USC Trojans: Pat Haden

Happy Friday.

Find some time for the defense

March, 12, 2014
Mar 12
The first practice was on speed dial. The tempo was frenetic. The energy was palpable.

The Steve Sarkisian Era opened in a blur with the new head coach happily immersed in the middle of his revolutionary -- for USC, at least -- no-huddle offense, calling the plays, communicating with his quarterbacks and carefully positioning his running backs and receivers.

It was a happy, upbeat afternoon full of unbridled hope and surging optimism.

And while this is not meant to deflate anything that is just starting out and beginning to build, if Sarkisian wants to succeed where his predecessor failed, he needs to understand one major facet of the job that Lane Kiffin never grasped.

He needs to spend at least a portion of his practice time with the defense.

Granted, it was just one practice, but the truth is he didn’t do much of that on Tuesday. He is an offense-oriented coach, and it is understandable. His priority is on that side of the ball. Moreover, he trusts the talented new coordinator he brought with him from Washington, Justin Wilcox, to take care of the defense.

But to many of those USC fans who suffered through the Kiffin regime, that tendency is more than a little scary. They watched Kiffin spend all his time at practice with the offense, rarely, if ever, wandering down to observe a defensive drill. They saw him during games staring at his now infamous play card, even while his team was desperately trying to stop an opposing offense. They would see him talking to a quarterback or a wideout but never to a linebacker or safety.

Whatever else you thought of him, there was no denying that Kiffin was a one-dimensional coach.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsSteve Sarkisian talks with USC quarterback Cody Kessler at practice.
Sarkisian must be careful not to fall into that same trap.

The great Trojan coaches of the past never did. John McKay was famous for developing Tailback U, but the rock-solid foundation of his teams was always a ferocious defense. Mike Garrett, O.J. Simpson, Anthony Davis and Co. were electrifying, but so was The Wild Bunch.

It was the same with John Robinson, who preached a strong, power-running game while making sure there were guys like Ronnie Lott, Chip Banks and Joey Browner to attend to the less-glamorous side.

And then, of course, there was Pete Carroll, who was a defensive guy first and foremost, although he did manage to recruit plenty of athletes like Matt Leinart, Mike Williams and Reggie Bush to light up scoreboards around the country.

The point is, the coaches who have been overwhelmingly successful in college football are those who have taken equal interest in offense and defense.

Now, this is not to say Sarkisian won’t do that. Maybe he will. But as a noted offensive guru and, like Kiffin, a coach who refuses to give up the play-calling duties, it definitely is more difficult. You naturally become more attached to that facet of the job.

Based on his time in Washington, the evidence is that Sarkisian definitely has room for improvement in that area. In his first couple of seasons with the Huskies, while the team’s offense and overall record were better, the defense was deplorable. In 2011, Washington finished 105th or lower nationally in scoring defense, pass defense and total defense.

Once he brought in Wilcox, those numbers changed dramatically. By 2013, Washington was in the top 35 in scoring defense and 11th in pass defense.

But while Sarkisian seems to have found the right defensive coordinator, he also has to show he is not just there to delegate on defense. Make no mistake, the players will know.

One of the main reasons Ed Orgeron was so warmly embraced in his time as interim head coach a year ago is that the kids saw how involved he was on both sides of the ball. When Dion Bailey or Devon Kennard made a big, rally-killing play on defense, Orgeron wasn’t standing 10 yards down the sideline studying his next play-calling options. He was right there, cheering and enthusiastically slapping them on the backs.

Again, it is way too early to predict precisely what kind of coach Sarkisian will be for the Trojans. And one practice is far too soon to evaluate his methods.

But the warning signs are there, and if he’s as smart as Pat Haden, J.K. McKay and others seem to think he is, Sarkisian will not only be aware of them, he will do something about them.

Remember, Sark, in your rush to become the next great coach at USC, the mantra is really simple:

Defense matters.
From now until fall practice, first-year USC Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian will be making decisions that not only affect his team and program but the general perception of the proceedings. Here’s a list of 10 items that Sark has addressed or will address in the coming months.

Spring practice viewing: Talk about a no-brainer and public relations bonanza. It appears Sark has made the decision to allow fans to watch spring ball. Viewing figures to be from atop Dedeaux Field, which to be quite honest, is probably a better viewing spot than on the sidelines. From Dedeaux Field, fans can get a better view of the offensive and defensive linemen doing individual battle, and you can also get a “50-yard-line ” vantage point.

Sark’s decision: Open practices.

Coliseum scrimmages: Sarkisian also has indicated that the public is welcome to spring scrimmages in the Coliseum. Saturday practices in the Coliseum make for a warm, fuzzy and cardinal and gold football day. And, of course, there is the final culmination of spring ball with the annual USC spring game on April 19 in the Trojans’ famous venue. Allowing the public into the Coliseum for a Saturday practice is another public relations windfall.

Sark’s decision: Open Coliseum scrimmages.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsWill Steve Sarkisian make quick changes to how the USC football program works?
Spring blocking and tackling: With Sarkisian saying 50 bodies or so will be able to fully participate in spring ball, the coach’s decision appears to err on the side of caution when it comes to measured hitting, tackling, and live scrimmaging. In particular, this spring is about learning new systems, formations and player evaluations. However, no major hitting or intense scrimmaging does impede in complete player evaluations.

Sark’s decision: Reduced hitting and scrimmaging.

Fall blocking and tackling: Sark has already indicated he is going to check with NFL teams on how they deal with hitting and scrimmaging with a small roster. Wait a minute, didn’t Sarkisian coach in the NFL and didn’t he see how lack of hitting hurt Lane Kiffin’s Trojans teams on both sides of the ball? Astute Trojans football fans will keep an eye on Sarkisian’s fall practice decision and probably compare the methodology to that of former interim head coach Ed Orgeron’s last season.

