Pause for a moment and feel compassion for now former USC coach Steve Sarkisian. Whatever you thought of him as a rival fan -- overrated, under-accomplished -- the unraveling that cost him his dream job is sad and surreal. Hopefully he reorders his life and at some point in the future we will be writing his redemption story.
But Sarkisian is a big boy. As a former USC assistant, he knew the demands and pressures associated with leading the program. He made bad choices in his personal life, but he also made bad choices as a coach. We know this because he was fired with a 12-6 record in less than two seasons, which included two upset defeats at home to double-digit underdogs this season after he clearly was outcoached.
Lane Kiffin was a bad hire when USC wasn't a great job. Who wanted to follow Pete Carroll? Who wanted to inherit program-quashing NCAA sanctions? Sarkisian didn't. He took a pass before Kiffin was offered. He later told me in his office at Washington, "It wasn't the right time," as he had only been leading the Huskies for one season.
Sarkisian turned out to be a bad hire when USC was a good job. While the program was not yet whole in terms of a full plate of 85 scholarships, it was close enough that other coaches smirked about any perceived talent disadvantage. Sarkisian didn't have to be the man after The Man, as Kiffin was. He also walked into major facilities upgrades, eliminating one area where Pac-12 rivals could claim clear superiority.
No one viewed athletic director Pat Haden's hiring of Sarkisian as a home run when it happened. A myriad of skeptics simply pointed to his inconsistency at Washington, where he made a bad program better but seemed to hit a plateau, one that inspired the snarky nickname "Seven-Win Steve/Sark."
There simply is no way around this: The blame for hiring Sarkisian and bringing in a coach who would duplicate Kiffin's midseason firing in just his second year falls on Haden.
That assessment isn't a "hot take" or jumping into the blame game. It's simply a fact, a failure that in the high-stakes world of USC football can't be viewed as, say, a learning experience. As a successful businessman, Haden understands accountability, and here's a guess that he knows he must be accountable for the sorry state USC finds itself in as it prepares to travel across the country to take on intersectional rival Notre Dame.
Haden also is a USC legend, a hugely successful investor who took the AD job because he thought his alma mater needed him. He loves USC. So if he has his fingers on the pulse of USC, he probably knows he shouldn't be in charge of the selection of the Trojans' next football coach. It's not just that public sentiment is against his doing so, it's that his decision to hire Sarkisian should, in a moment of harsh but clear-thinking self-evaluation, make him see he's not the best one for that job.
Haden is 62 and working without a contract. He also is burdened by the demands of serving on the College Football Playoff selection committee. He told Gary Klein of the LA Times just a month ago, "I'm an employee at will. The president can fire me any time he wants, and I can retire any time I want." He also said, "I will be here this year for sure," and that he's particularly involved in the project to renovate the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Haden told the Times, "There's some of that [Coliseum renovation project], I think that quite honestly only I can do, and so that adds some complexity to the answer to the question [about how long he would remain as athletic director]."
Haden won't be fired. He doesn't even need to step down. He simply could focus on the Coliseum project and help bring aboard a small crew of trusted, connected people to become a search committee.
Make no mistake, USC is now a great job. It's much better than when Kiffin was hired and even better than when Sarkisian was tapped. USC may have to ante up in terms of salary -- Sarkisian's roughly $4 million salary pretty much only matched the average in the SEC, with a much higher cost of living in Southern California -- but the Trojans are talented at present and always a recruiting superpower to fuel the future.
If USC hires someone who generates positive buzz and enthusiasm with the fan base, he'll swoop in and immediately salvage a top-10 recruiting class. He will immediately create positive momentum. The environment around the program isn’t toxic. It’s hungry.
When Pete Carroll was hired, no one wanted the job, and then-AD Mike Garrett somehow stumbled into a stroke of genius. It was much harder to win at USC back then, yet Carroll won the Orange Bowl in Year 2 and a national title in Year 3.
The right coach at USC competes on a regular basis for national championships. That's an opinion that feels pretty darn close to a factual statement.
Now can USC hire the right coach when USC is a great job?