Punt, Pass & Pork: With Steve Sarkisian taking a leave of absence, what's next at USC?
UPDATE: USC athletic director Pat Haden announced that Steve Sarkisian was terminated as head football coach on Monday afternoon.
So, what happens now at USC? Coach Steve Sarkisian is taking an indefinite leave of absence. Offensive coordinator Clay Helton, who assumed the play-calling duties after Sarkisian's last alcohol-related incident, has now been handed the reins to the entire program. While rumors surrounding the coach and the program swirl, a larger question looms: How will the Trojans navigate such a messy employment matter and an ugly football matter?
First, let's look at the decisions USC athletic director Pat Haden must make. Haden brought Sarkisian to USC in December 2013 after firing Lane Kiffin. The hire was an obvious attempt to recapture the magic of the Pete Carroll era by bringing on a former Carroll assistant, even though Kiffin's hire was also an attempt to recapture that same magic by hiring a former Carroll assistant. In choosing Sarkisian, Haden passed over interim coach—and former Carroll assistant—Ed Orgeron, who had actually succeeded, at least in part, in recreating the toughness, competitiveness and whimsy of USC's Carroll days. Sunday afternoon, Haden had to send home Sarkisian. "I called Steve," Haden told reporters. "It was very clear to me he is not healthy." This came less than two months after Sarkisian showed up drunk to a team and booster function at the Salute to Troy event. "I don't have a lot of answers for you guys," Haden told reporters.
That's the backdrop, but now Haden faces some choices.
Certainly, Haden hurts for Sarkisian on a personal level. He wouldn't have hired the guy if he didn't like him, and just about everyone who meets Sarkisian likes him. He is that kind of person. Haden also probably doesn't want to do anything that will further embarrass Sarkisian, but he has a professional and fiduciary duty to do what is best for USC.
The best thing for USC at this point is likely finding a way to relieve Sarkisian of his duties without paying him a buyout. The cold reality of the situation is that if the Trojans' 2015 season had continued to spiral downward following home losses to Stanford (41–31) and Washington (17–12), Haden might have been forced to fire Sarkisian anyway. If Haden had eventually fired Sarkisian merely for losing games, USC's athletic department would have to pay. If Haden decides to fire Sarkisian for one or both of the substance abuse incidents the program has acknowledged, he may be able to do it without paying, and that money could be used to pay the next coach.
This may seem like an exceptionally cruel way of looking at an issue that has arisen because of an illness (substance abuse), but schools often toss aside substance abusers when players reach a certain threshold of positive tests. The schools—as well as any employer with a substance abuse policy—would contend that cutting loose the person suffering from substance abuse issues is necessary for the good of the larger group. The same could hold true in the case of Sarkisian, whose title makes him responsible for about 100 employees paid in company scrip (tuition, room and board) and dozens of employees paid in actual money. While Sarkisian needs to be given the opportunity to get well, Haden would probably be hesitant to hand the keys to the program back to a man who embarrassed the program twice.
Before he does anything else, Haden will likely huddle with USC's general counsel and human resources department. He'll have to make sure the circumstances of Sarkisian's separation from the team square with USC's policy for dealing with employees who have substance abuse issues. He'll then have to figure out when he can take the next step, if he chooses to take it.
Haden must make a decision before it gets too late in the recruiting cycle. USC has already lost one top football recruit because of the Sarkisian situation, and no doubt coaches from across the country are deluging USC commitments and targets with every salacious rumor involving Sarkisian they can find. To those recruits' parents, rival coaches will suggest USC is an unsafe environment and that the Trojans' administrators looked the other way after Sarkisian's first incident.
Haden should have some latitude to make this decision because of standard language inserted into most coaching contracts. USC is a private school and is under no obligation to release coaching contracts, so we don't know the exact language of Sarkisian's deal. But we can look at some of the public school coaching contracts to get an idea of the typical language. Here, for example, is the pertinent clause from the contract Jim Mora has at cross-town rival UCLA.