Sark’s decision: To be determined.

The Rising Stars Camp: This two-day, prep evaluation camp is the big one in late June in which the best of the best high school players -- locally and from out-of-state -- show their stuff on Howard Jones/Brian Kennedy Field. Because of the NCAA sanctions -- or so we are told -- the public and the media have been barred from attending. Will that change with the NCAA sanctions being completed in early June and what will the decision be if it is left up to Sarkisian?

Sark’s decision: To be determined.

Fall practice times: It’s a long way off, but practice times in the fall might return to those dreadful early morning sessions, which proved under Kiffin to be ill advised. The team’s GPA went down when practices were held in the early morning. One wonders if athletic director Pat Haden will have any input on Sarkisian’s eventual decision, especially given the fact Haden is very sensitive to academic issues. There is no question that returning players who have experienced both early morning and late afternoon practice have an opinion. Would Sarkisian dare take a team vote on this decision?

Sark’s decision: To be determined.

Credibility: How will the new relationships be between coaches and players once they hit the practice field? Has Sarkisian assembled a coaching staff that will make the returning Trojans forget about last season’s staff? With respected assistant coaches Orgeron, Clancy Pendergast, Tommie Robinson, and John Baxter gone, has Sarkisian put together a staff that can quickly overcome the loss of those respected coaches? Maybe the answers won’t come until the fall, but spring is a beginning.

Sark’s decisions: The head coach is pleased with his new staff, especially coming off a terrific recruiting effort for the class of 2014 and progress already made for the class of 2015.

Uniforms: Well, here is one item that apparently won’t need to be addressed. From his introductory news conference, Sarkisian made his preference clear. Unlike Kiffin, Sark understands the USC “look,” which means everything to the fan base and tradition.

Sark’s decision: No uniform changes.

Media relations: It appears that beginning with the first actual game week, the media will be ushered out of practice once game planning is being implemented. Honestly, Pete Carroll never worried about what the press saw. In fact, he even said that most of the press wouldn’t even understand what they were watching. Kiffin, of course, was understandably paranoid with media, and eventually didn’t let media into practice. Obviously, Kiffin closing practices didn’t help in the Coliseum loss last season to Washington State loss and the trouncing by ASU in Tempe. The reality is that games are not won or lost by the media watching practice. Interim head coaches Orgeron and Clay Helton opened practice up completely to the media -- including injury reports -- and you see how that turned out.

Sark’s decision: As of the moment, restricted media access during the season.

The Jackson factor: Depending on who you are listening to, five-star freshman DB/WR Adoree' Jackson will either be an offensive player who plays occasionally on defense or a defensive player who occasionally plays offense. Sarkisian says defense first, and Jackson seems to say he’ll play defense but will be part of selected offensive packages.

Sark’s decision: Jackson begins on defense, but there are possibilities on offense.

Season wrap: USC

January, 15, 2014
Jan 15
The big news for USC's 2013 campaign wasn't the season itself but the firing of coach Lane Kiffin. That, however, also was the transformative moment of the season, as the Trojans bounced back from a dispiriting 3-2 start to finish 10-4 and rank 19th, rallying under interim coach Ed Orgeron.

The Trojans went 6-2 under Orgeron, but his hopes for earning the full-time job were likely dashed by two losses to Notre Dame and UCLA, USC's two chief rivals.

The second big news for the Trojans was the hiring of Steve Sarkisian away from Washington, which received a mixed reaction. But that points toward the future. Our concern is the 2013 season.

You can read our graded review of USC here.

Offensive MVP: The Trojans' offense struggled much of the season, ranking ninth in the conference with 29.7 points per game, but its most consistent weapon was receiver Nelson Agholor. With Marqise Lee in and out of the lineup with injuries, it was Agholor, a sophomore, who led the Trojans with 918 yards receiving and six touchdowns. His 16.4 yards per reception also was tops among the team's receivers. Further, he led the conference and ranked second in the nation with a 19.1-yard average on punt returns, which included two returns for touchdowns.

Defensive MVP: Defensive end Leonard Williams became one of the nation's best defensive linemen as a true sophomore. He ranked second on the Trojans with 74 tackles, including 13.5 tackles for a loss and six sacks. He also had four quarterback hurries and two forced fumbles and was named a first-team All-American by and third-team by the Associated Press. He is almost certain to be a 2014 preseason All-American.

Best moment: No. 4 Stanford had rallied from a 10-point first-half deficit to tie the score at 17-17, and it had the ball with more than three minutes remaining on its 40-yard line. There was plenty of time to drive for the winning field goal, but Stanford QB Kevin Hogan threw his second fourth-quarter interception to Su'a Cravens at the USC 44. The Trojans then got a 47-yard field goal from Andre Heidari, who had struggled for much of 2013, with just 19 seconds left to notch the upset, and recorded the fourth and best win of what would become a five-game winning streak under Orgeron.

Worst moment: While the 10-7 loss at home to Washington State was horrible -- the Trojans had just 193 total yards -- and was the beginning of the end for Kiffin, the 62-41 loss at Arizona State was the defeat that ended his tenure. Athletic director Pat Haden was so dismayed with the white-flag performance -- the Trojans gave up 612 yards -- that he fired Kiffin at LAX in the early morning hours of the next day. Of course, that low moment seems to spur the season's transformation so some may see Kiffin's firing as a good thing.

WeAreSC New Year's resolutions 

December, 30, 2013
LOS ANGELES -- The clock is ticking towards 2014, and it’s time for some cardinal and gold New Year’s resolutions.

I resolve to always appreciate and remember the 2013 Trojans and what a tremendous accomplishment it was to win 10 games in spite of the horrendous circumstances and drama.

