Keith Strudler: USC Dumps The Sark
I’d imagine there aren’t too many sports fans that will shed a tear for now former head University of Southern California head football coach Steve Sarkisian. That includes most loyal Trojan fans and alumni, most of whom are still reeling from an unexpected home loss last week to mid-tier University of Washington, a program that’s supposed to hardly be a speed bump in the steam roll of a revitalized Trojan football program. Of course, Sarkisian, or Sark came from UW, where he was a relatively successful if but slightly controversial coaching figure. He was a coach that hardly ever spoke softly, big stick or not, but led the Huskies to four bowl games in his five years, even if those bowl games were the kind that were named after auto repair shops and advocacy groups. So not exactly the Rose Bowl, which, of course, is an expectation at USC. Breaking .500 is acceptable in the Pacific Northwest. Downcoast in LA, the bar is set much higher.
Of course, it wasn’t a miserable loss to Washington, a team that’s on the rise under former Boise State coach Chris Peterson, that cost Sark his job. Nor was it the beating by upstate rival Stanford earlier this season, which is something of a litmus for the elite private institution. It was his personal life, or inability to keep that personal, that was Sarkisian’s undoing. Sark was fired with cause by USC athletic director Pat Hayden on Monday after showing up intoxicated to team meetings on Sunday, where he interacted with his student athletes. This came as a capstone to Sark’s very public and embarrassing performance at the season opening rally with booster and fans, when a visibly drunk Sarkisian spoke disparagingly about other universities, among other things. It was so bad that Hayden nearly hooked him off stage like the unknown comic in the Gong Show. And with that performance came a stern rebuke and a warning – namely do it again, and you’re out of here.
Again came last Sunday, when Sarkisian arrived intoxicated to campus, a clear sign that he was wrong, or perhaps in denial in publicly denying a drinking problem. Sark found out he was done through email from friends, since Hayden apparently couldn’t reach his head coach on Monday, on account that he was on an airplane. Flying to a rehab facility. And thus ends the stormy run of Steve Sarkisian at USC. He’s now replaced by interim head coach Clay Helton, who’s already openly lobbied for the permanent post. No point in waiting for the body to get cold. It seems unlikely he’ll get the chance, since USC has a habit of hiring big names with glossy resumes. The school may not be in Hollywood, but it’s close enough to attract stars of their own. The next head football coach at USC will be under the same pressures as every previous one – the past two who’ve now been fired mid-season. And that’s to win national championships under one of the hottest spotlights in sports, amateur or otherwise. And to do it without succumbing to the clear perils of coaching 18 year old celebrities in the shadows of obscene fame, fortune, and conspicuous consumption. If the NCAA rule book was written with one school in mind, it’s USC. So say what you want about how easy it is to recruit star athletes there. At USC, that’s hardly the beginning of the fight.
It’s hard to say whether Sarkisian’s firing was truly justified. On the one hand, he was warned, and when you make more in a year than most of us do a lifetime, that should be enough. On the other hand, I’d hate the precedent that people can’t take time to recover from an alcohol problem, which can only be acerbated by the stress of that job. Certainly, I understand both sides. And not paying his salary, I suppose that’s a luxury you and I have.
But I’ll say this. Pat Hayden could have found out more about Steve Sarkisian’s past, which now it seems might have been a bit more illustrative than we thought. And, when Sark had his first issue, he could have insisted he seek help, instead of hoping he does. Perhaps that’s not possible when your own career is measured by both wins and losses as well as dollars raised – none of which are possible with a coach that shows up drunk to work. Universities are supposed to places that nurture, that grow, that help people learn. That’s not really the case in big time college football, which is a business if there ever was one.
So maybe you won’t shed a tear for Steve Sarkisian, who I’m sure will find another high paying job soon enough. But perhaps some empathy is in order. Alcoholism may be pervasive. But the stresses of Sarkisian’s now former job are certainly far more unique.
Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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