By Mike Piellucci
Long before inheriting his close friend's dream job, Steve Sarkisian's career was inextricably linked to Lane Kiffin's.
They were the boy wonders of Pete Carroll's grand machine at USC, arriving in their twenties as position coaches -- Sarkisian coached quarterbacks; Kiffin, tight ends, then receivers -- before co-coordinating perhaps the greatest offense in college football history in 2005, when the former was 31 and the latter, 30. Lane looked the part, tall and tan with a wry wit that lit up the film room but dimmed in front of tape recorders and television cameras. Sark acted it, swaggering around with the assurance of someone who knew he belonged, wholly unafraid to bare his full personality to whomever he shared the room with. But both were whip-smart minds who recruited like demons; they each seemed destined to loom over college football sooner than later.
In 2007, Al Davis offered Sarkisian the head coaching job of the Oakland Raiders. He declined, but Kiffin took it, leaving him to assume sole control of the offense they constructed together. Three years later, Carroll left USC for the NFL and the head coaching position both Kiffin and Sarkisian coveted became available. Sark, a season into his five-year stint in Washington, felt the timing wasn't right and stayed put. Lane, who had only convalesced at Tennessee one year earlier after washing out in Oakland, leapt at the chance to replace their mentor.
Now, after another three years, Sarkisian finds himself back at USC for the fifth time -- his fourth as a coach, plus a brief, middling baseball career. Once again, it's in a capacity that Kiffin vacated, an association that makes just about everyone outside of USC headquarters queasy given his inauspicious exit in late September. That's further compounded by a well-publicized, ostensibly well-funded coaching search -- one in which names such as Chris Petersen, Kevin Sumlin and James Franklin were bandied about -- that culminated in hiring yet another favored son at a program that almost compulsively selects its future leaders from the pool of men with ties to its past, often to wildly underwhelming results. The arrival of a new head coach at one of the few schools annually capable of harboring championship aspirations should feel like Mardi Gras; instead, coupled with the departure of beloved interim coach Ed Orgeron, Sarkisian touched down Monday evening in a morgue.
Less than 24 hours later, he has the place in considerably higher spirits. For all the skepticism his banal 34-29 record at Washington merits -- Athletic Director Pat Haden even went so far as to preemptively address it while introducing him -- no one doubts Sarkisian's suitability as USC's mouthpiece, and so his commanding display in just over a half hour of total media availability was as perfunctory as it was predictable. There was something for every constituency -- platitudes for the alumni ("I'm the luckiest guy in the world"; "My three kids, I hope someday get to come to this fine university"); assurances to the press ("We're not going to shut the media out"); declarations to the fan base ("We're here to win championships; we will return USC to the top"); and for the players, the importing of a recently implemented no-huddle offense that had the Huskies eighth nationally in total offense. Everyone left placated, as much as a fan base can be short of tangible on-field results or a killer recruiting class.
That's where the comparisons to Kiffin begin to break down. When his tenure was over, Kiffin's failure to appease those demographics drew as much from an unwillingness to bend as an overall inability to satisfy, a tack mostly borne out of insecurity from a man who ascended too quickly for his own good. That he did at all, of course, owes plenty to Sarkisian's predilection for wading into calmer seas as much as his own volition to dive headfirst into choppy waters; when Sarkisian admitted to the media that, "I don't know if, five years ago, I'd have been ready to inherit this job," it indirectly indicted Kiffin's choices as much as validated his own. That he displayed the temerity to overhaul his entire offense after a succession of 7-6 seasons speaks as much to his own flexibility as it does Kiffin's uncompromising stubbornness.
Later, Sarkisian was asked about the concept of USC playing fun, aggressive football, the way it once did under Carroll but only professed to under Kiffin. His answer was one that demonstrated with finality which of the two protégés truly gleaned what their mentor taught them.
"It's one thing to say it, that you're going to come out and be loose," he said. "It's another what you exude. I have to exude it every day."
To wit, upon being pressed about commonalities between his once and future head coaches, defensive back Josh Shaw said that "he didn't get that vibe at all," noting that he and other players immediately felt a connection to Sarkisian's energy, easygoing nature, sense of humor and honesty. When a reporter cracked that it sounded just like Kiffin, Shaw could only muster a nervous laugh in response before eventually stammering that he didn't mean it to be a slight.
"I will say that the two are different," he conceded. "Definitely, they're not the same."
Shaw is one of several USC players who heavily considered Washington out of high school, while Sarkisian estimated that he tried to recruit half of the Trojans' roster to Seattle as high school players. Quarterback Cody Kessler was literally on the verge of picking up the phone to commit to Sarkisian before a serendipitous message came from USC to call Kiffin; Kessler promptly picked up a scholarship offer from the Trojans and came aboard thereafter. Hardly anyone, in other words, lacks for some degree of familiarity with Sarkisian, first- or second-hand; even fewer have less-than-positive things to say.
Their initial foray into actually playing for him came Monday night about ten minutes into his introduction to the team. It was then that Sarkisian asked support staff and administrators -- including Haden and USC President Max Nikias -- to leave him alone with the players. As the doors closed, he removed his suit jacket and pulled a black USC sweatshirt over his dress shirt.
"I'm home," he told them. "I want you to know I'm home."
Not long ago, it was Kiffin sitting that seat, speaking similar words about shared feelings.
Now, it's incumbent on Sarkisian to succeed where his friend and cohort failed. If he doesn't, the boy wonders with limitless futures will be passed by before anyone imagined in their halcyon days together, done in by a shared home they will never again return to.
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Mike Piellucci is a freelance writer from Dallas based in Los Angeles. You can follow him on Twitter at @MikeLikesSports.