When Lane Kiffin was fired on airport tarmac back in September, it was a day of great excitement for USC fans, for two separate reasons.
1. For one, well, Lane Kiffin was gone… a statement which ultimately needs no further explanation for USC fans.
But it was also exciting for an entirely separate reason all together:
2. With Kiffin’s departure, it was the dawning of a new era at USC, one which promised to bring a sexy coaching hire with it. The names of Jack Del Rio, Kevin Sumlin and Chris Petersen rolled off the tongues of most, just as easily as another slew of Pac-12 championships were sure to roll back to the USC campus.
Well that coaching search came to an end on Monday, with the news that USC had their new head coach.
Steve Sarkisian has accepted the USC head coaching position
— Joe Schad (@schadjoe) December 2, 2013
That man: Former USC assistant and current (at least he was, as of this morning) Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian. This according, to ESPN.
And with the announcement all but official, let the second-guessing begin.
Let’s start with the obvious, and say that this hire wasn’t all that surprising. As mentioned above, Sark was on Pete Carroll’s staff back in the glory days of USC, and has spent the last five years resurrecting a Washington program which was just about dead when he arrived there. Those two things alone give him the two biggest pre-requisites that any guy can have going into a coaching search like USC’s: Ties to the school, and a previous head coaching record.
The fact that Sark had pretty good success in his only head coaching stop doesn’t hurt either.
That’s because when Sarkisian arrived at Washington, it was arguably the worst team in any power-six, FBS football conference. The Huskies went 0-12 the season before Sarkisian showed up to campus and immediately improved to five wins. From there they went on to qualify for bowls in each of the last four years, with the 2013 season seen as a breakthrough for many: Washington went 8-4 this season, with a victory over Boise to start the season, and another Apple Cup victory to finish it.
Still, the simple truth is that for all the success Sark had in improving Washington, that improvement seemed to stagnate over the last few seasons. As a matter of fact, after three straight 7-6 years, many wondered if Sarkisian himself entered 2013 on the hot seat. He seemed to turn the corner with eight wins this season, although even in looking at them, it did leave something to be desired; the Huskies four losses came against unquestionably the four best teams on their schedule (Stanford, Oregon, Arizona State, UCLA).
It also led to this: Despite eight wins, none of them could really be considered signature or great. And in a lot of ways isn’t that how you’d best describe Sark as a coach the last five seasons? He’s certainly good, but does he have the ceiling to be “great?” That’s what many USC fans are wondering right now.
It’s also why many are disappointed with the way this coaching search ended.
USC- by any stretch of the imagination- is an elite job, but is taking a guy who has never won more than eight regular season games really considered an “elite” hire? Sure the Trojans might not have been able to get Kevin Sumlin (especially after Sumlin signed an extension this weekend) but even someone like James Franklin from Vandy has had better success (nine wins last season) in a tougher conference, in a tougher school overall.
So where does Sarkisian fit? Only time will tell, although Sark does have a few things going for him.
One, he’s got those USC ties, which admittedly can’t hurt. Bringing in Sark keeps alive a very real possibility that Ed Orgeron stays on the staff as an assistant (although admittedly, he’d have to do his due diligence and at least see if any head coaching opportunities are out there), and Sark certainly has support from former players; in an appearance on Fox Sports Live earlier this fall, Matt Leinart campaigned to get Sark the job.
Sark has also proven an affinity to recruit, which can’t hurt as he arrives at one of the most easily “sell able” jobs in college football. If he is able to keep Orgeron on the staff, and then bring his own assistant Tosh Lupoi from Washington, he’d have arguably the two best recruiters in college football joining him at Troy. Talent trumps all in college football, and USC should be equipped to get plenty of it, especially with sanctions ending at the end of next season.
Simply put, for all the downside to Sark’s hire, there is plenty of upside as well.
It’s certainly not enough upside to get all USC fans on-board with the hire. But it could be enough to eventually get the Trojans back to the top of the Pac-12 standings.
For more of his insight on college football, be sure to follow Aaron on Twitter @Aaron_Torres.