New USC coach Steve Sarkisian talks about rebuilding, facilities, legacy
LOS ANGELES -- The porch of Steve Sarkisian's new office at USC overlooks the Trojans' practice field and offers a glimpse of his past and future. Sarkisian lived in Fluor Tower as a freshman baseball player at USC before transferring to junior college (he ended up at BYU, where he became a star quarterback). Two decades later, Sarkisian enters the sparkling new McKay Center as head football coach, with a fingerprint scanner -- think James Bond -- that unlocks the facility's door. In between, he worked for a dot.com, played in the CFL, made a cameo as an NFL assistant coach and found an identity as a college coach at Washington. On a recent afternoon in his office, Sarkisian reflected on what he learned from Pete Carroll, his relationship with Lane Kiffin and Ed Orgeron, USC's new hurry-up offense, its scholarship sanctions dilemmas and competing in a tougher Pac-12. At 29, Sarkisian told Carroll, "I want your job." Here's what he's going to do now that he has it at 39.
SI.com: You've had five stops through USC in your career. Let's start by walking through those.
Steve Sarkisian: Out of high school I was scrawny little kid. (Laughs). I didn't think I could play college football. I didn't think I'd ever be big enough, good enough or strong enough. I came to USC as a baseball player.
SI.com: Who was your best baseball teammate?
Sarkisian: Geoff Jenkins. Pretty good player (Jenkins spent nearly a decade in the big leagues).
SI.com: So what happened?
Sarkisian: I was here for a semester and realized that I wanted to play football. I went back to junior college and played football and baseball. I went on to BYU, and in my junior year at BYU my class [at USC] goes to the College World Series. I was playing Division I football or I could have been in the College World Series. I played at BYU, and I played three years in the CFL. My wife and I said if I wasn't in the NFL soon then we're done. We're not going to be lifers up in Canada and living in Hamilton. So I moved back [to Los Angeles] and started working for a dot-com.
SI.com: What was it?
Sarkisian: KIKO.com. Knowledge In. Knowledge Out. Never got off its feet. I was in sales. It was outside sales. It was fun. At the same time I was coaching junior college football at El Camino, back to where I played. A couple of my big sales were at USC, at the Annenberg School of Communications. Pete Carroll hires Norm Chow as the offensive coordinator, and I'd played for Norm. I was on campus and had to do a sale. I'm going to go over and get in front of Norm and Pete. They were kind of looking at me. Norm said, "You don't want to get into this profession." You know the whole thing, a coach trying to talk a coach out of it. They said to come back the next day. Both of them agreed it would be a good opportunity to be a graduate assistant. Then I had to go home and talk to my wife, who was pregnant with our first child. We have a mortgage payment and all that. Here I was, making some money, and I was going to go back to being a graduate assistant. I decided to do it. That season people don't remember here. We were 6-6 and lost the Las Vegas Bowl to Utah. After that game I got hired at San Diego State as the quarterback coach.
SI.com: How did that go?
Sarkisian: I remember going into Pete and telling him I got a job. I was all excited. He said, "You can go, but you'll be back." I went down and was there for six or seven weeks. Sure enough there was some turnover on the staff at USC and Pete asked me to come back to coach quarterbacks. My first year as a full-time coach, Carson [Palmer] wins the Heisman. My second year, we win a national championship. My third year, I was really getting the itch. I was 29, and I remember visiting with Pete. He said, "What do you want? Where do you want to go?" I jokingly said to him at the time, "I want your job." I just felt like at the time it was time to go. It was time to move and work my way up. I went to the Oakland Raiders to coach quarterbacks. I was 29. Rich Gannon was 39 and just coming off being NFL MVP. It was a great experience with Norv Turner and Aaron Kromer.
SI.com: Didn't David Shaw coach Gannon?
Sarkisian: Yep. And Jim Harbaugh did in Oakland the year before I got there. He was the offensive assistant.
SI.com: OK. Back to your path.
Sarkisian: The year after that, USC won the national championship against Oklahoma. Norm takes the Titans offensive coordinator job, and I come back again. I'm there for four years and I felt like the time was right. I wanted to be a head coach. I felt like the Washington job was a great job. It was an unbelievable opportunity.
SI.com: Mark Emmert hired you, right?
Sarkisian: He and Scott Woodward.
SI.com: USC opened soon after, right?