I resolve not to believe that this team was so together and galvanized despite three coaches and the naming of a fourth that anybody could have coached them to victory against Fresno State in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl.

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Mailbag: More Sankey-Carey kerfuffle

December, 17, 2013
Postseason awards and All-America teams are a hot, and always controversial, topic this week.

Chris in Lake Stevens, Wash. writes: (Ka'Deem) Carey over (Bishop) Sankey? Are you an idiot or an Arizona grad? Sankey had more yards, more TDs and a better YPC. You've lost all credibility as far as I'm concerned.

Kevin Gemmell: Really? All credibility? Idiot? For picking a first-team All-American, a Doak Walker finalist, a guy who finished ahead of Sankey in the Heisman voting and the offensive player of the year as selected by the coaches?

Guess the coaches are idiots as well.

I’m happy to re-open the debate (and I will below). But your note smacks of uneducated fanaticism.

Chris L in Memphis writes: In making his case on East Coast bias, Ted wrote this: "Arizona RB Ka'Deem Carey is the nation's best running back." Please make the case as to how Carey is even the best back in his conference.

Kevin Gemmell: I’d be happy to, Chris. And thanks for your letter. I know this particular Chris to be an extremely educated Washington fan -- the kind that makes Washington fans look good.

First off, as I stated in last week’s mailbag, I thought Ted’s East Coast bias column was one of the strongest pieces I’ve ever read from him.

Obviously, the Sankey vs. Carey debate will rage for years. And it should. It’s fun to debate the merits, of which there are many, of two fantastic players. Washington fans will always back Sankey -- which is right. And Arizona fans will always back Carey -- which is also right. There's just a right way and a wrong way to do it (cough, cough, Chris in Lake Stevens). Because both are outstanding running backs with the physical build and skill sets to be successful running backs at the next level.

Sankey had more total yards and more touchdowns. Carey had more yards per game and 10 fewer zero or negative rushing plays (Sankey had 45, Carey 35). We won’t get into the debate of playing time because I know Sankey sat the second half of some games and Carey missed a game, etc. etc. Carey had more carries because his team didn’t have the passing attack that Washington did. The Huskies averaged 271.3 yards through the air per game with 24 touchdowns. Arizona had just 186.8 passing yards per game with 14 touchdowns. Washington leaned heavily on Sankey, but I think we can all agree that Arizona leaned more heavily on Carey.

The little separation that exists in my mind is because of Carey’s consistency. I broke this down in a column earlier this month and essentially Carey did his best work -- more than 20 yards above his average -- against the top competition.

Sankey and Carey had six games this year that involved common opponents: Oregon, ASU, California, Colorado, UCLA and Washington State. In those games Sankey averaged 144 yards with eight total touchdowns. Against the same competition, Carey rushed for 152.5 yards with 11 touchdowns.

Sankey was outstanding. But his overall season takes a hit from the ASU game (13 carries, 22 yards) and, yes, the fact that Carey’s team beat Oregon and he was a huge reason why has to weigh in.

Again, this is a Fujis vs. Honey Crisp discussion. But when you look at overall consistency -- essentially zero bad statistical games for Carey -- the fact that he did better against head-to-head competition and that he was at his best against tougher defenses, I think that justifies making a case for him as the best back in the league.

Weston in Costa Mesa, Calif. writes: Hello Kevin, I was curious to know what your view is on the state of USC football going into the next few seasons. Where does the program go if Sark doesn’t work out and is he in the hot seat right away if he doesn’t deliver in the first year (by deliver I mean anything less than an 8 win season).ThanksWestonps. I’m a Stanford fan living in a USC ruled area and everybody is talking about this.

Kevin Gemmell: This is sort of a two-parter. The first part, the state of USC football over the next few seasons, is essentially asking what do I think Steve Sarkisian can do for the program. The second part is if he doesn’t succeed, how quick will he get the hook.

I can’t imagine that if he only wins seven games in his first year that Pat Haden would put him on the hot seat. Haden showed an amazing amount of patience with Lane Kiffin and gave him the opportunity to right the ship in 2013. When it was clear the ship wasn’t being righted, he made his move.

This was a high-profile hire for USC and for Haden. A lot of eyes will be on this decision for the next few years. And my best bet is that Haden is going to do everything possible to convince people he got his guy.

As for how they’ll do? Well, there are some really, really talented players on both sides of the ball. And it was pretty clear that the Trojans underachieved with Kiffin as their head coach because they clearly had the talent to rip off five in a row and beat the No. 4 team in the country in Stanford.

We’ve said this before … USC is a brand. It is always going to attract high-profile recruits simply because it’s USC. You combine that with a bulldog of a recruiter in Sarkisian and you have to expect the Trojans will be just fine.

The question is what happens once he does get those elite athletes into the program. How does he develop the talent? How does he handle the X’s and O’s? He did an amazing job of bringing Washington back to respectability. But he never got them into the elite class. Perhaps with a few more years in Seattle he would have? We’ll never know. But that certainly plants a lingering question about what he can do at USC.

I think given the way the South sets up for the next few years, USC could certainly win it. Or ASU could repeat. Or UCLA could win its third division in four years. Or Arizona could make a run when their potential All-Universe scout team starts playing in games.

The South is so wide open right now that there really isn’t one clear-cut team that is a favorite. And I think USC has to be considered in that mix. The Trojans could win the South next year. Or they could finish fourth in the division.

I’m willing to give Sark and Haden the benefit of the doubt that they can get USC moving in the right direction. Sark might not be the biggest name nationally, but he has the pedigree that fits very well with the culture in Southern California.

Peter in Washington writes: Did you intentionally leave off the second common opponent between BYU and UW? Both teams played FCS Idaho State year as well as Boise State.

