Curious USC Hire Highlights Perils of Coaching Searches
One of the major storylines in college football this season has been the open question of who would become the next head coach at Southern Cal. Lane Kiffin was fired abruptly after a 62-41 loss at Arizona State that left his team 2-2 and winless in the Pac-12. In hindsight, you wonder if USC's Athletic Director really knew at the time how good that Sun Devils team was (ASU finished 10-2 and will play for the Pac-12 championship on Saturday). The Trojans have a tradition of winning championships and the high expectations that come with that (sound familiar?). That's what makes the hire of a coach who hasn't won more than 8 games in a season or more than 5 out of 9 conference contests somewhat curious.
Perception Versus Reality
The perception has been that USC is not only one of the major destination coaching jobs but also would be one of the highest bidders when it came to coaching talent. That's not necessarily the case. Details of Sarkisian's contract at USC have yet to be released, but Kiffin, his predecessor (who was also lured away from another school), was earning just under $2.6 million a year. That was enough to be the highest paid coach in the Pac-12 (a hair above Sarkisian's Washington deal), but was just 25th nationally. Despite the perception that the Trojans were a top bidder, Pete Carroll had to earn his pay increases from $1 million per year when he began to $4.4 million after he'd been to 5 straight BCS bowls and won a pair of national championships. The resumes of the highest paid bakers dozen of coaches all include BCS bowl appearances as a head coach. There's a reason premiere programs won't break the bank for coaches that haven't won 11 games and will avoid bidding wars to get one that has. There are bills to pay and it can be tough writing big checks when you don't see big results.
Sarkisian was a curious hire in that his resume somewhat resembled the man he replaced. Usually, Athletic Director's want to avoid what appears like they've repeated a previous mistake. Lane Kiffin hadn't had great success as a head coach, but was a valued assistant during the USC glory days. The same can be said of Sarkisian. Sarkisian has the distinction of taking a losing program and making it a winner, but not a contender. While the job he did at Washington was probably more impressive than Kiffin's at Tennessee, it's still not wildly different. If Sarkisian gets off to a poor start, the fans are sure to cry that this is Lane Kiffin all over again.
If Nebraska had wanted to replace Bo Pelini, Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi might be the most appealing candidate given how well his defenses have played. Unfortunately, his background and resume look like Pelini's upon closer inspection. Narduzzi spent a lot of time in Ohio, including Youngstown. He's never been a head coach. If Narduzzi were to lose four or more games, the complaints would be that NU had hired another Bo.
Ed Orgeron, the valued assistant might have been a popular choice but not a sensible one. He was a failure at Ole Miss (never winning more than 4 games and never managing a season as good as the man he replaced). Other than the narrow upset of Stanford, every win he had as interim head coach at USC was over a team with a losing conference record. If a Tim Beck were ever to get the interim job to replace an embattled Bo Pelini at Nebraska, he might be a popular option as well. Recall though, that Pelini himself was a popular interim option when Frank Solich was fired.
Sarkisian will be a winner at USC. There seems little doubt about that. The question is whether he'll be the kind of winner that the fans will embrace. We've seen Nebraska, a school who's glory days are further in the rear view mirror, ready to fire a coach that's produced a winning overall record and winning conference record in every season. It's easy to imagine a similar fate for Sark at USC. It's not like he couldn't recruit in Washington. It will surely be easier at USC, but that doesn't guarantee a jump from his 7-8 win career plateau to 11 victories a year. Whether it was Kiffin, Orgeron, or any number of other options, the zero-sum nature of football makes it tough to forecast 11 wins for anyone that hasn't done it before. The biggest benefit for USC might turn out to be if UCLA's Jim Mora can now be lured to Washington (his alma mater). That gets tougher with the fat contract extension Mora just signed with the Bruins. Odds are though, Sarkisian will turn out as something less than a Hall of Fame coach and USC will be shopping for another coach 4-6 years down the road.