Sarkisian: My first year [at Washington], we'd just beaten USC 16-13. After my first year at Washington, Pete decided to go to Seattle. There were some rumblings, "Do you want to come back? Would you come back?" I wasn't ready yet to become the head coach at USC at that time. This is more than just Xs and Os. It's more than just recruiting. You have to manage quite a bit. I wanted to make sure if and when I got the opportunity to be a head coach [at USC] that I was prepared to do it. I felt like we were going to do something special at Washington, to build it up back to where it's been. It was an unbelievable five-year run.
SI.com: So why now?
Sarkisian: The natural thing for people to say is, "This was a no-brainer, he was going to USC." It wasn't. It was hard to leave. I really felt like that place is right on the cusp of doing it. We had a 9-4 season. All the losses were to Top 25 teams. I made a tough decision to come back to USC. It was hard to go into that team meeting and speak to those kids to tell them what I was going to do. Some of them understood and some of them didn't. Hopefully I don't ever have to have that meeting again. Now I'm back for the fifth time. The fifth time around, this feels like the right time. Shoot, the fourth time I went to four consecutive Rose Bowls. This just feels like an awesome opportunity. It's an awesome opportunity for Trojan football. This thing is about to take off. Our numbers aren't perfect, I understand that. But they are going to get better. We're still USC and we're going to be a great football team.
SI.com: Scholarship math is something you've always had to deal with as a head coach and an assistant. But I'd imagine it's taken up to another level now. My estimation is that you won't have 85 scholarships until 2017.
Sarkisian: You are probably right, realistically speaking. There's going to be natural attrition. There's going to be guys leaving for the NFL and guys who get career-ending injuries. There are going to be guys who say, "I wasn't cut out for this." Stuff happens. The reality is we're going to sign 19 players in this year's class. The next class we get a full allotment of 25. So in the next 13 months, we're going add 44 bodies to this roster, which is the biggest number that this program has had in five years. The key component to it all is not getting caught up staring at the final number. More important, we need to focus on the individual position groups and making sure we have good balance on the roster and good depth. Because even when you're at 85, injuries occur.
SI.com: You have had five players leave early for the NFL. Explain to me how much the early entries hurt because of the scholarship restrictions.
Sarkisian: That's probably the biggest component to it all to where the sanctions and scholarship reductions hurt the most. You almost get punished for success. A year ago, Nickell Robey left early. USC was not able to say, "OK, he went on to the NFL, now I get to use that scholarship." At Washington, when Chris Polk left early for the NFL I was able to recruit a new student-athlete to replace him. Here, it naturally diminishes our overall number because we're capped at 15 on a yearly basis, no matter how many we lose. We've had some juniors leave early here. I don't get to replace Marcus Martin or George Uko. I don't get to replace Dion Bailey. Those are three front-line starters, All-Pac-12 players. When they leave, we're not replacing that number. (This interview took place before Marqise Lee and Xavier Grimble declared.) That's why the key component in this is recruiting overall depth. Not just staring at, "I can get six five-star receivers." We need to have enough O-Linemen, D-Linemen and tight ends. You have to spread it throughout to keep your roster balanced.
SI.com: Position grouping wise, the offensive line is thin and your tailbacks are in good shape. Give me a sense of where you are position wise.
Sarkisian: I think that's fair. I think we have four elite tailbacks on the roster. I think at linebacker there's some real talented guys. I think at defensive line there's some really good depth. I know that we're losing George Uko, but (Texas Tech transfer) Delvon Simmons is going to be eligible. Kenny Bigelow, who redshirted, will play next year. We have a JC transfer, Claude Pelon. I like the defensive line. At offensive line, the reality is that's a position we're going to have to build up and build up quickly. We're going to need to sign five to six offensive linemen in this class to build that position back up. And then the receiver position needs to get built back up. It's really thin. For what we like to do and the pace we like to operate, filling that is going to be important.
Sarkisian: It is. And I think that'll be the best for Cody and it will be the best for both Maxes. I think one of the misnomers is that we're going to run the spread and our quarterbacks have to run now. That's not really what we do. We're just going to go fast. Our quarterbacks don't run. Keith Price was a passer, but he wasn't really a runner. People forget that Cody was a big-time high school basketball player. He's an athletic kid who was averaging mid-to-high 20s a game from Bakersfield. He's a really good athlete. The key for us is for them to manage this offense and be the point guard of this offense. They don't need to go out and score 40 as the point guard, but go out and distribute the football and do it efficiently. And I know the other Maxs really well through recruiting them. I think it's a position of strength for them, to be quite honest and these guys are going to excel in the system.