Kevin Gemmell: The simple answer would have been yes, it was intentional, because Idaho State is an FCS team and it wasn’t worth mentioning. But truth be told, I just missed it. So thanks for keeping me honest. And in the interest of getting all of the information out there, Washington beat Idaho State 56-0 on Sept. 21. BYU beat the Bengals 59-13 on Nov. 16.

Mike in Boston writes: I thought I'd give you a heads up that you came in fifth in the Cardboard's (an independently run Stanford fan community) "Predict the Score" game for predicting Stanford's game outcomes. We entered the predicted scores from your weekly post on Pac-12 games. Note, Miller sits all the way down at No. 15.

Kevin Gemmell: Awesome! Had no idea you guys were doing that. Since I finished 10 spots ahead of Ted, I think it’s fair that the next 10 rounds of non-alcoholic eggnog are on him.

Sun Devil Ric in San Diego writes: I thought I understood the politics of trophies and All-American teams, but I guess I'm still clueless. Why did ASJ win the Mackey award, but isn't named on a single All-American team yet?

Kevin Gemmell: You understand them? Really? Please share. Because I've been at this a long time and I still don't know.

Tight end was a deep position this year. And ASJ did get named third-team AA in the AP All-American team. Like every single postseason award, there is a level of subjectivity that is tough to comprehend because it's different for everyone. I wish I could climb into the minds of the voters and give you a clear-cut explanation for why things are the way they are when it comes to postseason awards. But I can't.

All I can say is I think the Mackey folks got it right.

Ryan in New York writes: Kevin, Great work by you and your partner Miller on the AA team. I think the Pac was well represented, and that's testimony to you and Ted spreading the good word and fighting the good fight. Well done. Happy HolidaysRC

Kevin Gemmell: Back atcha Ryan. There will never be a perfect postseason list. And I would have liked to see Anthony Barr on our list also. But the fact that Barr appears on others, as does Trent Murphy, shows just how deep and talented the Pac-12 was this season.

Looking forward to another year of why UCLA is overrated mailbag drops from you. But for now, enjoy the bowl season and the holiday season.

That goes for the rest of you, too. (Yes, Chris in Lake Stevens, even you).

Sark vs. Pete -- the epic debate begins 

December, 9, 2013
LOS ANGELES -- If you’re a USC fan, you’ve already heard the news that Washington has hired highly successful former Boise State head coach Chris Petersen as its new head football coach, replacing the departed Steve Sarkisian, who left the Emerald City for the bright lights and glitter of the USC Trojans.

Of course, what makes this all the more tantalizing is the fact that the Trojans did make contact with Petersen regarding its coaching opening. As history has unfolded, USC athletic director Pat Haden decided that Sarkisian was a better fit for the Trojans, which opens the door for even further scrutiny of Haden’s decision down the line.

Sarkisian might be Haden’s answer for the future, a good coach with great recruiting skills and a dynamic personality. Although Sarkisian’s overall record at UW was just above average at 34-29, he did an admirable job resurrecting a Huskies program that was 0-12 the season before he arrived in 2009.

Stuck in the powerful Pac-12 North Division, which features powerhouses Oregon and Stanford, Sarkisian was up against it. For the past four seasons, the Huskies finished with a 5-4 conference record, which doesn’t get you to a BCS bowl and would give you a pink slip at USC faster than you can say Tommy Trojan.

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Clay Helton discusses bowl game

December, 8, 2013
Some selected quotes from USC interim head coach Clay Helton’s conference call following the announcement that the Trojans will face Fresno State in the 2013 Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl.

Opening statement:

“Our football team is very excited to have the chance to participate in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl. We’d like to thank the Las Vegas Bowl committee and the city of Las Vegas for having us. This is a great reward for our players and staff. They have accomplished so much this season under some very adverse conditions. We look forward to getting back on the practice field very soon, and preparing for what we feel is one of the better teams in the country in Fresno State.”

On whether Helton has any concerns heading into the contest in regard to the distractions that the city of Las Vegas presents to the players:

“We have guys that understand that we have a job to do, that we are going there to try to win a football game and enjoy the excitement of the bowl game. We’ve been very disciplined as a football team, and I would anticipate that will continue.”

[+] EnlargeClay Helton
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsClay Helton will lead the Trojans in their bowl game against Fresno State.
With all that has gone on this season in terms of the coaching changes and turmoil, how does Helton approach this game?

“You look at the things that have gone on this year, how proud we are to be going to the Las Vegas Bowl. But to have the opportunity to get your 10th win, to get double-digit wins, that puts you in a realm as far as accomplishment with a football team, that you can walk away from a season extremely proud of. So, we have a lot out there. This is something we started at the beginning of the season, had some adverse conditions hit us, continued, as our motto says, to fight on, and every time that this team’s faced a little bit of trouble, they’ve found a way to fight back every time, and I can’t wait to see them at the bowl game.”

Will this be the first time that Helton has served as a college head coach?

“Yeah, I’ve had the opportunity to help out at as an interim coach at the University of Memphis, [but] never under a game situation. Coach [Tommy] West, who was at Memphis, had heart surgery during the offseason, and there was a period of time that I needed to run the team and help the University of Memphis out, and here’s this opportunity again.”

With the recent departure of Ed Orgeron as well as Pete Jenkins, who will coach the defensive linemen in the days leading up to the bowl game?

“We’re going to have Coach Ross Cumming do that. He’s been in that room the entire time. He’s one of our graduate assistants, he knows Clancy [Pendergast’s] system [and] he knows how to teach that position.”