… if Coach has committed, or shall commit, any act, or has been, or in the future becomes, knowingly or intentionally involved in any situation or occurrence involving his improper use of or other improper association with drugs or alcohol, or otherwise tending to bring himself into public disrepute, scandal, or ridicule, or tending to shock, insult or offend the people of this nation or any class or group thereof, or reflecting unfavorably on University's reputation or products, then University shall have the right, upon written notice but subject to the provisions of Paragraph 10.d of this 2012 HC Agreement, to terminate this 2012 HC Agreement …
Here's a clause from the contract of Cal coach Sonny Dykes in the section that covers termination for cause.
c. Failure to properly represent the University and the University's athletic programs in private and public forums, including by the commission of, participation in, or condoning of any act, situation or occurrence that, in University's judgment, brings Coach or University into public disrepute, embarrassment, contempt, scandal or unreasonable ridicule. This subsection encompasses findings or determinations of violations during the Term at any institution of higher education.
The language is similar because it is boilerplate. If Sarkisian's USC contract uses similar language, then Haden probably has fairly wide latitude given the recent events. His choice seems fairly obvious based on his duty to USC.
Sarkisian's agent, Gary Uberstine, has a different set of choices to make. Like Haden, Uberstine's primary concern will be for Sarkisian's health. Next, Uberstine must decide how he can best help his client.
The first thing a coach's agent must do in this kind of situation is determine whether his client and the school are still on the same team. If they are, the agent can work with the athletic director to help the coach through his personal issues so he can get back to work. If they aren't, the agent needs to figure out a way to ensure his client gets some or all of his buyout money.
Given the amount of leaks Sunday night, there is a chance USC and Sarkisian are no longer on the same team. From the moment Sarkisian was placed on indefinite leave, embarrassing details began trickling out about Sarkisian's time at USC. It's almost as if a case is being built for the school to fire Sarkisian for cause. Uberstine may have to begin working with USC officials to cut a deal to get some of Sarkisian's buyout in exchange for going away as quietly as possible. Or, if Sarkisian chooses, Uberstine can fight for the entire buyout or for Sarkisian to keep his job. But, again, if the language in Sarkisian's USC contract looks anything like the language in most coaching contracts, they would face an uphill climb.
After Sarkisian gets back to health, Uberstine can begin helping the coach rehabilitate his career. Whether that happens at USC remains to be seen.
Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images
Projected College Football Playoff
1. Utah (5–0)
The Utes probably didn't do as much with five interceptions of Cal junior quarterback Jared Goff as they should have, but they still held on for a win against a previously undefeated opponent. And in the odd Pac-12—where home teams are 5–11 in conference games—surviving at home is enough. Plus, that 24–17 win over Michigan on Sept. 3 keeps looking better with each passing week.
2. Baylor (5–0)
We still need to see the Bears play a few more decent opponents—Kansas offered no challenge in a 66–7 rout on Saturday—but a visit from West Virginia this weekend should provide a challenge. The difference between Baylor and just about everyone else installed at the top of the rankings is the Bears have absolutely clobbered inferior competition instead of messing around.
3. Clemson (5–0)
The Tigers didn't let down a bit after an emotional win over Notre Dame. Georgia Tech certainly isn't the team it was last year, but any team that can hold the Yellow Jackets to 71 rushing yards and a 1.7 yards-per-carry average is playing excellent defense.
4. Alabama (5–1)
The Crimson Tide let Arkansas hang around into the third quarter, but Alabama's defense was so dominant it never felt like the Razorbacks—whose first touchdown came on a 12-yard drive following an interception—would score again until after the Tide had put away the 27–14 result. Alabama's toughest test may come this week, and the offense will have to contribute more than it did Saturday. After two consecutive games against teams that play the kind of offense Alabama's defense is designed to stop, the Tide will face a rested Texas A&M group running a spread offense similar to the one Ole Miss used to hit Alabama for a few big plays in the Rebels' 43–37 win in Tuscaloosa. The SEC schedule-makers did the Tide no favors here, but if Alabama can survive a trip to College Station, it should be able to beat every other team remaining on its schedule.
