Steve Sarkisian is certainly a familiar name around USC's Heritage Hall. The Trojans' new head coach played an integral role in the program's run atop college football through much of the 2000s, and he spent the past five years as a Pac-12 rival at Washington.
Sarkisian is not the first head coach USC plucked from within the conference. The Trojans hired Larry Smith away from Arizona in 1987. Smith spent six seasons at the helm and reached two Rose Bowls, though his tenure ultimately ended in disappointing fashion. Sarkisian's challenge in his new role is clear: USC is after not just success, but sustained success, much like it experienced when he was a Trojans assistant.
After spending six of USC's seven seasons as Pac-12 champions last decade, Sarkisian left his post at USC as offensive coordinator and associate head coach after the 2008 campaign—the last to culminate in a Rose Bowl berth for the Trojans. The Washington program he inherited in 2009 looked considerably different when compared the 9-4 USC team he is joining.
The Huskies hit rock bottom a year prior at 0-12. Regaining success at Washington, a program that was the conference's benchmark in the 1990s, was a gradual process for Sarkisian. He entered 2013 the Pac-12's second-most tenured head coach with one program behind only Oregon State fixture Mike Riley. In his five at Washington, Sarkisian had just one losing season—his first.
Each of his Washington teams since finished above .500 and reached a bowl game, including this year's 8-4 bunch. But coming into 2013, Sarkisian needed measured improvement after three straight 7-6 finishes.
The road back to relevance at Washington was not always smooth. The Huskies are 7-19 against ranked opponents since 2009. Despite marquee wins over USC in 2009 and 2010, and last year's upset of conference champion Stanford, Washington struggled against the Pac-12's upper echelon. Each of its four losses this year came against the league's teams currently ranked in the Associated Press Top 25: Arizona State, Oregon, Stanford and UCLA.
Still, Sarkisian made adjustments as necessary in his time at Washington to improve the program's infrastructure, surrounding himself with capable assistants who produced tangible results. The Huskies' 2011 defense, for example, ranked near the bottom of the Football Bowl Subdivision in yards and points allowed, the culmination of which was a 67-56 loss to Baylor at the Alamo Bowl.
Sarkisian parted ways with defensive coordinator Nick Holt, another coach with USC ties, and lured Justin Wilcox away from Tennessee. Wilcox immediately transformed the defense into one of the Pac-12's most fearsome. This year, the Huskies rank No. 6 nationally in sacks and No. 38 in points allowed, and they are stocked to continue flourishing in the years to come, thanks to Sarkisian's recruiting efforts.
The hire of defensive line coach and recruiting guru Tosh Lupoi in 2012 helped the Huskies net the nation's No. 21 recruiting class that offseason, according to Rivals.com.
As for Sarkisian's individual resume, he's a seamless fit for a program ESPN.com dubbed Quarterback U.
His work with quarterbacks made Sarkisian a hot coaching prospect during his USC days, and it continued in his time at Washington. When he was Trojans quarterbacks coach in 2002, Carson Palmer won the Heisman Trophy. Sarkisian worked with Matt Leinart the next season. Leinart went on to win the Heisman in 2004, but was statistically superior in both passing yards and touchdowns in 2003 with Sarkisian on staff.
Leinart spent one more campaign under Sarkisian's tutelage in 2005, after the coach returned from a one-year stint with the National Football League's Oakland Raiders. Leinart was a Heisman finalist again that season, and became the second of four Sarkisian proteges to become first-round NFL draft selections.
USC's Mark Sanchez and Washington's Jake Locker followed in 2009 and 2011. Current Washington quarterback Keith Price will learn his professional fate this spring, but he'll leave the program with his name scrawled throughout the record book.
Sarkisian's quarterback credentials date back to a wildly successful playing career at Brigham Young, where he broke Steve Young's program record for passing percentage in a single season. Sarkisian's 33-touchdown campaign in 1996 made him a Davey O'Brien Award finalist and led BYU to a 14-1 finish.
Some of the qualities that brought Sarkisian success as a player at BYU will benefit him as a head coach at USC—namely his ability to take leadership against challenging circumstances. Sarkisian stepped in at BYU as a junior college transfer and had to assert himself quickly, a process he explained to the Denver Post in 1996:
"For me there was an improvement in my game, my maturity and leadership qualities. Last year it wasn't my team. It was difficult coming in from junior college to take charge of the team in the spring."
Likewise, Sarkisian will have to win over players who wanted interim head coach Ed Orgeron tabbed as the full-time leader. Trojans such as freshman safety Su'a Cravens, who told the Los Angeles Times, "we want Coach O.," were vocal in their support for Orgeron.
Sarkisian must also win over a skeptical fanbase. Other names, such as Boise State's Chris Petersen, Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin and Vanderbilt's James Franklin, generated buzz Sarkisian may not match.
But Sarkisian's USC mentor, Pete Carroll, was not the most awe-inspiring hire in December 2000. All he did was win seven consecutive conference championships.
To succeed as USC's head coach, Sarkisian must first win the locker room. The next step in disproving naysayers is to win on the recruiting trail this offseason.
With a background at both USC and in Southern California as a Torrance, Calif., native, Sarkisian should adjust quickly his new role. He already has well-established recruiting inroads in the talent-rich region. Key Southern California products on Washington's 2013 roster include Price (Compton), wide receivers Jaydon Mickens (Los Angeles) and John Ross (Long Beach), and defensive backs Sean Parker (Los Angeles) and Will Shamburger (Compton).
The speculation now over, Sarkisian's goal is simple. Nothing short of USC's return to the pinnacle of the Pac-12 and national championship contention will suffice.
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