On whether newly hired USC head coach Steve Sarkisian has given Helton any advice leading up to the bowl game:

“I’ll tell you, he’s been absolutely great; so has Mr. [Pat] Haden. I just thank them so much for letting our staff have the honor of preparing us for our bowl game. He’s kind of told us, ‘Hey, I want to sit back and give you the right and the honor to lead your team.’ I know he’s going to be watching, to be able to see personnel and things like that, but he’s given us a great opportunity to finish the season out.”

What kind of effect has the departure of Orgeron, as well as the recent hiring of Sarkisian, had emotionally on the remaining coaching staff at USC?

“Any time that you lose a figure like Coach O, as a player or on that coaching staff, you’re going to be sad. That’s a natural reaction I think for both players and coaches alike. In typical USC style and fashion they have brought in a terrific football coach in Coach Sarkisian. We know he’s going to do great things. We have welcomed him, as a staff and as a football team, and we’re here to support him in any way we can. So, obviously, you have some sadness, but you’re also excited about the future.”

What’s it going to take to lift the spirits of the team?

“The greatest thing is you get to play ball. You get to practice, you get to go compete and you get to play in a football game. That heals a lot of wounds. We’re excited to get back out on the practice field tomorrow, and to have the practices that lead up to the bowl game.”

On whether Helton plans to continue doing some of the things that Orgeron did in terms of rewarding the players and maintaining an upbeat atmosphere:

“We’re going to keep the same philosophy that we’ve had the last eight weeks. It’s been successful for us. We’ve had a lot of fun together as a staff and as a football team, and those things are going to continue.”

Will Sarkisian travel with the team to Las Vegas?

“I believe that he is going to be at the bowl game.”

On what he’s seen from the Fresno State offense:

“Coach [Dave] Schramm and his staff have done a tremendous job. They have a terrific quarterback in Derek Carr, and usually when you have a great team, you have a great quarterback. He’s a guy that’s completing 70 percent of his balls, his touchdown-to-interception ratio is ridiculous; so he does some terrific things, and he’s led that team very, very well. They do a terrific job of putting pressure with several wideouts, and then what was really surprising, you think they’re a passing offense, but they’re pretty well-balanced too.”

Has anyone else on the current USC staff been told whether they’re going to be retained by Sarkisian?

“Coach Sarkisian over the next couple of weeks I know is going to put together a terrific staff. He’s been extremely cordial to us in telling us, ‘I’m working on trying to put the best staff in the country together.’ He is going to talk to every one of us on this staff, as well as others around the country, and he’ll find the right fit for USC.”
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.

[+] EnlargeSarkisian
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsNew 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.

Mailbag: Did USC or Washington win?

December, 6, 2013
Welcome to the mailbag, Pac-12 championship and coaching carousel edition.

Follow the Pac-12 blog on Twitter.

To the notes.

Elk from Los Angeles writes: Who's the bigger winner in the coaching carousel, Washington or USC?

Ted Miller: We have to declare a winner before Chris Petersen even holds his first news conference after replacing new USC coach Steve Sarkisian at Washington?

The only winner we can declare at this moment is the public relations and perception winner, and that is clearly Washington.

Petersen has long been a highly coveted candidate among AQ programs. Many sportswriters reacted with shock today when the news broke that after turning down some many suitors, Petersen was headed to Washington.

Fair to say the general consensus is that Petersen is a home run hire. Further, his track record suggests strongly he is not a climber. If he wins the Rose Bowl in 2017, he doesn't seem like the sort that would, say, jump to Texas.

As for Sarkisian to USC, the general reaction among sportswriters and USC fans was to be underwhelmed. Part of that was the belief that Trojans AD Pat Haden was going to make a home run hire that resonated nationwide -- as in Jon Gruden or Kevin Sumlin.

Sarkisian looked like a strong and legitimate USC candidate on Sept. 29, when Lane Kiffin was fired, but his Huskies immediately dropped three games in a row, and Huskies fans started to grumble.

Sark rebuilt Washington, but he never broke through in the Pac-12 North Division or the national rankings. Sarkisian is a good coach, but he's yet to distinguish himself with a landmark season. Petersen has with two BCS bowl victories and a sparkling 92-12 record.

So at this point, Washington is the clear winner.

Yet keep in mind that being the public relations and perception winner before either has coached a game or even recruited a player will be the least important victory either posts during their respective tenures.

It's all about what comes next, starting with their 2014 recruiting classes.

Flannel Beaver from Tacoma, Wash., writes: I know this has been discussed, but seriously... when will the Pac-12 go to an eight-game conference schedule? I am all for holding the our moral superiority over all other conferences. Do you think the new Playoff Selection Committee will take that into account? Do bowls consider that when looking at options? Do pollsters REALLY consider it? Then why do we continue to do it? How can I as a fan change Larry Scott's stance on this?

Ted Miller: Scott is a Machiavellian, "It's All About the Benjamins" sort. He'd go with eight games if the Pac-12 athletic directors were for it.

A nine-game conference schedule is favored by Pac-12 ADs for two reasons: 1. It means you only have to schedule three nonconference games, therefore less work; 2. An extra Pac-12 game tends to guarantee more ticket sales than a nonconference patsy, something that SEC schools don't worry about.

Once the conference expanded to 12 teams from 10, the nine-game schedule lost the symmetry that provided a true conference champion. But it was retained for the above reasons, even though it damages the conference's place in the national rankings.

The good news is most folk recognize the seriousness of this issue going forward into the four-team College Football Playoff. There will be pressure to level the playing field and have all the major conferences play nine-game schedules, as the Big 12 and Pac-12 currently do.

But if that doesn't happen, then it becomes the CFP selection committee's move. The first time a one-loss SEC team misses out to a one-loss Pac-12/Big 12 team, and the selection committee explains itself by saying, "The SEC choose to play a softer schedule than the Pac-12/Big 12, so that was the final measure that eliminated their team," then you'll see some changing.