A random ranking
Last week I crowdsourced the topic for this section, but you fine people gave me too many good ideas. So, here's another reader suggested topic.
Done and done. Here are the top 10 Transformers from the Hasbro toys and 1980s television series.
1. Optimus Prime
The greatest leader the universe has ever known. I cried when he died in Transformers: The Movie. If you were under 10 and didn't, I worry about you.
He was an evil cassette player. Trust me, this was awesome in the '80s. The only downside was when you inevitably lost evil cassette sidekicks Ravage and Laserbeak at a friend's house.
I'm pretty sure I never successfully transformed Megatron into a gun.
He's a transforming robot T-Rex. He debuted when I was 7 years old. Of course I loved him.
Voiced in the cartoon by Scatman Crothers. He referred to Optimus Prime as Priiiiiiiiiime. Only Jazz could get away with that.
It still drives me nuts that he can't talk in the Michael Bay movies.
He's an evil robot that can transform into a train or a Space Shuttle. Kids would beg their parents to buy anything in the '80s.
Later on, Hasbro realized Soundwave needed an Autobot counterpart. So it made a good boom box to fight the evil cassette player.
9. Hot Rod
He was a sports car. Then he opened the Matrix of Leadership and became a minivan.
10. Ultra Magnus
He was basically Autobot middle management. The Matrix of Leadership knew this.
Starscream was a punk.
Big Ugly of the Week
You probably thought I'd go with Baylor's LaQuan McGowan, the 400-pound senior who scored his second career touchdown on a catch against Kansas. But McGowan is now a skill position player, and thus ineligible in this category. He can compete with the other pretty boys for the Heisman Trophy.
This week's winner is Texas sophomore defensive tackle Poona Ford, who left the interior of Oklahoma's offensive line grasping at air on more occasions than Sooners offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh would care to recall. Ford's combination of power and quickness was too much for the Sooners, and his stat line (three tackles, including 1.5 sacks) doesn't do justice to how disruptive Ford was in Texas's 24–17 win.
Ford, from Hilton Head, S.C., originally committed to play for Charlie Strong at Louisville, then re-opened his recruitment after Strong took the job at Texas. While considering playing for Strong in Austin, Ford also took official visits to Missouri and Purdue. On National Signing Day 2014, Ford chose Texas. While a three-star prospect from South Carolina wasn't the type of player Texas usually signed, Strong knew Ford could play regardless of his recruiting ranking. And if Texas notches more big victories this season after finally breaking through against Oklahoma, expect the younger players to drive the Longhorns. Strong has said he needs time to upgrade the talent on the Texas roster. Ford's emergence proves Strong began that upgrade process the moment he set foot in Texas.
Joe Robbins/Getty Images
1. Last week, Jeff Ermann of InsideMDSports.com reported that Maryland was set to fire Randy Edsall after the Ohio State game and install offensive coordinator Mike Locksley as interim coach. Sunday, after the Buckeyes' 49–28 win over the Terrapins, Maryland fired Edsall and installed Locksley as interim coach. Now, the Terps will seek a new coach.
"We want somebody who's going to come in here and excite the fan base," athletic director Kevin Anderson told reporters Sunday, according to The Baltimore Sun. "If you look at football today, fans want an exciting, wide-open offense, and I think [that's] part of why we weren't successful these last six games."
Fans also wanted an exciting, wide-open offense in 2011, and Anderson hired Edsall. Maybe Anderson will actually listen this time.
2. Urban Meyer dipped into the past to find a solution for his quarterback conundrum. In Ohio State's win over Maryland, Cardale Jones started and J.T. Barrett entered when the offense reached the red zone. If this sounds familiar, it's because it's a slight variation on the way Meyer used quarterbacks Chris Leak and Tim Tebow during Florida's run to the national title in 2006. In that season Leak started and Tebow entered as Florida neared the goal line, or before third- or fourth-and-short situations anywhere on the field.
