You surely heard the news over the weekend: USC head football coach Steve Sarkisian greatly embarrassed himself in a drunken incident which caused his boss, athletic director Pat Haden, to usher him offstage at an event for donors to the program.
No, this won’t get Sarkisian booted from USC in the coming days or weeks. He’ll get to coach the season. He’ll still get to coach a loaded 2015 squad. He’ll still get his big chance to make something of his career as a head coach, as we wrote a few weeks ago. None of that has changed.
However… it does dramatically increase the pressure on Sark to make this season count. The upside of opportunity in the case of a successful 2015 is still enormous, but now, the downside of failure is that much more conspicuous… and severe, and immediate.
Everything that might have been true about this season in relationship to Sarkisian’s long-term career as a head coach has only been magnified by this wayward weekend for the Trojans’ second-year boss. It’s still a wins-and-losses equation at heart — nine regular season wins at minimum will be accepted, and seven definitely won’t. What’s different? Eight wins now probably won’t give Sark nearly as much leeway as he might have enjoyed as of last Thursday. This incident abruptly makes it that much more urgent for Sarkisian to deliver the goods on Saturdays this fall.
This is not a new or original thought in college football, but bad behavior from players and coaches — within certain parameters — can and will be tolerated as long as the wins flow like wine… oops, that’s alcohol. Wrong image there. (Should it be tolerated? No, but that’s another conversation for another time.)
If Sarkisian encountered something akin to the mess Art Briles finds himself immersed in at Baylor right now, he might not survive. Briles, though, has won too much — and at too high a level — in Waco for his job to be squarely or even remotely on the line. If Sark had been in Briles’s position? It could be a different story.
What happened over the weekend, then, won’t get Sarkisian fired right away, or even in the middle of the 2015 season. Pat Haden won’t fire another coach midway through a campaign, and certainly not for the second time in a two-year span.
Yet, if USC is 8-4 three and a half months from now, will this incident convince leaders and donors at the heart of the program to abandon the Sark project after two seasons? It very easily might. This is why the 2015 season has acquired new degrees of importance for Sarkisian since we wrote about him earlier this month, in the story linked to above.
Various kinds of misdeeds carry various impressions, and the alarming impression conveyed by Sarkisian to the USC donor base and leadership structure this past weekend is that he lacks self control. That’s what public drunkenness reveals in a person. If, then, USC lacks discipline on the field and falls well short of its potential this season, what else could high-powered people inside the program think? Of COURSE they’d have to conclude that the wrong man is leading the program, despite his ability to recruit. USC’s power brokers would find it virtually impossible to insist that Sarkisian should still be the face of the football team.
Sure, it’s true that going 10-2 doesn’t necessarily mean that a head coach has a firm handle on his life and the habits he’s trying to control, just as being a 7-5 coach wouldn’t necessarily mean that Sarkisian’s off-field life demands the kind of intervention appropriate for a crisis. However, perception certainly shapes reality in coaching situations, especially since results on the field often have more to say about the a coach’s employment status than the coach’s personal behavior. It’s not necessarily right, but it is the way things are on a political level: How USC performs this season is now a central indicator of Sarkisian’s perceived (though perhaps not actual) level of control over the program. The win-loss results will shape perception of the strength and quality of leadership Sark is giving to the football team.
If Sark goes 10-2 or better, he’ll alleviate all the fears and worries that are coursing through the USC campus and the upper reaches of the administration. If USC is 6-5 heading into the UCLA game, a superstar coach outside the Pete Carroll coaching tree — someone who did not “fail upward” in the coaching ranks the way Sark (at Washington) or Lane Kiffin (at Tennessee and the Oakland Raiders) did — should be preparing to interview with Haden to become the coach of the Trojans for the 2016 season.
Sarkisian’s behavior is a problem now, but if coupled with unsatisfactory on-field performance, that behavior could make it not just possible, but probable, that Sark’s tenure in Los Angeles will last only two seasons.
Everything will be the problem, as Oscar Madison (played by Walter Matthau) reminded us in the 1968 movie version of The Odd Couple:
USC and Sark are now The Odd Couple. It brings to mind a line from the movie. Oscar is USC, and Felix is Sarkisian, still relatively new to head coaching but already wearing out his “roommate’s” level of patience. Oscar lets Felix have it:
“For six months I’ve lived alone in this apartment. All alone in eight big rooms. I was dejected, despondent and disgusted. AND THEN YOU MOVED IN… my closest and dearest friend… and after three weeks of close personal contact, I’m about to have a nervous breakdown.
[Oscar begins sobbing. He then continues…]
“Do me a favor, will ya, Felix? Move into the kitchen. Live with your pots, your pans, your ladles, your meat thermometers, and when you want to come out, just ring a bell, and I’ll run into the bedroom. I’m asking you nicely, Felix, as a friend: Stay out of my way.”
Steve Sarkisian needs to get out of his own way, and allow this 2015 football season to be all that it can be. If it’s not, and USC is 8-4 at the end of November, without a Pac-12 Championship Game to play in, this drunken weekend in late August makes it a lot more likely that the Trojans will be searching for another head coach…
one that Pat Haden has to get right if he’s to feel secure in his post as athletic director in L.A.