In fact, it's too bad we don't have the playoff this year because it would be an interesting process. To me, the four-team playoff would be best served (based on today's records) by having Florida State, Ohio State, the SEC champ and the Pac-12 champ.

Yes, that would mean leaving out Alabama, which I still believe is the best team.

But if that happened because Stanford's/Arizona State's schedules were dramatically more difficult, you can bet that the SEC would man-up out of self interest.

Craig from Omaha writes: Lifelong Huskers fan here but enjoy watching Pac-12 football. … My question to you is why is it that the Pac-12 does not play its conference championship game at a neutral site like every other major conference? Is it due to loyal fan bases that are willing to travel? Do they feel there are not adequate facilities to hold such an event? I would have to think of all the venues in Pac-12 country, there would be some place that would fit the bill?

Ted Miller: The biggest problem with a neutral venue for the Pac-12 title game is the Pac-12 is much more spread out than the SEC, ACC and Big Ten. With just a week to make travel plans, it would be extremely expensive for fans to book flights. In the SEC, just about every fan base is within driving distance to Atlanta, and that's also mostly true in the Big Ten for Indianapolis and the ACC for Charlotte, N.C, though expansion has changed things a bit in that regard. For Texas A&M, it would be a 12-hour haul to drive to Atlanta.

That said, future change isn't off the table. Since the conference expanded, more than a few folks have tossed around the idea of playing the game in Las Vegas, which the Pac-12 blog would be all for, though there's not yet an appropriate stadium to play host. Another option would be rotating the game between major cities.

Truth is, the Pac-12 championship game has done fairly well at home sites -- the game Saturday at Arizona State is pretty close to a sellout. Last year's lackluster fan showing at Stanford was mostly because of torrential rain and a kickoff during Friday rush hour.

And there's something to be said for rewarding the No. 1 team with an advantage.

Scott from Homewood, Calif., writes: I think you are making the same mistake as other media members about the Stanford roster. Although the depth chart lists several players as seniors, they are in eligibility only redshirt juniors because they list by academic class instead of eligibility. Guys like Tarpley, Henry Anderson, Parry, Reynolds, Fleming, Yankey are listed on the depth chart as seniors but all have a year left. Although Yankey likely will leave early, the others will most likely be back or have the option to come back. In reality, only four offensive starters are seniors and only three defensive starters are seniors. Jon Wilner has posted twice about this issue and I just wanted to spread the word.

Ted Miller: I understand your point, but I use a depth chart that has both years.

The players Stanford loses on offense: OG David Yankey, C Khalil Wilkes, OG Kevin Danser, RB Tyler Gaffney, RB Anthony Wilkerson and FB Ryan Hewitt.

Players Stanford loses on defense: OLB Trent Murphy, LB Shayne Skov, DE Ben Gardner and DE Josh Mauro.

The Cardinal will again be in the thick of the Pac-12 North Division race in 2014, without question. But those are some big hits to the starting lineup.

Brian from Bend, Ore., writes: Any reflection on why Marcus Mariota has been completely overlooked for QB awards and the Heisman? It seems that no one west of the Mississippi is allowed to lose games. He still has really good stats, was No. 1 in Total QBR until the Arizona game and is morally superior to any other NCAA player. Is this not the embodiment of the Heisman?

Ted Miller: The bottom line is Oregon lost two of its final four games and Mariota didn't play well at Stanford, the Ducks' marquee national game of the season.

Further, when you remove Jameis Winston's off-field issues, as was done this week, the Florida State QB is a clear No. 1 at the position, while Johnny Manziel has been a force of nature for two seasons, and AJ McCarron has led one of the most successful runs in college football history.

I'm not saying I agree with all of that as a reason to demote Mariota. But that's what happened from a national perspective.

Trojans, Sarkisian trying to forge ahead 

December, 5, 2013
LOS ANGELES -- The voice at the other end of the phone was new USC head football coach Steve Sarkisian. He was encouraging fans to get excited about the future and what he hopes to bring to the program.

Hand it to the USC marketing department, it doesn’t miss a trick, as thousands of Trojans football fans heard from USC’s 23rd head coach in a mass voicemail blitz shortly after Sarkisian was hired. The words were inspiring, enthusiastic, and the message was clear: The Men of Troy are about to embark on a new era.

With his hiring, the Sarkisian popularity campaign is now in full throttle. It was preceded with Tuesday’s coronation and highly orchestrated press conference, which began with more Ed Orgeron damage control in the opulent John McKay Center.

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A plot twist perfect for Hollywood

December, 2, 2013
As that famous movie trailer voice begins, “In a world where truth is stranger than fiction,” a storied college football program has reached into a parallel universe and brought back a former assistant coach whose close friend is the former fired USC Trojans football coach.

The hiring of former Trojans assistant Steve Sarkisian as the new University of Southern California head football coach is something that would seem to be a storyline right out of nearby Hollywood, a real docudrama.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Kirby Lee/University of Southern California/Collegiate Images/Getty ImagesSteve Sarkisian is returning to USC, where he was a key assistant to Pete Carroll.
In fact, the hiring of Sarkisian has left the Trojans masses in stunned disbelief in either uncontrollable enthusiasm, or unabated catcalls. If Pat Haden was looking to unify the USC family, he has really rolled the dice on this one.

Not that Sarkisian is a bad hire. He may turn out to be a great hire. He is completely likeable, a capable offensive coordinator, and he can recruit with the best of them. The truth be told, the “USC Trojans Sark” recruiting the gold mine of the Southland will be even more effective than the “Washington Huskies Sark” mining the same region.