The arrangement seemed to work Saturday in Columbus. Jones completed 21 of 28 passes for 291 yards with two touchdowns. Barrett, meanwhile, ran for three scores. Meyer said he got the idea from watching former Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman's Houston team beat SMU 49–28 on Thursday night. In that game, Cougars quarterback Greg Ward Jr. was excellent around the goal line in Herman's up-tempo scheme. Ward had four touchdown runs of 10 yards or less. So, Meyer decided to let Jones—he of the nuclear arm strength—handle the larger part of the field and let Barrett—who is more effective operating at a faster pace—work the tempo in the red zone.
Meyer seemed pleased Saturday, and he couldn't help but smile when he got the inevitable question. "If J.T. is the right guy in the red zone in that situation," a reporter said, "why isn't J.T. the right guy all the time?
"We just won, man," Meyer said. "I'm going to go enjoy a nice Gatorade tonight. That's a good question, and J.T. is—they're both very good quarterbacks. They both played well. I'm going to hug them both and say 'Great job, well done.' Let's go to work tomorrow and find a way to get better."
3. The mother of Georgia tailback Nick Chubb wrote on Facebook on Sunday morning that her son's injury might not be as severe as it looked during the Bulldogs' 38–31 loss at Tennessee. Lavelle Chubb wrote that Nick tore his posterior cruciate ligament and two other ligaments. She wrote that he would have surgery after the swelling goes down, possibly in two weeks. "Nick is in good spirits," she wrote. "Moma on the other hand is trying to hold it together."
4. Speaking of excellent tailbacks, let's play the blind résumé game. These two guys each carry their respective team's offenses, but only one is receiving major Heisman buzz.
Player A: 1,022 rush yards, 8.6 yards per carry, 12 rush TDs; 5 catches, 41 receiving yards
Player B: 792 rush yards, 9.0 yards per carry, 8 rush TDs; 7 catches, 71 receiving yards, 1 receiving TD
Player A, as you've probably guessed, is LSU sophomore Leonard Fournette. Player B is Florida State sophomore Dalvin Cook, who for the second consecutive season saved his team against Miami. In the Seminoles' 29–24 win over the Hurricanes, Cook—playing on a tweaked hamstring—carried 22 times for 222 yards with two touchdowns. He also caught three passes for 47 yards and a score.
5. Of course, one reason Fournette gets more buzz than others is his sense of the moment. Saturday, he offered to auction the jersey he wore in LSU's 45–24 win over South Carolina to help flood victims in the Palmetto State. Saturday's game was supposed to be played in Columbia, but was moved to Baton Rouge because of the flooding.
After Fournette initially made the offer, he worried he wouldn't be able to do it because it might be a potential NCAA violation. But the NCAA quickly cleared up that issue.
Leonard Fournette can auction his jersey for SC flood victims.— NCAA (@NCAA) October 11, 2015
6. If you ask Dabo Swinney about Clemsoning and it has been four years since Clemson last Clemsoned, Swinney will come out breathing fire.
Swinney is correct. It's probably time to retire the term, which was coined by the guys over at The Solid Verbal podcast years ago to describe when a team carrying high expectations loses to an allegedly inferior opponent. It does not—as many believe—mean, "Clemson loses a big game." So, games like the 2013 visit from Florida State, a matchup of two teams ranked in the top five, don't count as Clemsoning. That's just losing to a good team. Clemson hasn't lost to an unranked foe since '11, so we should probably hand off the term to another school.
7. It likely should have been a warning sign when Oregon had to go shopping for a quarterback on the graduate transfer market. Still, it's fairly shocking—and an indictment of the coaching staff—that the Ducks were so thin at the position behind Marcus Mariota.
With Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams still out with a broken index finger, Oregon used redshirt sophomore Taylor Alie and redshirt junior Jeff Lockie in a 45–38 double-overtime loss to Washington State. Neither could consistently keep the offense moving against a team projected to finish at the bottom of the Pac-12 North, and it has become clear that the staff neither recruited nor developed anyone who could take the reins from Mariota. "It's a team deal," Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said Saturday. "We win as a team. We lose as a team. It's not one guy, one position—ever. Those guys are working their tails off to improve."
