LAS VEGAS -- Steve Sarkisian smiled as he walked through the lobby of the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas wearing a USC pullover, jeans and loafers.
USC’s new head coach was more of a coach-in-waiting last weekend as he met with parents, players and coaches in Las Vegas before officially taking over the reins following USC’s 45-20 win over Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Sarkisian watched the game from a suite in the press box along with USC athletic director Pat Haden and met with the team as the players boarded the team bus after the game.
“I want them to enjoy it and embrace it,” said Sarkisian, 39. “I couldn't be more proud of them, that they were able to come out and perform the way they did. They deserve it. I just tried to stay out of the way, the best I could. Now I get to get my hands on them and get going -- and there's a lot to work with, that's for sure.”
Before Sarkisian gets going, he sat down with ESPNLosAngeles.com for a wide-ranging interview about taking over the team and about his plans for the future of USC football.
ESPNLA: When Lane Kiffin was fired five games into the season, most figured Pat Haden would spend the final two months of the season trying to secure a “home run” hire to replace him. No disrespect, but after a 34-29 record at Washington, you were not viewed as a” home run hire” by many. Why do you think you’re the right hire for USC?
Sarkisian: I think I’m one of their own. I’ve always considered myself a part of the Trojan family. I come here with a dedication to do everything in my power for them, to work my tail of to get this place back to where it needs to be and belongs to be. I’ve got rich ties to this program. I was here in some of the best years this program has ever had. I think we have an exciting, innovative offense that will kick-start this program and make it the dynamic program offensively that we know we can be. I know I’m going to recruit Southern California extremely well. But at the end of the day, whether you agree with my hiring or not, let’s judge the hiring three or four years down the road. Then come tell me if you think it was a good hire or not. I’m like a recruit. Every coach probably has stars on them. I don’t know if I’m a three-, four- or five-star coach, but that really doesn’t matter in recruiting. It’s the results that you have that really earn those stars so we’ll go see how many stars I can earn.
ESPNLA: Lane Kiffin left Tennessee after one season to come back to coach USC. You left what you had built at Washington over five years to come back and coach USC. You both could have carved your own paths elsewhere but came back. What is it about the USC job that makes it a “dream job” for you?
Sarkisian: I was born and raised in Southern California. I’ve watched the USC football program from the first day I can remember watching football. They won Rose Bowls and national championships and had all those great players. In my youth, those were some of the best years ever in USC history, in the 1970s. I’ve always held on to that. I also had my time here as an assistant coach with Pete [Carroll] and some of the great memories and experiences and teams that we had. So for me, when this opportunity came, I had to take it.
What makes it unique for me is, first of all, it's home, second, the rich history and tradition that this place has, and third, I can vividly remember talking to Pete as a young coach. He asked me, “What do you want? What are you looking for in this profession? Where are you headed?” I told him, “I want your job.” I remember saying that to him a long time ago. I think this is the best job in America. People come here to be the best and that’s why I chose to come here.
ESPNLA: When you were in Washington, you said similar things about that job. What changed and was it difficult for you to leave a program you helped rebuild?
Sarkisian: It was very difficult. I can tell you going to that team meeting room to let those players and coaches and staff know ... I never want to have that meeting again. I never want to have to do that again. We inherited a program that was on hard times and hadn’t been to a bowl game in almost 10 years. They were 0-12. I’m proud of the work we did. I’m proud of the character and the kids we brought into the program. They’re going to their fourth consecutive bowl game with an opportunity to win a ninth game this year. There are good kids there, but every one of those people in that room I brought to the University of Washington. To walk away was very difficult. Some understood, some didn’t understand, and I get it, but I’m very grateful and thankful to the University of Washington. At the end of the day, when I got on the airplane to come to L.A. to meet this team, I was proud of the work that we did at Washington. I know that program is in a much better place today than where it was five years ago when we took over.
ESPNLA: What was it like for you to get hired as the coach at USC but sort of watch from afar for a couple of weeks as the current team and coaches prepared for their bowl game?
Sarkisian: It was definitely a unique experience for me. When I took over at Washington, they weren’t in a bowl game, so it was a little bit different. This has been especially unique because the coaches on this staff have done a really good job to turn this season around at that midpoint. What Coach O [Ed Orgeron] and then Clay Helton did, the kids bought into. The spirit is amazing. I’ve now had a chance to meet with every single one of them individually as well as collectively and I think they’re excited for what the future holds.
ESPNLA: You were at USC during a period where over seven consecutive seasons the Trojans won at least 11 games, the conference title, were ranked in the AP top four and played in a BCS bowl game. They haven’t done any of the above since you left in 2008. How does USC get back to that standard?
