By Kyle Kensing
LOS ANGELES -- Inside the walls of USC's Howard Jones Field, it was just another game-week Tuesday.
The USC football team went through preparations for Saturday's rivalry game against Notre Dame. Dropkick Murphys' "Shipping Up to Boston," a musical staple of Notre Dame Stadium, blared over the speaker system. A successful defensive stand during a short-yardage drill prompted a team celebration.
On the other side of the practice facility's seven-foot walls, television trucks lined the curb on McClintock Avenue, going almost a block deep.
Welcome to Los Angeles. Welcome to USC. This was not just another game-week Tuesday.
The Trojans will take the field Saturday in South Bend with a disappointing 3-2 record, and they are opening a three-game stretch that will define their season. USC does so under its fourth head coach in 24 months, Clay Helton, the interim replacement for the fired Steve Sarkisian, who checked himself into a treatment facility earlier this week for alcohol-related issues.
There is one bright spot, however small it may be.
"I've done this job before," Helton said, speaking in an auditorium in the John McKay Center immediately after Tuesday's practice.
Helton was referring to his roughly three weeks as interim head coach in 2013, when he replaced Ed Orgeron -- who replaced the fired Lane Kiffin -- ahead of the Las Vegas Bowl defeat of Fresno State. Orgeron, an assistant for much of USC's dominant run in the 2000s, stepped down once USC hired Sarkisian, another assistant to Pete Carroll in those glory years. Orgeron went 6-2 in his interim stint, including a dramatic upset of a Stanford team that went on to win that year's Pac-12 championship.
But Orgeron's two losses, to rivals Notre Dame and UCLA, helped doom his candidacy. Athletic director Pat Haden instead turned to Sarkisian, the young up-and-comer who brought four consecutive winning seasons and an impressive recruiting resume from Washington.
Many reports have suggested that Sarkisian also brought with him known personal demons, which leads to questions about what Haden knew about Sarkisian's past.
"We know people that knew [Sarkisian] for years and years and never raised it as an issue," Haden said when discussion turned to a detailed Los Angeles Times report of Sarkisian's alleged past alcohol consumption. "You can disagree with the vetting, but he was vetted."
Speculation about Sarkisian's behavior at Washington aside, there were still alarming signs that something was wrong at USC, including the coach's intoxicated address at the Aug. 22 Salute to Troy. Sarkisian apologized, but was not disciplined.
"I felt, at that time, it was in the best interests of our players, who had been through an incredible amount of adversity with the [NCAA] sanctions, the coaching changes they'd been through, and for Steve, not to fire him [in August]," Haden said, citing "the input of trusted medical professionals."
"He deserved another chance. That's what I gave him," Haden said, adding that Sarkisian's first year and a half on the job passed without incident. (ESPN's Joe Schad reports that Sarkisian was on his way to a treatment center when he found out about his termination.)
Sarkisian no doubt felt the pressure intensifying as the early disappointments on the field continued. Last Thursday, after a loss to Washington, a cascade of boos rained down as Sark exited the west end of the Coliseum at a brisk pace, almost a jog, staring straight ahead stone-faced. His new team was favored by 17.5 points over his old team; both scored below that number, as the Huskies won 17-12.
A reporter asked Sarkisian in the ensuing postgame press conference if the coach feared for his job, a notion Sarkisian emphatically dismissed. It wasn't until this weekend that more stories leaked about his drinking problem getting worse (one report alleged that Sarkisian was intoxicated during the USC-Arizona State game in September).
Meanwhile, Helton is thrust into an unenviable situation. He stayed on the USC staff as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach upon Sarkisian's arrival, conceding play-calling despite an impressive two months handling it after Kiffin's firing. Interim coaches take over for colleagues and friends routinely, but rarely in the circumstances facilitating Helton's ascent to head coach at USC.
"I am not one [who] kicks a man while he's down," Helton said. "I will not comment on any personal things dealing with Coach Sark.
"We love Coach Sark. He is a very, very good man and a good football coach," he added. "We look forward to him getting healthy and doing what he loves to do, which is coach football."
Conversely, the 20-year assistant coach was unambiguous about his long-term goals: "I want to be head coach," he said.
He's afforded an audition with a talent-laden roster. Despite its initial struggles, USC is a team made up of former four-and-five-star recruits and future NFL prospects. Quarterback Cody Kessler played his worst game in two seasons last Thursday, but before that, he was cruising along at a Heisman Trophy-contending pace. Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster ranks eighth in the nation in receiving yards and ninth in touchdowns caught. The Trojans have a multifaceted corps of running backs, one of the most impressive collections of young talent at linebacker and various other playmakers up and down the lineup.
Despite the throng of reporters packed into John McKay Center and the line of TV trucks along McClintock, the USC football team is positioned to refocus for the back-half of the season.
Players are barred from media contact this week, but Trojans who went through the midseason coaching change in 2013 talked extensively in the past of bonding amid turmoil. Having been there as part of it last time, Helton said he's confident in recapturing the spark that ignited a 7-2 finish two years ago.
"As we rally together as a Trojan family during the hard times, you'll see the true character of what Trojans are made of," he said.
Just another Tuesday for USC football.