By Matt Zemek
Pat Haden, Rhodes Scholar, might wind up fooling the college football world with his hire of Steve Sarkisian as USC's newest head coach on Monday morning.
Yet, it's hard to shake the sense that five years from now, Haden will be out as the Trojans' athletic director. The Sarkisian hire should obviously be given a chance to work, but the percentages say it won't, and if it doesn't, Haden's hold on power will vanish in Los Angeles.
A few obvious points should be made to temper the flames of outrage that are surely firing from the mouths and keypads of USC fans today. First, Pete Carroll owned a conspicuously mediocre resume when he was hired by Mike Garrett in December of 2000. Second, Sarkisian enjoys a great deal of familiarity with the USC program and knows what it means to create greatness in the land of Troy. Haden is obviously banking on those realities, plus Sark's youthful enthusiasm, to pull in huge recruiting classes and restore USC to prominence.
However, for each of Sarkisian's positive characteristics as a coach, one can cite even more negatives. Moreover, "familiarity with the USC program" has already been revealed as a less-than-airtight guarantee of success.
The first point to level against Sark is, well, that he's "Seven-Win Sark," a coach Oregon fans have gleefully ribbed without end over the past few years. Sarkisian's average number of wins per season is 6.8. In one or two seasons, that's not alarming. In five seasons?
Yes. Sarkisian could never break through in Seattle as Washington's head coach, despite considerable skill-position talent. Injuries did limit the Huskies' prospects at times, but Washington -- a program with 14 Rose Bowls, tied for third on the all-time list -- is a prestige program, and Sarkisian had more than enough time in which to turn it around. He didn't.
The second point to mention on behalf of those who view this hire as a terrible one is that USC has already tried to hire a former offensive coordinator-slash-assistant under Pete Carroll, someone with knowledge of the USC program. Lane Kiffin and Sark were co-coordinators under Carroll. USC tried the former. Now it's trying the latter. The fact that Ed Orgeron wanted to be the program's permanent head coach only added to a sense that this search remained far too internal, far too close to a small circle of possibilities within the Pac-12 Conference.
Yes, one can say -- with good reason -- that Chris Petersen might not have expressed enough interest in the USC job for Haden to have strong options. That point does merit some consideration. However, that point loses traction when one realizes:
A) How utterly dominant USC became when it found the right coach (from 2002 through January of 2009)
B) How much money can be made by a USC head coach, combined with the extent to which the program is a natural recruiting magnet.
Elite coaches want to be at USC. No, Vanderbilt's James Franklin needs to pull a Gary Pinkel and win the SEC East before he merits consideration as a bigger name. However, Haden could have looked at Greg Roman, the offensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers. He could have wooed Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy, a man who has transformed his reputation in the college football community over the past six years, as a legitimate superstar hire. There are dynamic minds out there. Sarkisian hasn't proven himself as one.
Maybe Sark and Haden will fool us all, much as Pete Carroll and Mike Garrett did over a decade ago. Yet, would you really want to put down some money on that bet?
Washington has been liberated from its mediocre coach, and the Huskies can now get someone better. Remember the last time the city of Seattle involved itself in a transaction involving a USC coach? The Seahawks are doing pretty well with Pete Carroll. Today, the city of Seattle is benefiting not from an addition, but from a subtraction.
Don't expect USC to benefit from having Steve Sarkisian as its coach. It is as though Lane Kiffin's coaching career -- marked by "failing upward" to better jobs -- is being repeated.
Pat Haden, Rhodes Scholar, is making the gamble to end all gambles, the gamble to end his job if "Seven-Win Sark" remains in L.A. the next few years.