There's something different in the air at USC these days, something that hasn't been there in quite some time. There's a new coach in town, and that pesky cloud of mediocrity and disappointment is finally passing over Troy, making way for a return to the glory of the Pete Carroll era.
Lane Kiffin was the Pete Carroll prodigy USC needed to get the Trojans through the sanctioned years. A bridge between dynasties, Kiffin kept the cupboard full of talent despite limited resources, and the Trojans avoided any additional trouble on his watch. But, he had to run a tight ship to do it. The fun, whimsical energy that once flowed through USC was replaced with one that was all business, all the time.
It was different than what Trojan fans were used to, but because USC's sanctions were partly related to having had such a cavalier attitude, it was necessary. Those days have come to pass now. The worst of USC's sanctions end in June, just before Pete Carroll's other prodigy, Steve Sarkisian, is scheduled to get his inaugural season started.
Sark has already brought back a sense of hope to USC. His hire was first greeted with skepticism, but after crushing the recruiting trail and landing the 11th-best class with just two months on the job, fans and the media alike came around on him.
Sarkisian says he came to USC to win championships and to restore the Trojans to their former glory. For the first time in a while, those goals are actually believable.
Sarkisian knows exactly what kind of environment to cultivate in Southern California, and he's already started sowing the seeds of a new, yet familiar era.
He has that same open, amiable demeanor that allowed Carroll to walk on water in Los Angeles. Sark is extremely likable and media-friendly, two things that go far in this media-driven metropolis. He'll need to use that charm and charisma to not only keep the media on his side but to keep the recruits interested in buying what he's selling.
From his hiring, Sark knew exactly what to do to start off on the right foot in LA: He re-opened the doors of Troy to fans and media.
Open practices were something that made Pete Carroll so popular in Southern California and became a staple of the culture in Troy. Fans still cannot peruse the sidelines of Howard Jones Field like they used to, per compliance rules, but they can check out practices from across the way, at Dedeaux Field. Open practices convey an enhanced sense of ownership for fans: It's one thing to show up and support one's team on game day; it's another thing entirely to be apart of the preparation.
Aside from removing the cloak of secrecy shrouded over practices, Sark is doing other things to bring the Carroll culture back to USC.
Like Carroll, Sarkisian is a player's coach. He takes the time to get to know his players individually and on a personal level. In college, that kind of close interaction advances player development and cultivates a team mentality where the athletes want to win for their coach.
"He's a good guy," senior tight end Randall Telfer said. "When he first got hired it was tough because everyone loved Coach O[rgeron]. But people have warmed up to him. He's engaging and energetic."
Telfer also noted that Sark spends a lot of time in his office with the door open, so players can come in at any time and speak with him. He's making the effort to bond with his team, and that's something that wasn't really there under Kiffin.
It's important for Sark to establish a connection with the players he already has on roster, as well as those he intends to attract in the future.
From a recruiting standpoint, Sarkisian needs to make sure he reaffirms the strong foothold USC has in the fertile hotbed of talent he has at his disposal. In 2014, he brought in 15 athletes from Southern California, nine of which came from perennial powerhouses like Mater Dei, Junipero Serra, St. John Bosco, Narbonne and Long Beach Poly.
For the 2015 recruiting cycle, the Trojans have already secured the commitment of 5-star QB Ricky Town out of St. Bonaventure (Ventura, Calif.), and the Trojans are targeting dozens of other 4 and 5-star athletes, right in USC's backyard. That's what Carroll did to rebuild Troy into such a great program, and Sarkisian is already well on his way to continuing that trend.
Last month, Carroll held a talk at USC in which he spoke candidly about his support for Sarkisian and what he brings to the table as a coach:
Those last two quips in particular are things that could also be said of Carroll. It stands to reason that if Sarkisian embodies them too, he already has the leadership qualities required to do great things in Troy.
Where Carroll inherited a listless USC team and rebuilt it into a dominant program, Sarkisian similarly inherited a Washington program with nothing going for it and made it reputable.
While USC's situation now isn't as dire, there are still some areas of weakness Sark will be tasked with fixing.
For example, the Trojans have decently gotten by without having a dominant offensive line, but it has been sorely missed. An aggressive, punch-you-in-the-mouth running style was a staple of the Carroll era. In order to succeed, Sarkisian needs to foster the growth of stud recruits into stud collegiate athletes, particularly in the running game.
Judging by Sarkisian's astute decision to sign five O-linemen in 2014, it's clear he sees this is something the Trojans need to reestablish if they want to get back to their winning days.
That said, it's true that Sarkisian never won more than eight games in a season with the Huskies. However, considering where the program started before him, that's more of a reflection of the overall talent available at UW than of his shortcomings as a coach.
At USC, if Sark can make this first year a success while dealing with limited numbers, it's reasonable to think it suggests he could do great things once the Trojans have a full roster again. The most important thing for him to do now is win, and win often. USC fans expect winning seasons, and if Sarkisian can deliver that, the support for him will continue to grow.
USC fans have expected Carroll-esque greatness ever since the beloved coach departed for greener pastures in the NFL in 2009, and anything less than a Rose Bowl appearance is considered a disappointment. Even with the sanctions, the Trojan family has not lowered its expectations, which has made the last four seasons nothing short of frustrating.
This year, though, Sarkisian is looking to turn things around, and if all goes according to plan, the glory days of USC will no longer be a thing of the past.
All quotes were obtained firsthand, unless otherwise stated.
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