Sarkisian: This is a talented roster. At USC, you don’t rebuild. I know there have been some tough times here over the past four years or so of dealing with the sanctions and scholarship reductions, but I do know over the next 14 months, we’re going to sign 44 players. We’re going to sign 19 players in this year’s class; we’re going to sign another 25 in next year’s class. Where those reductions hurt the depth on this roster, I think we can quickly build that depth back up. There is a great deal of talent on the current roster but we’re not deep yet so we’ll have to manage the roster for another season but we don’t rebuild here. We’re here to win a championship, and I think we have the pieces in place to go compete for a championship next fall.
ESPNLA: This is the first time you’ve been at USC where it is dealing with sanctions and reduced scholarships. How have you adjusted to that and what’s stuck out to you most about dealing with it?
Sarkisian: I have watched a bit from afar and observed it. We obviously have the scholarship limitations but one thing I’ve really noticed is that younger players are getting more reps, everybody is getting more reps. I think there’s 19 players out with season-ending injuries so not only are there limitations on scholarships but when you go out to practice, there’s not a lot of guys practicing because of the amount of injuries that have occurred. So you have to manage practice really well. For me, I need to get these injured guys healthy so we maximize the roster that we do have and the players that we have. The influx of the 19 newcomers will help. We just need to understand our sheer numbers and how to manage those guys and know where our depth is, where our depth is insufficient and continually trying to build those areas up.
ESPNLA: You came to USC in Pete Carroll’s first year at USC and saw how he turned around this program. You were also up in Seattle coaching the Huskies while Pete was turning around the Seahawks. What do you take from your time with him to help you turn around USC?
Sarkisian: One thing Pete has done from the day I met him to today when you walk into the Seahawks' facility -- it’s his energy and enthusiasm for the day, for that day. It’s so infectious. Every time he walks through the door of that building, regardless of what occurred yesterday or what might be in front of him, that day his energy is so infectious and so positive. It makes people want to come into the building and work with him, play for him and do everything they can to embody the same characteristics that he has.
When I first took the job at Washington, I went into his office and I told him, and the last piece of advice he gave me and I’ve always held on to is, “Be you. Don’t try to be me, don’t try be anyone else. Be you. Because when the adverse times come, the real you is going to come out anyway, so make sure they know who you are.” I’ve really tried to hold on to those two things. The attitude I embrace for every single day, which is motivating for every single person in the building, and I’m doing it in my own way and my own style.
ESPNLA: Since Pete Carroll left, they’ve replaced him with Lane Kiffin and for eight games with Ed Orgeron, two of his former assistants. You’re the third former Carroll assistant tasked to replace him. Is it hard coaching in that shadow?
Sarkisian: I don’t think they’re wrong for doing that and trying to recapture that. That seven-year run is arguably the best run in college football history. But it’s not hard for me because I’ve had the chance to go away on my own and be at Washington for five years and inherit a completely different program when I got there to the one I left. It allowed me to develop my own philosophies, my own way of life, my own way of speaking to the team, my own way of motivating our players. Pete and I are very different.
There are some core principles that I’m going to hold on to that I learned over a seven-year span but at the end of the day we’re different people. I’ve deviated from the schemes that we were running when I was with Pete, whether it’s on offense, defense or special teams. Through time, we change, but at the end of the day, I think there are some core principles I should hold onto and this program should hold onto because that was a tremendous seven-year run.
ESPNLA: You and Kiffin are also connected because you two are friends and shared play-calling duties under Carroll. What makes you different that Kiffin and why do you ultimately think you’ll be a better fit than he was?
Sarkisian: We have different personalities. We’re also different schematically. I’ve changed. When I went to Washington, I inherited a spread football team and a quarterback in Jake Locker who was a spread quarterback. I essentially meshed the two. We took our pro-style approach from USC and meshed it with the athleticism of Jake Locker and some of the spread principles and really started to evolved as an offense ultimately to the point last season where we were a no-huddle team running that same offense and we averaged over 500 yards per game on offense. So we’re different schematically and we’re different people.
Lane’s a good football coach. He’s going to land on his feet and he’s going to go somewhere else and do good things, but we’re different. I respect the heck out of him for the job he did. This wasn’t easy, what he inherited, but now I have an opportunity to do something really special here at USC and I can’t wait to get going.
ESPNLA: Did you talk to Lane at all about this job? Perhaps pick his brain on what he did that worked or didn’t work?
