Once-hesitant USC players have embraced Steve Sarkisian's fun-loving style

Jeff Eisenberg
September 4, 2014

LOS ANGELES — On the day USC introduced Steve Sarkisian as its new football coach last December, many players weren't ready to say goodbye to his predecessor just yet.

The Trojans had forged a strong bond with gravel-voiced interim coach Ed Orgeron after he replaced Lane Kiffin in late September, injected some fun into a previously joyless season and rallied the team to a 6-2 finish.

When USC athletic director Pat Haden revealed he had hired Sarkisian from Washington instead of awarding Orgeron the full-time job, some players were so distraught they walked out of the meeting with tear-stained faces and compared the coaching change to losing a father. Others publicly apologized to Orgeron for concluding the season with a one-sided loss to UCLA that they believed might have cost him his job.

"In the beginning, guys were heartbroken," USC defensive end Leonard Williams said. "We weren't really welcoming any new coach that was coming in, no matter who it was going to be. Our very first meeting we were like, 'Oh yeah, whatever, Coach Sark.' It had nothing to do with anything he said. We just weren't ready to be receptive to anybody new."

Such an icy reception might have intimidated some coaches, but Sarkisian insists it didn't faze him.

Aside from retaining offensive coordinator Clay Helton and wide receivers coach Tee Martin to maintain a sense of continuity, Sarkisian didn't really do anything special to diffuse the hostility. He felt comfortable that his blend of enthusiasm, sincerity and football savvy would help him build the same strong relationships with his players that he had in previous jobs.

As 14th-ranked USC prepares for its first big test of the season at 13th-ranked Stanford on Saturday, it is already clear Sarkisian's understated approach has proven effective. Players who once pleaded for Orgeron to be retained now rave about their experience under Sarkisian without prompting, from his fast-paced, no-huddle offense, to his charismatic sideline demeanor, to the way he dealt with a turbulent opening week off the field.

You could see the bond when wide receiver George Farmer praised Sarkisian for holding the team together after Josh Shaw's lies threatened to derail preparation for Fresno State last week.

You could see the bond when Hayes Pullard and Antwaun Woods leaped to Sarkisian's defense after exiled running back Anthony Brown's accused him of racism just as the Shaw saga was subsiding.

You could see the bond when wide receiver Nelson Agholar admitted he fed off Sarkisian's energy on the sideline after years of Kiffin dourly standing off to the side or burying his face in a playbook.

And you could see the bond when Sarkisian and quarterback Cody Kessler performed a leaping chest bump after a third-quarter touchdown strike on Saturday, then joked about it after the game.

"That won't be the last time I go crazy on the sideline," Sarkisian said with a smile. "Better check our verts because I might have been higher than Cody."

Former USC coach Ed Orgeron celebrates with fans after a win last season. (USA TODAY Sports)
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Former USC coach Ed Orgeron celebrates with fans after a win last season. (USA TODAY Sports)

It's too soon to assess whether Sarkisian's chemistry with his new team will translate into a strong debut season, but it won't surprise anyone close to the USC coach if he eventually enjoys success. He has seized nearly every opportunity put in front of him during a hard-charging ascent from overlooked quarterback prospect, to record-setting BYU passer, to rising coaching star.  

The youngest of Seb and Sally Sarkisian's seven children grew up in a close-knit, sports-oriented family that moved from Massachusetts to Torrance, Calif., just before Sarkisian was born. Having six older siblings helped instill mental and physical toughness in Sarkisian at a young age because he was always at a size and strength disadvantage whenever he competed against his brothers or sisters. Yet that never stopped him from trying to outshine them.

An excellent soccer and baseball player as a kid, Sarkisian might never have discovered his passion for football had he not managed to persuade his mom to let him try out for the team at West Torrance High School in ninth grade. Sally Sarkisian had prohibited both of Steve's older brothers from playing football out of fear they would suffer an injury.

"Mom didn't want any of her babies to get hurt," Seb Sarkisian said with a chuckle. "You know that's the nature of moms. Finally we convinced her to let him play football, and we're glad we did. We had a blast watching him play and it's a great time now that he's coaching too."

Even as a 17-year-old running a then-newfangled spread offense his senior year at West Torrance, Sarkisian showed signs that he might have a future in coaching. Coach Kerry Crabb remembers allowing Sarkisian to call the plays at the line of scrimmage even though the quarterback had played baseball in the spring and had missed all the practices in which the coaching staff installed the new offense.

"You know how some people, the game moves so fast and they have a hard time dealing with it?" Crabb said. "He was the opposite. He could slow the game down. Nothing hit him fast-paced. He was able to see everything and make the right read. I just thought, 'Wow, this guy is amazing.'"

Neither eye-popping statistics nor a great mind for football were enough to drum up much attention from Division I programs for Sarkisian. College coaches wanted tall, strong, prototypical drop-back passers at the time, and at 6-foot, 165 pounds, Sarkisian didn't fit the mold.

Convinced that he had a better chance to excel in baseball than football, Sarkisian accepted a partial scholarship to play for USC but soon discovered he couldn't hit well enough to succeed at that level. He returned home to Torrance and enrolled at El Camino Junior College, where he might have been content to just be a regular student were it not for a persistent football coach with a keen eye for talent.

Upon discovering that Sarkisian was in the health class he taught, El Camino coach John Featherstone spent the first couple months of the 1994 spring semester trying to persuade the former quarterback to come out for practice. Each time Sarkisian insisted he just wanted to focus on academics until one day he finally relented.