SI.com: Everything about your program is going to be sped up with the tempo change. I remember writing about Chip Kelly at Oregon that the student managers have to be faster. How have you started to implement those changes?
Sarkisian: Philosophically, you start with off-season conditioning. You train your bodies differently and you train you minds differently while doing physical conditioning. There's mental conditioning that's going to take place as well. That's going to be the first thing that we start to incorporate at the pace in which we operate.
SI.com: And it impacts both sides of the ball, right?
Sarkisian: It has to transition to how we operate offensively. Defensively, as well. Our defense has to face that tempo every day. How they install their defense and how they do their calls. All those things. So when they're faced with that environment and tempo, they are comfortable. That becomes the norm. The end result is that you're seeing it everywhere in college football right now. If you can't defend tempo, you're in trouble. Now the shift is that the up-tempo is the norm. The huddle is the not normal. I'd much rather adjust to the one or two games against the teams that huddle against us than the other 10 or 11 up-tempo teams and feel comfortable in that environment.
SI.com: USC fired Lane Kiffin and Ed Orgeron left in a huff. They are guys you worked with. What's the dynamic of their departures? It can't be easy.
Sarkisian: I've spoken to both of them since the departures. The reality is that we had a great run when we were here the first time around. We were here at different times. Lane wasn't here the entire time. Ed wasn't here the entire time. I wasn't here the entire time. There was some crossover in there. I think the reality of it is that as we've all moved on, we've all become our own people and own coaches. And I think sometimes that's a mistake that fans can make, "Oh, they're trying to get Pete Carroll all over again." If Pete taught us anything, it's to be yourself. In adverse times, the real you is going to come out anyway. To get back to the question why not the first time around after Year 1 at Washington? Because I didn't know who I was yet as a head coach. I was still figuring that all out. I'm getting a five-year body of work as a head coach here at USC, which differentiates me from Lane, from Ed, from Pete, from Norm, from all of those guys. I've taken a lot of things from them. Those are all good football coaches. But at the end of the day, I've got to be me and coach the way that I'm capable of coaching and try and get the best out of our players.
SI.com: It's interesting that you're not doing it the same way. Pete did with a pro-style Student Body Right offense. That's not at all what you are doing.
Sarkisian: Schematically, we're different offensively. We're different defensively. We're not in that family of Pete's defense. Justin Wilcox is here with us, he was with us at Washington the last two years. We're multiple. Our base with be a 3-4. We'll have some 4-down principles. I think Justin has done a great job and he's going to be a head coach here someday soon. We are different schematically. We're not in the same school. We've evolved. That's been a good thing.
SI.com: One of the things that's different from your other stops here is that the Pac-12 has changed. The Pac-12 Network and new TV deal have changed the financial paradigm. The middle has never been better. When Pete got here, 'SC was on a bad stretch, but once he got it rolling everything was tilted this way, especially financially. Is it harder to compete in a more democratic league?
Sarkisian: I would agree. I would say that the league has invested in football more than it ever has. They've invested in facilities and invested in head coaches and in assistant coaches. They're really investing in recruiting now. More than ever before, the Pac-12 is spreading its wings. It's not just Southern California that they're recruiting now. They're getting into Florida. The Pac-12 is recruiting better. In turn, the overall product is better. There's better coaches and players and facilities. Every week you better be ready to play, or you'll get beat. You look at the end result this season, people are getting beat. You look at the bowl games, and the Pac-12 had a really good run. It's unfortunate that Washington State's game ended the way it did. I think Arizona State is a better team than it showed and Stanford played a really good game. Now with the playoff and where we're headed, the winner of the Pac-12 has a chance to go win the national championship, which is a better scenario now than it was in the past.
SI.com: You have new facilities (includinng Pop-A-Shot machines, weightless treadmills and videos that show recruits in every sport what Nike gear they'll get if they come to USC). Is this an elite facility?
Sarkisian: Without a doubt. For the experience for the student-athlete to walk into this building every day is pretty amazing. Every day our student-athletes come into the McKay Center, they're getting an unbelievable experience. The end result is that facilities aren't the magical fairy dust that help you win games. It's a piece of the puzzle.
SI.com: What's your favorite nuance here?
Sarkisian: I have to show it to you. (Walks into his office, open door to a patio with a table and chairs drenched in sunshine). This patio overlooks the practice field. You can sit right out in Southern California in January, and the sun is shining. This is a pretty good set-up. To be able to go outside, it's pretty great.