The albatross in hiring Sarkisian is his attachment to Lane Kiffin. Is Sarkisian a more polished version of Kiffin? They both use the Denny’s play-calling menu and sunglasses, have toyed with the idea of uniform color changes, use the fade and bubble screen, and run basically the same offense, an offense that was despised by USC fans everywhere.

While Sarkisian was locked into the extremely competitive Pac-12 North Division with the likes of heavyweights Stanford and Oregon, he did bring the Huskies back from the depths of despair upon his arrival and early-on even beat a Pete Carroll USC team.

Is Sarkisian a superstar hire? No, not on the surface with the expectations of most Trojans fans. However, with the vast and plentiful USC resources at his disposal, that doesn’t mean he won’t blossom into one and therein the intrigue. Time will certainly tell.

The real burden of Sarkisian’s hire is on the shoulders of Haden. Trojans fans were expecting home run hire, and you wouldn’t call the signing of Sarkisian a tape measure blast. However, maybe the Trojans did get themselves a triple. At least Haden hopes so because if it isn’t, he will forever be remembered as an athletic administrator as the one who hired Steve Sarkisian.

By hiring Sarkisian, this is somebody who obviously knows USC, the recruiting strategies, and is well liked by high school coaches in Southern California, a major plus. From a recruiting standpoint, there is nothing not to like.

Then there is the USC assistant coaching staff to be assembled. If Sarkisian elects to bring the likes of Justin Wilcox as his defensive coordinator and even Tosh Lupoi as a defensive line coach, two blockbuster recruiters, then look out.

If reports that Trojans interim coach Ed Orgeron has chosen not to remain part of the program are confirmed, it would be a natural for Lupoi to become the Trojans new defensive line coach and possible recruiting coordinator.
It would seem likely that Sarkisian will name himself offensive coordinator and call the plays. There is no problem there because at least there will be no pretense like Lane Kiffin’s folly and there won’t be the doubletalk.

So what’s the bottom line to this hire?

When Kiffin was hired, the immediate reaction here was the Titanic and that truly turned out to be the case. The hiring of Sarkisian is more of a wait and see perspective. He probably won’t be a disaster, but can he make the Trojans a player on the national stage and in the mix in the new College Football Playoff? Of course, he still has to make it to the Pac-12 championship game, something he and the Trojans have never experienced.

And perhaps nobody will be more interested in Sarkisian’s success or failure than good friend Kiffin, and that in itself is part of this unexpected hire.

Ed Orgeron's Sunday conference call

December, 1, 2013
Some selected quotes from USC head coach Ed Orgeron’s Sunday night conference call following the Trojans’ 35-14 loss to UCLA.

Opening statement:

“All of our coaches except myself are on the road recruiting today. The guys have had a very positive response, and I’ve been on the phone with a lot of recruits myself … it’s been very positive. Having had the chance to watch the offense, defense and special teams on film, we didn’t execute the way we wanted to in all three phases. We obviously didn’t play very well, but in looking back over the last eight weeks, and looking back at the whole body of work, if you put it all together we’ve made tremendous improvement as a football team. We played some very good football at a high level most of the time, and we won some very, very big games for the Trojan Family. And for that I’m very, very grateful for our football team and our coaching staff. We’re going to have a team meeting tomorrow.

"We’ll talk about academics and about getting on the right track. Obviously, we have to wait until next Sunday before they let us know what bowl we’ll go to, and we’ll make preparations accordingly.”

[+] EnlargeEd Orgeron
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesEd Orgeron said the Trojans coaching staff is getting positive responses from recruits.
Orgeron on if he spoke to USC athletic director Pat Haden on Sunday:

“I did not have a meeting with Pat at all today. I’ve been busy recruiting most of the day. I spoke to him briefly after the game last night … just a normal talk about the game. Nothing other than that.”

On whether he gets many questions from recruits about the uncertainty surrounding his status as USC’s interim head coach, and if so, how he approaches those questions:

“Not many questions. … I just talk to them about the game, I talk to them about what we’ve done the last eight weeks, and I talk about our whole body of work, and the type of energy and the style that they watched us play with for most of the time … where they would fit in within the recruiting class … just the normal positive recruiting stuff that we talk about here at USC. Very few do ask, [and] I say, ‘Listen, we don’t know what’s going to happen.’ I just continue to recruit and work on a daily basis as the head coach here until they make a decision.”

Has he been told by Haden when a meeting to discuss his status might happen?

“No, not yet. We just talked about going ahead with recruiting, go ahead and do what I need to do, and he’ll talk to me when he’s ready to.”

On what stands out about USC’s loss to UCLA that Orgeron wishes he could have changed or done differently:

“The field position hurt us a bunch. We gave up too many return yards in the kicking game. We felt like we started behind the eight ball in field position a whole bunch. Obviously we would do something to adjust that. The quarterback runs really hurt us. We did have a plan, [but] obviously we didn’t stop him, so we’d have to do something different against the quarterback runs. I thought [Brett] Hundley had an excellent game. There were some times where there were too many holes, and there were some things we could have done better, obviously. We did not tackle as well as we normally tackle. I thought that our run game would be a lot better … we struggled early in the run game, which really hurt us. And those are the things that we wish we could improve on.”

On the pre-game verbal altercation between the teams:

“That’s something that we didn’t like, and I addressed the team after that. That was something that had nothing to do with the football game, and obviously, if I could have avoided it I would have.”

On the status of offensive linemen Marcus Martin (knee) and Aundrey Walker (ankle):

“I believe Aundrey was operated on today, and everything came out fine. And that’s all I have today. I’ll talk to Russ [Romano] tomorrow and give you an update on the rest of the guys.”