O.K., so about that secondary …
8. After the most lopsided win ever by an FCS team against an FBS team, reporters covering the FBS team gathered for a postgame press conference. Instead, the athletic director emerged to announce he had fired the coach.
North Texas AD Rick Villarreal decided while watching the Mean Green's 66–7 loss to Portland State that he had seen enough, firing coach Dan McCarney immediately following the game. The slide at North Texas has been steep. Just two seasons ago, the Mean Green went 9–4 and won the Heart of Dallas Bowl. But they weren't ready for a move from the Sun Belt to Conference USA, and slipped to a 4–8 record last fall.
After Saturday's loss, North Texas is 0–5 and has been outscored by a combined margin of 246–116.
9. This important note comes from the sports information department at Arizona.
What's a Sonoran dog? It's a hot dog wrapped in bacon and stuffed inside a sweet roll with veggies and condiments. That is a recipe for success.
What's eating Andy?
Before Haden became USC's athletic director, he was a partner at a private equity firm. He doesn't need the money he makes from working at USC. With so many people calling for Haden's firing for hiring Sarkisian and then for keeping Sarkisian, I propose a different solution. Haden can retire, perhaps to his own private island. I've seen that HGTV show. They can actually be quite reasonable, and Haden could probably afford a great one. He can then let someone else choose the next USC football coach.
What's Andy eating?
Sometimes, I can spot the item on the menu I want above all others. Other times, I can easily spot an appetizer-entrée combo that seems ideal. But sometimes I just can't choose, and even I can't down three or four entrees and an appetizer. (O.K., maybe I have once or twice.) This happens every time I visit Jacques-Imo's in New Orleans. I wish I could order every single item on the menu. But even I can't eat that much, and I certainly can't afford it.
So, bless the folks at BB's in Houston for allowing me to indulge in a solid chunk of the menu without breaking the bank. BB's is a small (five locations) chain that advertises "Tex Orleans Cooking." This fusion results in a fajita po' boy, but shockingly does not result in a brisket po' boy. You'll have to go to Pimanyoli's in Baton Rouge for one of those. Most of the dishes at BB's are either Texas or New Orleans. One—the grillades and grits—would best be termed "Low Country Orleans," but let's not get tied up in conceptual branding. The only thing that really matters is the taste. And four items on BB's menu were intriguing on the page and excellent on the palate.
I wanted the loaded pollo bullets appetizer (chicken stuffed with cream cheese and jalapeños, wrapped in bacon and served with a side of Cajun cream sauce), the grillades and grits (steak tips cooked in Cajun gravy and topped with cheese grits), the crawfish etouffee (self-explanatory) and the Chalmette macaroni (jalapeño cheese macaroni topped with roast beef debris). Fortunately for me—and for SI's bean counters—half the pollo bullets and cups of the other three wound up costing about $25. I ended up stuffed and happy.
The bullets were excellent. I've made jalapeño poppers (jalapeños stuffed with cream cheese and wrapped in bacon) at home for years, but I'll need to start adding chicken. This is a near-perfect appetizer in a world full of highly flawed ones.
The etouffee was just fine. It won't compete with the better spots in New Orleans, but it only has to compete with the better Louisiana-centric spots in Houston. By combining steak tips and gravy instead of shrimp with grits, BB's has made one of my favorite dishes even heartier. Grits and gravy go together just as well as shrimp and grits.
The star was the debris mac and cheese. Debris is composed of the delicious bits that fall off beef as it roasts. These bits then sit in the juice until they have become perfect flavor bombs. In New Orleans, places like Mother's serve roast beef po' boys enhanced with debris. But Mother's is a tourist trap. If you're lucky, maybe Cochon Butcher will have a roast beef and debris sandwich special on the day you come. Or you could head to Houston, where BB's sprinkles that delicious debris and gravy over jalapeño mac and cheese. Mac and cheese is the king of side dishes, but the addition of the debris turns it into a quality meal. The jalapeños provide an opening kick. The cheese cools it down. And the debris? It makes it sublime.