Trojans Move on After Coach Sarkisian Firing

The firing of coach Steve Sarkisian marks USC's fourth coaching change in just over two years

USC's athletic director insisted Tuesday that the university did its due diligence before hiring ex-football coach Steve Sarkisian, fired over concerns about his troubling behavior this season, as the team prepared for an old rivalry with a new head coach at the helm.

The hiring process that brought Sarkisian from Washington to the top job with the storied University of Southern California football program included dozens of interviews with friends and colleagues, athletic director Pat Haden said Tuesday. None of those interviews "raised a concern," he said.

"Steve's conduct did not meet USC standards and expectations of a head coach," Haden said. "He knew those expectations and failed to meet them."

Haden said he still has not spoken to Sarkisian, and fired him through a termination letter sent to him and his agent.

University President C.L. Max Nikias came to Haden's defense of in a statement that was issued Tuesday as USC's football team returned to the practice field for the first time since the firing.

"As president of USC I am very, very fortunate to have Pat Haden as our athletic director -- as is the entire Trojan family," Nikias said. "He is a man of true character and integrity, he cares deeply for our student athletes and he always makes their well-being his highest priority. Pat Haden has been doing an outstanding job in leading Trojan Athletics in the past five years and I want to take this opportunity to reiterate my unwavering support for him. I look forward to working with Pat Haden as our USC AD for many years to come."

Haden also said that he still has not spoken to Sarkisian, who was fired through a termination letter sent to him and his agent. Haden made the move one day after determining Sarkisian showed up at school in no condition to lead practice.

USC hasn't elaborated on Sarkisian's problems, but the second-year coach had an embarrassing public display in August at a pep rally where he appeared to be intoxicated while giving a speech. Sarkisian later apologized and said he had combined alcohol and medication, but promised not to drink again during the season. Sarkisian's unsteady appearance Sunday prompted Haden to make the program's fourth coaching change in just over two years.

Offensive coordinator Clay Helton was appointed interim coach Sunday. Helton, Sarkisian's offensive coordinator, officially led his first practice Tuesday as the Trojans (3-2, 1-2 Pac-12) prepare for their annual rivalry game at No. 14 Notre Dame.

"We will compete every day like Trojans," Helton said Tuesday. "We will try to win every game that we have. We are so excited about the opportunities that are ahead of us."

Sarkisian, 41, went 12-6 at USC, where he started as an assistant coach under Pete Carroll with the program's dominant teams of the past decade.

"This is an opportunity for Sark to get right and to get well," Carroll, coach of the NFL's Seattle Seahawks, said Monday. "We're pulling for him. He's up against some big challenges and he's got to go ahead and take care of it. It's not about coaching now. It's about his personal life and getting things in order. I know he's committed to taking the right steps to do that, and it's hugely important for him."

Carroll said he had communicated with Sarkisian recently.

"I'll be there to support him," Carroll said. "I knew him before, and (he has) a lot to offer the world. It's been hard on him, and he's made it hard on people around him, too. He knows that. He's got to take the steps to take care of business now."

Sarkisian spent five years as Washington's head coach until 2013, when he left the Huskies for a reported five-year contract to return to his native Southern California, describing it as "a dream come true to be back in the Trojan family." Sarkisian never faced significant public scrutiny for alcohol use in Seattle, although his enthusiasm for nights out became part of his identity among fans and boosters. An AP review of Sarkisian's expense reports from his years at Washington showed a steady acquisition of alcohol on his trips, ranging from mild indulgences to lavish liquor purchases, sometimes before lunch.

Washington athletic director Scott Woodward issued a brief statement: "It is evident that Steve is dealing with a serious personal matter and we wish him the best in facing whatever challenges lay ahead."

The hallowed USC football program has five AP national championships and more than a century of proud history, but it has endured turmoil for most of the past six years since Carroll left the school for the NFL's Seattle Seahawks in 2009.

The well-liked Haden, a former USC quarterback, is facing increasing public condemnation for his oversight of the entire athletic department, but particularly a football team with a national championship pedigree in upheaval for yet another season. After the tumultuous 3 1/2-year tenure of fired coach Lane Kiffin, Sarkisian and his players have made several public missteps during his short tenure. Sarkisian's coaching also received widespread scrutiny after a 17-12 loss to Washington last week dropped the preseason No. 8 team out of the AP Top 25.

The talent-rich, well-funded USC football program won national titles in 2003 and 2004 before falling one game short in 2005, but the Trojans have been roiling in trouble ever since a lengthy NCAA investigation of extra benefits given to Heisman Trophy-winning tailback Reggie Bush neared a conclusion six years ago.

After Carroll jumped to the NFL, former athletic director Mike Garrett hired Kiffin away from Tennessee shortly before the NCAA hit USC with heavy sanctions that included three years of scholarship reductions.

Kiffin created or endured numerous controversies before getting fired by Haden at the airport shortly after a terrible loss in 2013. Most of Kiffin's woes were confined to amateurish gamesmanship, such as players switching jersey numbers during a game and a student manager underinflating footballs.

The Trojans then had four head coaches in 2013, with interim coach Ed Orgeron quitting in disappointment after Sarkisian was hired over him. Helton coached the Las Vegas Bowl and then joined Sarkisian's staff.

Ever since Sarkisian's arrival, the Trojans seemingly can't get through a month without some sort of drama -- some of it having nothing to do with the coach.

Senior cornerback Josh Shaw bizarrely concocted a heroic story about getting injured while saving a child from drowning, only to be suspended for most of last season after confessing the lie. Haden made headlines early last season by going down to the sideline to yell at officials during a game at Stanford at Sarkisian's request.

Sarkisian's behavior at the Salute to Troy pep rally in August was an embarrassment, but the coach appeared to move past it in September after a contrite public statement.

But then the losing started: Stanford racked up 41 points while beating then-No. 6 USC at the Coliseum last month, and Sarkisian's offense was terrible against the Huskies.

Sarkisian's former colleagues and opponents offered words of compassion and encouragement Monday. Chris Petersen was a candidate for the USC job won by Sarkisian, and the former Boise State coach replaced Sarkisian at Washington shortly afterward. Petersen's unranked Huskies then beat USC in the coaches' first meeting last Thursday.

"This is a tough job," Petersen said Monday. "You just feel bad for the whole situation for everybody. We could talk a long time about that. It's hard enough to lose. It's a hard enough job when you're doing well, and when something doesn't go right in your situation and everybody piles on, I think it's very tough."
 

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