When will all the controversy finally stop?
When USC was sanctioned by the NCAA in 2010, everyone thought the program had reached its low point. The Trojans had to vacate Heisman trophies, bowl victories and entire seasons because of rules violations that also caused scholarship reductions and postseason bans.
When the team headed into the 2012 season atop the pre-season polls, only to wind up with a 7–6 record and its coach unceremoniously fired halfway through the following year, everyone thought things couldn’t get worse for the program, as USC became the punchline of jokes among other fanbases.
When cornerback Josh Shaw attempted to cover up an injury and a police chase by fabricating a story about saving his drowning nephew from a swimming pool — a story the university believed and promoted — the common thought was, “Not again, not more of this.”
When head coach Steve Sarkisian stood among boosters and team family members earlier this year at the annual “Salute to Troy” booster event intoxicated, slurring his words, using profanity and verbally attacking opposing teams, everyone realized that there were lower depths, still, for the program to sink to.
After a strange Sunday that concluded with the “indefinite” leave of absence of Sarkisian — who was deemed “not healthy” by Athletic Director Pat Haden — USC football once again finds itself in the weeds of controversy. Another low point that may have finally signified rock bottom.
In this case, rock bottom meant the floodgates were opened, as reports have begun to surface of Sarkisian’s extra-curricular actions both during this season and past ones during his tenure at Washington.
Sooner or later, this was to be the way things ended, but it’s fair to ask: Couldn’t, and shouldn’t, this have all ended sooner, or, even better, been prevented?
Controversial rumors and reports aside, it is evident Sarkisian has a serious health problem. The fact that he is finally taking a necessary leave of absence to get treatment is perhaps the only positive takeaway from this. Sarkisian’s problem should not be equated with Trojan football or any other university politics, because it’s much more serious than a silly game we all ravenously consume on Saturdays and Sundays.
That isn’t to say Sark is immune to criticism, but by simply having to deal with the problem and the plethora of reports that will certainly put his image and coaching career in peril, the consequences of his actions have already began to mount for him.
On the football side of things, it’s safe to say that Sarkisian, for his part, did himself no favors by immediately touting championships and a “win now” mentality upon returning to USC, where he had previously been an assistant coach under Pete Carroll. With the Trojans still recovering from the aforementioned sanctions and facing a tough trek back up the mountain of success ahead, Sark was setting himself up to under-deliver on his own promises to replicate the glory days.
What Carroll’s program had that Sarkisian’s has lacked was sustained focus on the one true goal: winning.
And if we have learned anything in the past few years, is that winning trumps nearly anything and everything.
Win, and people will forget about the Salute to Troy incident, everyone said. Win, and people will look the other way. Win, and reports of your transgressions won’t be publicized.
There’s an off-putting correlation between the timing of this incident, the many reports from Sark’s time in Washington and the program’s current state as a football entity.
Why is it that only now that we are finding out that Sarkisian may have shown clear signs of a drinking problem when he was coaching the Huskies? Because he took over a program that went winless one season prior, revived them and led Washington to five consecutive bowl appearances.
Winning is quite an effective blinding light, and that says more about the culture of college football — where Baylor’s off-season sexual assault controversy is being largely ignored thanks to the team’s undefeated record — than anything else.
One could argue that this is why Haden refused to put Sark on a leave of absence after “Salute to Troy.” The team had just been chosen by the media to finish atop the Pac-12, and there was an aura of heightened expectations that felt like they could be finally fulfilled. Placing this team under an interim coach in that moment would have threatened that budding potential.
Instead, Haden stood behind the man he hired and reiterated that he’d vetted Sark before bringing him on back in 2013.
Now that the team’s already dropped the ball on two of its first five games — losing both at home to double-digit underdogs — providing Sarkisian with the help and the sabbatical he could have surely used all along, feels almost like a cop-out for Haden and Co. Would we be at this stage of this controversy if the team were 4–0?
There’s no possible way that Haden did not know of Sarkisian’s past incidents with alcohol if he did, in fact, vet him before offering him the job. If Haden was unaware of these things, then that points to an entirely different type of shortcoming altogether.
Haden could’ve done this a while ago, and some might even say he could’ve completely avoided this from the start if he had. Now, he can’t say he didn’t know about the full extent of Sark’s issues, because pleading ignorance would expose incompetence. Whether he finally gave Sarkisian a much-needed leave of absence because he couldn’t afford to fire someone else this quickly, or because he actually cared about him and finally saw the need to do it, we may never know. In the long run, however, it’ll probably be what ends his time as athletic director.
With Sarkisian now away, and the team now under yet another interim coach — Clay Helton for the second time — uncertainty is back at University Park, and the ramifications of this low point are already being felt.
Not long after Sarkisian’s leave of absence was announced, five-star linebacker Daelin Hayes took to Twitter to announce his de-commitment from USC. The Trojans had already announced his commitment, and due to NCAA rules, it appears that they may be looking at minor sanctions ahead.
Yes, that’s more sanctions. It all comes back full circle, doesn’t it? The question is, when will this counterproductive cycle stop?