On what’s next for the juniors who are considering leaving early and declaring for the NFL draft:

“We’ve had some preliminary talks with the juniors. We’ll have a meeting with them this week. I’ll have a meeting with the parents … and hopefully [they] go through the whole process. Most of those guys are willing to listen. I don’t know if any of them have totally made up their mind whether they’re going to go or not. I think they’re still in the decision-making process. We’re going to give them all of the information that they need so they can make a sound decision.”

Other than wide receiver Marqise Lee and safety Dion Bailey, what other juniors are in the mix to potentially leave early?

“I think you have to look at all of them. … They haven’t told me if they want to go, if they don’t want to go … we won’t leave any stone unturned. We will talk to all of the guys … George Uko, Josh Shaw, Marcus Martin, Aundrey [Walker]. All of the guys that are eligible to go, we’re going to make sure that we talk to them … Hayes Pullard. We don’t want to lose any of them, obviously.”

On whether Orgeron has ever been in the position he is now, recruiting for a program with no permanent head coach:

“I was here when Coach [Paul] Hackett was let go, and I was here for two weeks before they hired Pete Carroll. I was out on the road recruiting, and we didn’t have a head coach, and we just happened to sign one of the best recruiting classes we’ve ever had. One of them was Shaun Cody, another was Kenechi Udeze and another was Mike Patterson. That’s a pretty good recruiting class. Matt Leinart … those guys helped us win a championship. So, yeah, I’ve been in that position before. We know what to do.”

Searching for the real Ed Orgeron

November, 25, 2013
LOS ANGELES -- Having dispensed Colorado in the frozen tundra of Boulder’s Folsom Field, USC interim head coach Ed Orgeron has passed yet another “audition” in his now very open quest to impress Trojans athletic director Pat Haden.

[+] EnlargePat Haden
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsAD Pat Haden wants the next USC head coach to lead the program for many years to come. Is that man Ed Orgeron?
As it should be, Haden will be the most interested observer of Orgeron on Saturday when the Trojans battle crosstown rival UCLA. If Orgeron is going to make his case to drop the “interim” tag, it probably comes down to beating the Bruins.

Or does it?

Haden has known and seen Orgeron up close and from a distance since Orgeron first arrived at USC as a defensive line coach under Paul Hackett in 1998. Haden is well aware of the defensive line successes of Orgeron, and his heavy contributions to the success of former USC coach Pete Carroll during his tenure. Haden is also well aware why late defensive line coach Marv Goux, a Trojans icon and once a mentor of Orgeron, was never seriously considered for the USC head coaching position when John McKay left for the NFL.

Although he spent time away from Troy as he pursued a broadcasting career in concert with his law responsibilities, it might also be said of Haden that nobody knows Orgeron like the Trojans' athletic director.

The Stanford victory is Orgeron's signature moment so far, and he's proven all that Haden needs to know about his qualifications.

Besides beating UCLA, what more can Orgeron to show he should be the Trojans' next permanent head coach?

Only Haden and perhaps his close associate J.K. McKay know, and it’s possible Haden will tell the nation the week following the UCLA game.

Recently, Haden gushed what an outstanding and “remarkable” job that Orgeron and his coaching staff have done in resurrecting the 2013 Trojans from its catatonic state. To be fair, Haden has gone out of his way to be overly complimentary, appreciative and respectful.

Because of Haden’s long USC association, the former Trojans star quarterback has a pretty good idea of Orgeron as a coach, leader and person. Obviously, Haden knows that Orgeron is a tremendously popular individual in all facets of USC life from the players, assistant coaches, parents, recruits, student body, general public and even Art Bartner’s band.

If this were an election of the collective people, Orgeron would win going away. But using our nation’s political voting system as an example, winning the popular vote isn’t the end-all. It’s all about the Electoral College.

Haden laid the groundwork for the culmination of this ongoing process by saying that his choice is not based on just an eight-game audition, but directing a storied program for many years to come. This was obviously a reference to the Orgeron situation.

What Haden is asking himself is does “O” have the leadership skills and, how does he really handle the responsibility if he actually gets the job?

Can he work with Orgeron and trust him once he names him the head coach?

Haden is probably pondering whether Orgeron is indeed the magic bullet for USC’s holster, or is he the failed former Ole Miss head coach?

Is he a wolf in sheep’s clothing?

The word used by most that meet and know Orgeron is that he is genuine, the real deal. A workingman’s man. He’s “one of us.”

Recently former Trojans head football coach Lane Kiffin said on local radio that Orgeron was the obvious next man for the Trojans coach, but added that how the “new” Orgeron is handling things as the interim head coach is not the natural Orgeron. Kiffin basically made it seem that Orgeron is simply a Carroll impressionist and that his former coach is doing things differently than who he really is because things weren’t working.

The amazing thing about Kiffin’s comment is that Orgeron has admitted publically that although he was Kiffin’s right-hand man and also took full responsibility for what had transpired during Kiffin’s tenure, he had to change things completely for the good of the team and the program.

And Orgeron’s change of direction and using Carroll blueprint has undeniably worked. Just ask the current Trojans players.

And that’s Haden’s dilemma.

Just who is the real Ed Orgeron?

Perhaps, Pat Haden already knows.

Assistants hoping for permanent ride 

November, 21, 2013
LOS ANGELES -- While a majority of the attention is focused on USC’s astounding football turnaround -- specifically the audition and future of interim head coach Ed Orgeron -- almost lost in translation has been the performance and future of the Trojans assistant coaches.

There are nine assistants whose livelihoods and potential family relocations might be at stake, pending the outcomes of the Colorado and UCLA games. It’s a tenuous position, as Trojans athletic director Pat Haden will soon make the difficult decision on the next USC head football coach, which will affect some, if not all, of the current assistants.

Be assured that Haden has empathy for Orgeron, his assistants, and their limbo status, as this coaching staff attempts to finish the regular season in spectacular fashion and state their case for further employment at USC.

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