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PAC 12 Coaching Hires – Can Steve Sarkisian Bring the Glory Days back to USC

It’s been a relatively quiet year in the coaching carousel so far, with a mere 14 schools either looking for, or needing, new coaches. Two of those schools are in the PAC 12, with USC’s firing of Lane Kiffin and subsequent hiring of Washington’s Steve Sarkisian opening up a vacancy with the Huskies. One dip into the Mountain West later, and Boise State’s head coach, Chris Petersen, is the new head man in Seattle. In a two-part article we will address what this means for either school? The conference? Is either coach the right man for the job, and can they have success? Read on.

Steve Sarkisian

This is not the time or the place for an in-depth rundown of Sark’s career. In short, prior to his head-coaching stint at Washington, he was an offensive coordinator, quarterback coach and assistant Head Coach at Southern California. When Lane Kiffin was fired after the Arizona State loss, Sarkisian was one of the first names bandied about by pundits, and why not? He had an excellent track record at USC, coaching two Heisman trophy quarterbacks in Matt Leinart and Carson Palmer, and even managed to coax a strong performance out of Mark Sanchez. Coaching with the Trojans under Pete Carroll means he knows the expectations of the program, and what needs to be done to restore USC to their former glory. Or at least, he should.

So far, so good!

With Sark’s track record as an offensive coordinator at USC, it wasn’t long before a head coaching gig was offered, and Washington, within the familiar confines of the PAC 10, made a lot of sense. The Huskies were reeling from an 0-12 season under Ty Willingham, and Sark was able to breathe some life into the program in his first season, winning 5 games and beating USC and Cal, both ranked teams. The following season, a rough start raised some eyebrows, but a strong 4-0 finish, including a 19-7 bowl win over Nebraska, who had pummeled the Huskies earlier in the year, pointed the needle north again. Two more 7-6 seasons raised more questions about Sarkisian’s long-term viability, but a 9-4 season likely would have earned him a stay of execution had he not left on his own terms.

Can he recruit?

Sorry, Husky fans, but Washington isn’t the most fashionable of schools these days. Despite this, Sarkisian did a fine job mining the sunny climes of (mostly) California for talent, and bringing them to the rainy northwest. He pulled in three top 25 classes along the way, which will sit well in Seattle, but in Southern Cal he’ll be expected to vie for top 10 classes on a yearly basis. Based on his results at Washington, Sark looks more than capable of coming up with the goods, but he’ll be expected to cast his net nationally now, and may be outside his comfort zone – dominating locally will be a must. Ed Orgeron’s resignation in protest of not being considered/hired for the full-time head coaching gig could hurt the Trojans in the early going, as there are few who can match Orgeron’s recruiting acumen. Sarkisian gets the benefit of the doubt for now, but needs to hit the ground running in 2015.

Can he roll with the big boys?

Winning 35 games in 5 years and playing in middle-tier bowls may be acceptable in some programs, but Washington has a history of being competitive within the conference, and nothing less should be tolerated. Granted, there has been something of a talent gulf as Sarkisian built the team up, but the Huskies were often blown out against the better teams in the conference. Washington went 5-4 each of the last 4 years in Sark’s administration, and pulled off some good wins over USC and Stanford along the way, but he was 0-5 against Oregon, never coming within 17 points of the Ducks (final score). Over the 21 conference losses, the Huskies scored only 401 points, while allowing 841, or an average loss of 40-19. That’s not going to cut it in Southern Cal, but as already mentioned, the talent should be superior. Getting that talent to play to its level may be the challenge.

So, can he succeed here?

The simple answer is “yes”, but there is a caveat. While Sark has the offensive acumen to make USC a success, not to mention being something of a quarterback guru, his track record in big games is less than stellar. This raises questions about toughness, as his Husky teams folded too often. A more tangible concern is defense, which was the Huskies bugbear through Sarkisian’s five year-stint. When one averages 40 points allowed per conference loss over that period, it becomes clear where the biggest problems are. Sark fired his entire defensive staff at the end of 2011, and the new group showed improvement, but the big losses were still there. Adding a quality staff at USC will be a key, and in particular filling the gaping hole left by Oregon’s resignation.

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