LOS ANGELES — Win Forever. That’s the catch phrase, ethos and inspirational book Pete Carroll left behind after his nine-year stint at USC ended in 2010. He resurrected the program back into college football’s elite and ever since USC has flailed in its attempts to chase those highs.
At the LA Coliseum on Thursday night, USC got another reminder of why it should have deviated from Uncle Pete’s coaching tree. As USC wheezed, sputtered and pre-snap retreated its way to a 17–12 loss to pedestrian Washington (3–2), the Trojan faithful saw up-close the coach they let slip away.
Chris Petersen, then at Boise State, interviewed for the USC job following the 2013 season. The USC brass dismissed Petersen as not dynamic enough and too unwilling to handle the media and booster obligations that go hand-in-hand with the biggest football job in Los Angeles.
So USC athletic director Pat Haden went back to the Win Forever well, hiring Steve Sarkisian from Washington as a replacement for his old co-offensive coordinator, Lane Kiffin.
But perhaps more tellingly, USC hired a familiar face from USC’s Never Never Land—a time that USC officials remember more for the wins and attention than the cheating and NCAA sanctions that followed. After a program-defining loss filled with bad penalties and questionable game management, it’s clear that USC’s decision to hire Sarkisian has left the Trojans stuck in the past, like Uncle Rico chasing state.
Sarkisian got completely outfoxed by Petersen on Thursday night. The team with less talent, inferior athletes and a liability at quarterback won with a better game plan, crisper execution and fewer penalties. The scary part is that it could have been much worse, as Washington quarterback Jake Browning missed a wide open Jaydon Mickens in the end zone and overthrew a few handful of open receivers on well-constructed deep routes.
In perhaps his best decision of the night, Sarkisian fell on the sword for the loss. “This game starts with me,” he said. He added: “The head coach has the responsibility to own up to it.”
Haden’s ill-fated decision making was on full display Thursday night. And while this loss doesn’t mark the end of Sarkisian’s time at USC, it marks a definitive point where people can start speculating about the end. And that will certainly include Eagles coach Chip Kelly. USC had strong interest in Kelly when it hired Sarkisian. Not even halfway through his second season, there’s worry if "Seven-Win Sark" will even get there. Things can get a lot worse for USC (3–2) with upcoming games at Notre Dame, home against Utah and then at California. The barbarians haven’t circled the gate, but they’re huddling and game-planning.
When asked if he’s coaching for his job the rest of the way this season, Sarkisian said defiantly, “Not at all.”
When considering Sarkisian versus Petersen, USC picked hoodies over khakis, sideline volatility over serenity and a coach who has proven he can win on signing day as opposed to league play. USC took Sarkisian with his 35–29 record at Washington over Petersen’s 92–12 at Boise State. USC took style over substance, sizzle over steak. They took the comfort of Uncle Pete’s coaching tree over the proven acumen of Coach Pete. While those records are not apples-to-apples comparisons, we’ve learned at USC that there’s something to be said for having received a driver’s license before taking over a Cadillac program. And, no, winning the Holiday Bowl doesn’t count.
And so far, from the flat performances on the field to one glaring incident off it in August, USC is getting exactly what it asked for. It hired a mediocre coach with an unspectacular track record, and the Trojans have gotten in return a shaky program with unreliable results. Look no further than the losses to Boston College and Utah and the blowout to UCLA last season.
Haden looked ashen but kept to the company line when approached by Sports Illustrated on Thursday night. When asked about Sarkisian’s future, he mentioned how wide open the Pac-12 South is and said, “We’re just going to keep on fighting.”
Nothing summed the coaching mismatch better than Petersen channeling his inner-Boise State with a deftly timed trick play that gave the Huskies a 10–6 lead early in the third quarter. After a JuJu Smith-Schuster fumble, Washington called a receiver pass that Marvin Hall completed to Joshua Perkins for 27 yards. There wasn’t a USC defender in the same zip code as Perkins, who could have moonwalked into the end zone. After USC answered with a three-and-out whimper on the next possession, the boo birds began chirping. That play summed up the night’s biggest mismatch, which manifested itself in scheme instead of talent. The only time Sarkisian looked worse was when he went for a field goal on fourth-and-nine with less than four minutes remaining and trailing 17–12. Did Butch Jones call in that suggestion?
“I hate to admit to confusion, quite honestly,” Sarkisian said. “I’m frustrated, that’s probably a better word for me. I’m frustrated because I really believe in this team.”
Unfortunately for USC's administrators, they’re going to find themselves in the uncomfortable position of defending Sarkisian (12–6) for his on-field ineptitude, which is only exacerbated by Sarkisian’s run of off-field problems. Sarkisian changed the paradigm of his tenure when he appeared to be intoxicated at a booster event in August, slurring his words and casting doubt on more than just his coaching ability. USC’s administrators then further bungled things by announcing they would ban alcohol in the locker room when no one knew they had alcohol there. Sarkisian also gave mixed messages on his potential treatment options, leaving USC looking like Rutgers’s West Coast cousin.
Haden wanted a coach comfortable with attention, and he appears to have found one who can manufacture more viral stories than Buzzfeed. USC has already endured the Josh Shaw fiasco, when the school released Shaw’s false story about a heroic act after he injured himself running from an alleged domestic violence incident. (Police dropped the investigation without charges.) Then there was the bizarre incident in USC’s win at Stanford last year when Sarkisian had someone on the sideline call up to the press box for help on the sideline after receiving an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Haden running to Sarkisian’s rescue became one of the season’s indelible images and overshadowed arguably the biggest win of Sarkisian’s USC tenure.
The first hallmark win of Petersen’s tenure got overshadowed by the mess of USC, a 17.5-point favorite, self-destructing. Petersen took the Washington job after Sarkisian left for USC and has found a perfect fit. I asked him after the game if his USC interview and the potential of coaching there entered his mind at all. He smiled bright, “No, I’m way past that. It didn’t even enter my mind.” He did admit that he ended up in the right place, the more low-key Seattle a better match for his personality. “It’s all about fit,” he said.
USC fans are again coming to grips with a coach who appears to be the wrong fit. The Trojans can still theoretically get their act together and win the Pac-12 South. But right now, Sarkisian has a satchel of horrifying losses, and his only signature victories have come on signing day. Instead of Win Forever, this new USC era only can really celebrate in February. That’s when the latest batch of Trojans destined to underachieve come to Troy.
At USC, the drama has returned to the underachieving on the field from the behavior issues off it. And just 18 games into the Steve Sarkisian era, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the best candidate to lead USC to glory now works in Seattle.