After Steve Sarkisian’s dismissal Monday, just 18 games into his stay at USC, there’s a staggering amount of instability for one of college football’s most storied programs. Interim Clay Helton becomes the fourth temporary or permanent head coach for the Trojans since Lane Kiffin was fired in September 2013, and Helton has twice been in this position.
When the team plays Notre Dame on Saturday, it will be the fourth different USC head coach Brian Kelly has seen standing across from him in four years.
Even with such an insane level of turnover, the USC brand holds strong. It’s still one of the very best jobs in the country.
A Power 5 head coach recently offered an anecdote that explains why.
“A few years ago, I was recruiting this kid for [another top-tier program], and it came down to us and USC. The kid wound up going to USC even though they were in the middle of a coaching change.
“I said, ‘Why would you go there? They don’t even have a coach.’”
“He said, ‘Because it’s USC. They’ll get a good coach.’”
There aren’t many programs in America that would carry that sort of weight. Of course, location is a huge reason for that. The draw of a major metro area -- and Hollywood and the beaches, etc. -- is always going to be a central recruiting tool for USC. History might not mean as much to the modern recruit, but playing at SC still has unwavering mystique.
“It’s still f------ USC,” one coach said. “It’ll always be f------ USC.”
There’s also a matter of who is ultimately making the hire. Athletic director Pat Haden’s hide is on the line with this Sarkisian hire. Coaches have been telling me that since before Sarkisian's Salute to Troy meltdown back in August.
There was always a sense in the coaching community that this was a risky hire for three reasons: (1) as with Kiffin, who failed before him, Sarkisian was a USC offensive coordinator under Pete Carroll; (2) he was 35-29 at Washington; and (3), the tales of his social behavior, in L.A. and Seattle, were far from a secret. Those might just now be coming to light, but they’ve been well traveled in coaching circles for some time.
“We just wanted the guy to get help, to be honest with you,” one coach told me in August. “You can’t be doing that stuff in public. But what do you say?”
Given all those factors, the Sarkisian hire needed to go well for Haden. This season needed to go well for Haden. Instead, it has blown up in his face not even two seasons into the experiment.
So monitor how Haden weathers the coming days, weeks and months. The next decision just might not be his to make.
Ultimately, who will the school target?