USC athletic director Pat Haden had two months to decide on the best possible candidate to replace disastrous coach Lane Kiffin. Should it concern Trojans fans that the guy he chose, Washington's Steve Sarkisian, has a lower career Pac-12 winning percentage (.539) than the guy Haden fired (.586)?
It's not an apples-to-apples comparison. Kiffin took over a program just a year removed from a streak of seven straight BCS bowl seasons, albeit one that would soon be hit with crippling NCAA sanctions. Sarkisian, Kiffin's close friend and former co-offensive coordinator under Pete Carroll (aw-kward), inherited a Washington program that had just gone 0-12.
But that was five years ago. While no one would question Sarkisian had it much tougher rebuilding the Huskies than Kiffin did reloading the Trojans, Sarkisian's landmark achievement this season was that he finally won eight games at a major West Coast university with sparkling new facilities and a 1991 national championship trophy on its mantle. With that as his pedigree, Sarkisian now moves to a program where eight-win seasons are cause for termination and national championships are an expectation, not a fleeting moment in history.
Sarkisian is a good coach, but USC expects a great coach, something he's yet to demonstrate in posting four straight 5-4 Pac-12 seasons. Arguably his best work in Seattle was his first two seasons, when he quickly lifted the Huskies from rock-bottom to a bowl team. Trojans fans surely remember when Sarkisian, three games into his 2009 debut season, led Washington to a massive upset of third-ranked USC. The Huskies finished that season 5-7 and the next year won the Holiday Bowl.
But the three seasons since have been a roller-coaster of encouraging moments and frustrating relapses. Finally this season -- with a veteran team, a much-improved Keith Price at quarterback, an All-America caliber running back in Bishop Sankey and athletes galore on defense -- Sarkisian's team showed early signs of a national breakthrough. It walloped Boise State in its opener and cracked the AP Top 15 for the first time in 11 years. But when time came to measure the Huskies against the Pac-12's upper-echelon programs, Washington once again fell short, losing to Stanford (31-28), Oregon (45-24), Arizona State (53-24) and UCLA (41-31).
Now, Sarkisian moves to a school that considers itself the conference's premier program and in fact produced a better league record this season (6-3) with an interim coach (Ed Orgeron) and a sanction-limited roster. The fact many fans wanted the school to retain Orgeron will not help with the initial reception.
Perhaps there was no sure-fire home run hire Haden could have made, especially given the fact the program is still dealing with sanctions. Boise State's Chris Petersen was never a realistic option. Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin, long considered USC's top target, instead signed a lucrative extension. Vanderbilt's James Franklin is a hot name but has never led a conference or national title contender. Sarkisian at least has first-hand experience from his time on Carroll's staff.
And it may be that Sarkisian is better suited for USC than Washington. He's a SoCal native who began his undergraduate career as a Trojans baseball player. (He ultimately went to junior college, switched to football, and ended up a record-setting quarterback for BYU.) While frequently associated with Kiffin, he's a completely different personality -- looser, more jovial, better at dealing with the media.
All in all, though, the collective reaction Monday to Haden's hire -- from fans, media and industry folks alike -- was, couldn't he have done better? Especially given that Haden had a head start on any other major program with a possible opening and that Florida and, at least so far, Texas, were not competitors? Haden is incredibly smart and universally respected, but his track record as an athletic director (a job in which he had no previous experience) is suspect at best. He fired a basketball (Kevin O'Neill) and football (Kiffin) coach midseason and wound up impulsively hiring Florida Gulf Coast's Andy Enfield based off a two-game NCAA tournament run and now, by all indications, opted for Sarkisian instead of Orgeron in large part because the former beat Washington State last weekend while the latter got crushed by UCLA.
It's never a good sign when the fan base of the school Sarkisian bolted is less upset about his departure than it is excited about a possible upgrade. Would hot UCLA coach and UW alum Jim Mora swap cities? Could former Don James protégé Gary Pinkel, fresh off an SEC division title, be tempted to leave Missouri? (He turned down UW in 2008.) Does Washington's Northwest locale make it possibly the power-conference school that finally woos Petersen away from Boise?
Those are all dreamy possibilities, but rare is the coaching search that results in the most popular choice (i.e., Urban Meyer to Ohio State), as is now the case at USC. All Trojans fans can do is remind themselves that Carroll himself was an uninspiring fourth-choice hire in 2000. Much like when USC took a chance on Carroll (who to that point had a mediocre NFL head coaching resume), the Trojans are hoping that Sarkisian's Washington record doesn't reflect his true potential.