it would be to now be in cardinal and gold, Sirmon had no problem informing the media the number of USC national championships, Rose Bowls and NFL draft picks. He certainly knows the Trojans' history.

Sirmon, who played linebacker for four seasons at Oregon and earned All-Pac-10 first team honors as a senior, was asked whether he felt pressure following the Trojans' former nationally acclaimed recruiting coordinator and interim head coach Ed Orgeron. Sirmon confidently yet respectfully replied, “Replacing Ed never crossed my mind. Everybody always follows somebody.”

For former Long Beach (Calif.) Jordan High quarterback standout Johnny Nansen, 39, who is now the Trojans' running backs/special teams coach, the return to his hometown roots is especially gratifying, and his eyes seemed to glaze when he was recalling his youth in the Long Beach area.

“This is just a dream come true to come back here to coach,” Nansen gushed. “I grew up a USC fan.”

Nansen isn’t the only one calling Long Beach home.

Tuiasosopo, the Trojans' tight ends coach, calls the Long Beach area “my second home,” since his father, Manu, a local celebrated former star defensive lineman at St Anthony High, UCLA, and the NFL, lives locally with his mother along with a plethora of relatives.

“My dad said he will root for the Trojans every game but one,” laughed “Tui,” a reference to UCLA.

Manu must have belonged to a different fraternity.