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A few thoughts on USC, Steve Sarkisian, and the state of college football in California

The Trojans firing Steve Sarkisian puts the Trojans - and every other power program in the state - in an interesting place

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

It seemed that something wasn't quite right at USC. We weren't sure exactly what was wrong until this week.


Reporters, players and the university all acknowledged that Steve Sarkisian was an addict, and USC athletic director Pat Haden took the football program out of Sarkisian's hands.

We knew Sarkisian had some issues with alcohol, but only this week did it become fully apparent that Sarkisian is not someone to be laughed at, but that he is battling something more pernicious. Showing up overserved at a public event is an experience that most people can empathize with; battling addiction is darker and more complex than many of us will ever understand.

Steve Sarkisian is no longer the coach at USC, and the Trojans must start over.


For the first time since 2001 - Pete Carroll's first year in Los Angeles - USC has lost back-to-back home games. The first loss, to a Stanford team that has bedeviled the Trojans for the better part of a decade, is explicable. The second loss, to Washington, Sarkisian's former program, was more confusing. How did USC, after routing Arizona State, turn around and flop against the Huskies? Something wasn't right here.

The loss, and the deeper problems with the football program, were quickly attributed to Sarkisian. The second-year coach had failed on the field, but most importantly, he had failed off the field. That was the thing USC fans couldn't abide. Bringing back the aura and attitude of Pete Carroll's Trojans was the reason Sarkisian had been hired.

It's coincidence that ESPN featured a documentary about Pete Carroll's USC teams this week, and it contained an interesting image.


Courtesy: ESPN

It's unclear what year the picture is from. Pete Carroll sits at the head of the conference table, with Steve Sarkisian to his left and Lane Kiffin to his right. You couldn't have know it at the time, but that's 15 years of USC football in three chairs.

Carroll's Trojans were the best team in college football and they acted like it. They carried themselves with an earned arrogance, understanding that they were the biggest show in town and they were probably gonna lay 50 points on you and there wasn't anything you could do about it. It was a perfect marriage of talent, program and head coach. They dazzled on the field and off it, and Vince Young's feet were all that separated them from three straight national titles.

When Carroll left, the party that he started had to go on. So USC hired the man to Carroll's right. Who better to preserve the swagger of the program than someone who understood "what it meant to be a Trojan"? But Kiffin failed, and then USC hired the man to Carroll's left. But then Sarkisian failed. In a way, USC has been Pete Carroll's program for the past 15 years. That's brought them both sweeping success and spectacular failure.

The question now: will the Trojans still be Carroll's program?


The oddsmakers in Las Vegas say no.

The money in the desert favors Kyle Whittingham, Utah's head coach, become the Trojans' next head coach. After that, the odds are on the Eagles' Chip Kelly, Boise State's Bryan Harsin, Houston's Tom Herman and Memphis' Justin Fuente. Among those five names, not a single one has a USC connection. And none of them were part of Pete Carroll's program.

After the failures of Kiffin and Sarkisian, you can see the tide turning, with many USC supporters publicly urging a clean break from the Carroll era, even if that means firing athletic director Pat Haden as well. Unless the Trojans hire Ed Orgeron, who made a strong charge to lead the USC after Kiffin was fired, they'll put the "country club" atmosphere of Carroll's teams behind them.

USC appears to be on the edge of a sea change.


Why does this matter for UCLA and Stanford? They're the programs set in direct contrast with USC and there's a referendum on that contrast every February and every fall.

Off the field, you recruit against USC every single day, and Sarkisian managed to recruit the 2nd-best class in the country in 2015. The Trojans always have players, and they're always going to be on the radar of the top prospects in California. On signing day, it matters how many players you can take from USC.

On the field, your status as a program in the state of California frequently comes down to the USC game. When Stanford beat USC in 2007, it was "back" as a program. Rick Neuheisel lost 50-0 to the Trojans in 2011 and was working as TV analyst a few weeks later. These two programs suffered at the hands of Carroll's dominant teams and benefitted from the gaffes of the last few years. (It matters for Cal, too. They haven't beaten USC in ten years, and the last time they won was with Aaron Rodgers as QB. Their return to relevance in the Pac-12 goes through USC too.)

And now, because of the standards Carrol's Trojans set, whoever ends up becoming the next head coach at USC faces a fearsome landscape in his home state. Both the Bruins and the Cardinal are far better today than they were when Carroll took over and dominated the West Coast.

So now we sit and watch, curious to see just what happens inside Heritage Hall. It's USC's chance to change their status quo. Will UCLA and Stanford still be recruiting against Pete Carroll USC's program? Or will USC turn the page and become a new program recruiting new players for a new scheme? Or will it fall somewhere in the middle?

One way or another, as USC goes, so will the expectations in the state of California.