Sarkisian: No. I want to get the basis of my own analysis of where we’re at. I’m sure we’ll talk about it at some point but the reality is I have to formulate my own plan. This is a different stage of it than what Lane had four years ago. This is a different stage and a different phase and how we attack the next 12 months into the next 24 months will be different than what he had to do in his first 24 months.
ESPNLA: When Carroll left in 2009 to go back to the NFL, you were one of the leading candidates to replace him, but you said you didn’t want to leave Washington after being there for just one season. Why?
Sarkisian: I just didn’t think the timing was right, quite honestly. I had been at Washington for a year. They had given me that opportunity to be the head coach there, and I had made a commitment to that university to better that program and I feel like I did that. I’m proud of what we did in that time. This time around, when the opportunity presented itself, I felt like the timing was right. I felt like I was in the right place as a head coach with five years of experience under my belt. I felt like the timing was right for me to come back to USC so I could put my best foot forward to be the head coach at USC. I didn’t just want to be the coach at USC, I wanted to be a successful head coach at USC and I think I’m ready to do that.
ESPNLA: How were you offered the job, and what were your thoughts when those conversations were taking place?
Sarkisian: Oddly enough, I was watching the SC-UCLA game on Saturday because we had played on Friday against Washington State. I told the staff this is a really good end to the season and I’m proud of you. We’re going to go to a good bowl game, go be fans of football the next couple of days and get together on Monday. So I was barbecuing, watching the SC-UCLA game, and I was cheering like crazy for the Trojans because that’s all I know how to do. I was disappointed in the outcome for everybody involved at SC. And then I got the phone call after the game and it became a reality that this thing could happen.
I have a chance to be the head coach at USC. Let’s go talk to them and let’s see their perspective and Pat’s intentions for this program and where does he want it to go.
I thought it was important for him to know if he did hire me what he was going to get was going to be different than Pete, it was going to be different than Lane and it was going to be different than Coach O. I’m completely different. I’m my own person. I have my own philosophies and I’ve got my own schemes for all three phases and I wanted him to be sure that he knew that and he wasn’t going to get the 2007 USC Trojans, he was going to get Steve Sarkisian’s approach in 2013 and 2014 and beyond.
ESPNLA: When fans come to the L.A. Memorial Coliseum next season to watch your Trojans, what’s the biggest difference they can expect on the field?
Sarkisian: We will be an up-tempo team first. That’s the first thing to hold on to. We’ll be a blend of the tradition pro-style approach with some of the spread principles. A lot of our offense is based out of the shotgun but a lot of those formations the running back is in the pistol directly behind the quarterback so we still have a lot of our traditional plays but we just do it up-tempo and out of the shotgun formation. It’s a really exciting offense that I think the fans will be excited to watch, and it will keep them on the edge of their seats, that’s for sure.
Sarkisian: Everybody on our roster will come back here with a clean slate. They’re going to get to shape and mold who they want to be in the eyes of this coaching staff. It’s really great for everyone involved. For the guys who really weren’t playing as much as they would have liked, here’s a fresh start and a new opportunity to go and compete for it. And for the guys who were playing quite a bit here’s a chance for them to really show their competitive nature and show what they’re about and not get comfortable in where they’re at and what their role is. I think it will be good for everybody involved.
ESPNLA: You’ve met with the players and coaches and even the players' parents on this team. How has the process gone for you with winning them over when you knew some of them were hoping Ed Orgeron would be their coach next season?
Sarkisian: I think it’s been great. I know a lot of these kids. I recruited them out of high school, and my first question to them is why didn’t you choose to come with me. But really, I just want them to get to know me on a personal level. I’m a very interactive person with everyone in our organization. I think it’s important that people have a feel for who I am as a person as much as I am as a coach. I want the players to know that they can feel comfortable with me and can come to me in the good times and the hard times and I want their parents and families to know that as well. That creates trust, and when you have trust, you get belief and when you get belief, then you get an expectation of this is what we’re capable of going out and doing, especially during adverse times. We’re just getting started in that process. It’s going to be an awesome ride.
ESPNLA: How does this story play out? Five years from now are you still at USC and is USC back to where you want it to be?
Sarkisian: I have some theories of where I think this program should be in five and 10 years. Everybody has a plan, but what I do know is I’m not going to be surprised if five years from now we’re sitting here getting ready to play in the national championship game. I won’t be surprised if it happens before that. I think this place has the capability of doing that. I think we have the capability to recruit the best players in Southern California along with some of the best players in the country, and if we do that the right way with the schemes and the coaches in place, I won’t be surprised if we’re sitting here getting ready to play for a national championship.