- Kevin Gemmell, ESPN Staff Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- When the day comes that USC football needs a culture change, touchdowns will be worth 10 points, swine will take to flight and I’ll win a Brad Pitt look-alike contest.
USC football is a culture unto itself. It knows what it is with its 11 national championships, 32 bowl wins and six Heisman Trophy winners. Changing coaches doesn't have to be synonymous with changing culture, especially after you won 10 games the previous season.
Perhaps a culture restoration might be in order, however, following a tumultuous 2013 that fractured the fan base and divided the devout.
Enter Steve Sarkisian, a top lieutenant of the Pete Carroll era who left to make his mark in the Pacific Northwest and returns to Troy unfazed by the championship-or-bust mentality.
"All of these guys come here to be the best, and that reminded me why I came back here. I want to be the best," Sarkisian said. "This place breeds that environment, that culture. That jumps out at you the moment you are on campus.
"You can go back 50 years of USC football. Every decade they have gone on a run: The 2000s and the run that Pete [Carroll] had; the 90s and what Coach [John] Robinson was able to do; The 80s, the era there with Rodney Peete and everything, and the early 80s what they were doing into the 70s with Coach [John] McKay and the run that he had and into the 60s, and it goes on. I just feel like now is our time. We’re about due for another run. Here we go, and we’ve got half the decade left to do it. I have a firm belief that we can because history tells us that we should."
Of course, that run can’t start until the Trojans officially kick off the 2014 season on Aug. 30 against Fresno State. In the meantime, there is only so much the new coaching staff can do to win back the hearts and minds of skeptics still smarting the final mediocre months of the Lane Kiffin era.
Public opinion was already down following a massively disappointing 7-6 season in 2012. It crested when Kiffin was fired following a blowout loss to Arizona State in the fifth game of last season. That begat the brief Ed Orgeron era, which included a 6-2 record -- though losses to rivals Notre Dame and UCLA were contributing factors to Orgeron not getting the job. After Sarkisian was announced as coach, Orgeron stepped down and Clay Helton led the Trojans to a 45-20 win over Fresno State in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl. Helton was retained as offensive coordinator, and, at least for now, there is stability in the football office.
With crippling sanctions in the past, Sarkisian & Co. made a huge national statement by landing the league’s top-ranked recruiting class, which included lauded prospects Adoree' Jackson, Juju Smith and Damien Mama. Sarkisian has opened up spring ball to the public and done everything possible to reunite the fan base.
"Ultimately, it’s going on the field and performing and doing what we’re here to do and that’s win football games," Sarkisian said. "Are we going to try to win them all? There’s no doubt we are. Are we going to win them all? I don’t know. I don’t know. The football is shaped a funny way for that very reason. It bounces in funny directions sometimes. But you have to put yourself in position to be successful, and I think we’re doing that."
Helton, one of just two holdovers from the Kiffin era (along with receivers coach Tee Martin), understands the expectations from his time on campus. Even defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, who was Sarkisian’s defensive coordinator at Washington, is prepared for the fact that a 10-win season might not be good enough for USC’s standards. In his mind, those expectations shouldn’t be daunting. They should be embraced.
"If that’s what you’re worried about, then you don’t come here," Wilcox said. "That’s what you sign up for. We expect to win. We should be good. We should win championships. I don’t think about like that [as daunting]. If I did, or if any of us did, we shouldn’t come here. But every one of us jumped at the opportunity to come here. The expectations are extremely high, but that doesn’t change how we operate. That wouldn’t say much about you as a coach: 'Now you’re really going to work hard because you're at USC.' It shouldn’t matter if it’s Division III or high school or USC. You coach to be the best you can be."