"It wasn't until the last day of spring football that he finally said, 'OK, Coach, I'll come out and throw a few balls around,'" Featherstone said. "It was instant love again for him. We were just playing catch for five or 10 minutes, and he said, 'Coach, I really missed football.'"

With that settled, Sarkisian proceeded to study El Camino's system on his own over the summer, beat out a pair of returners for the starting job and broke nearly every school passing record the following season. In his final game, he threw for 645 yards in front of an array of college scouts, enabling him to have his pick of scholarship offers from BYU, Kansas State, Washington State and others.

Two of the primary reasons Sarkisian selected BYU were its passing offense and quarterback-rich history, but playing for a school that produced the likes of Ty Detmer, Steve Young and Jim McMahon had some drawbacks. There was immense pressure on Sarkisian to continue that lineage and BYU fans didn't hesitate to voice their displeasure when he fell short of expectations.

Boos rained down on Sarkisian when BYU lost its first two games of the season during his debut season and when he was intercepted four times and sacked twice in a 34-17 loss to rival Utah. He completed 65 percent of his passes and finished with a respectable 20 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, but he still confided in his teammates that the high expectations were constantly on his mind.

USC QB Cody Kessler chest-bumps with coach Steve Sarkisian. (Getty Images)
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USC QB Cody Kessler chest-bumps with coach Steve Sarkisian. (Getty Images)

"He told me he was pretty nervous," former BYU receiver Chad Lewis said. "That really surprised me. I was like, 'What? You just lit it up all spring ball. You're an incredible quarterback.' It wasn't like he didn't want to play, but to us he was close with, he let us know he knew he was a quarterback in this great line of quarterbacks and he felt that burden. What that did for us as teammates is it made us sell out more for him so he didn't have to carry that burden by himself."

Though BYU lost four games and failed to earn a bowl berth for the first time since 1977, Sarkisian learned to relax and believe in himself over the course of his junior season. Those lessons paved the way for a record-setting senior season in which Sarkisian led BYU to a 14-1 record and a Cotton Bowl victory by completing almost 69 percent of his passes and throwing nearly three times as many touchdowns as interceptions (33-12).

What impressed Sarkisian's teammates as much as anything he did on the field was the way he handled the transition to BYU's sometimes rigid culture. Sarkisian didn't grow up in a Mormon family and he wasn't accustomed to an honor code that forbade alcohol, baggy clothes or facial hair, yet he not only avoided running afoul of the rules but also became one of the most well-liked players in the locker room.

"It was remarkable how quickly he embraced BYU and BYU embraced him," Lewis said. "Coming to BYU as a Catholic boy and fitting in as quickly and as seamlessly as he did, that told me that he understood people. And on the football field, both in practices and games, he demonstrated he understood football. Those are the two ingredients you need to be a good coach."  

Coaching became an option for Sarkisian sooner than he might have expected because he lacked the physical tools to be taken in the 1997 NFL draft and his modest arm strength was a poor fit for the wide fields of the Canadian Football League. Three middling seasons in Saskatchewan did produce something of value, however, for Sarkisian: He gained more experience calling his own plays.

Undeterred by the end of his playing career, Sarkisian returned home to Torrance, accepted a job with a start-up software company and coached quarterbacks for El Camino College on the side. Software was a paycheck to Sarkisian. Coaching was his passion.

Each stop Sarkisian has made during his playing and coaching career contributed something to the coach he is today.

At El Camino, playing and coaching under a Don Coryell disciple and self-described "mad scientist" like Featherstone, he learned to perpetually tinker with his scheme to keep defenses off balance and to find what best fits his personnel.

At USC, where he served as quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator during one of the most successful runs in college football history, he learned from Pete Carroll how to keep practices competitive yet loose and fun.

At Washington, where he inherited a downtrodden program reeling from a winless season, he gained confidence in his ability as a head coach by transforming the Huskies into a perennial bowl team. He also broke away from the traditional pro-style system he ran at USC, introducing new wrinkles, first to exploit the mobility of quarterback Jake Locker and later adding the frenzied no-huddle element when he realized his offense was performing better at a fast tempo.   

All of those qualities made Sarkisian an attractive candidate to Haden, himself a highly successful college quarterback whose lack of height and arm strength hindered his pro career. Haden plucked Sarkisian from Washington despite objections from USC fans clamoring for a bigger name and Trojans players pushing to retain Orgeron.

During his press conference introducing his new coach in December, Haden touted Sarkisian's rebuilding job at Washington, his familiarity with USC's culture and his pre-existing relationships with Los Angeles-area high school coaches. Said Haden, "I believe he is uniquely positioned to have the smoothest, fastest and cleanest transition for our program."

It's far too early evaluate whether Sarkisian will be able to prove Haden right and win over the demanding USC fan base, but it's not too soon to assess his relationship with his team. Many of the same guys who were in tears at the idea of playing for anyone besides Orgeron are now firmly in his corner.

When Orgeron left USC after Haden chose Sarkisian, Williams tweeted, "Words can't explain how I'm feeling right now....just lost a father. Way more than a coach." Nine months later, Williams still appreciates his time with Orgeron but also admits he has grown to love playing for Sarkisian and he has "never felt more comfortable talking to coaches about something outside football" than he does now.

Those kinds of comments humble Sarkisian, but they don't surprise him.

"I knew the transition was going to be hard for them at first, but I wanted to get to know them and I wanted them to get to know me," he said. "I didn't try overly hard or go out of my way. I was going to be me. Over time, developing those relationships are going to be critical, and over a nine-month period, I think we've done that now."

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!