It was only one year ago that two of Pete Carroll’s offensive coordinators had taken over programs of their own.
The USC coaching tree was reaching out across the college world.
Lane Kiffin was the first to bolt for a head job, but that did not end well, as less than two years later Kiffin was looking for a job again.
In Kiffin’s defense, it is the Oakland Raiders we are talking about here—not the ideal situation for success lately.
Around the time Kiffin had been fired from Oakland, the Washington Huskies made it known that the current head man, Tyrone Willingham, was going to be replaced by the end of the season. Kiffin, looking to get into the college ranks, lobbied for himself to be a candidate for the position.
Eventually, Kiffin found his way to the University of Tennessee, a traditional power program in the SEC East that had fallen on hard times. Meanwhile, the University of Washington decided to go after Steve Sarkisian of USC, the offensive coordinator after Kiffin.
Despite Kiffin’s experience in the NFL, both men started a journey as head coaches for NCAA programs during the same year. How do the two men’s performances compare for the first season?
The edge here simply has to go to Tennessee for the inaugural class for each coach. The Tennessee class hauled in the top overall rated recruit in Bryce Brown and brought in a top 10 class overall. With limited time, and making up for lost time after Willingham stopped recruiting after stepping down, Sarkisian was only able to pull in 19 kids.
Going into the season, the programs were in drastically different states. Phil Fulmer had seen better days in the Tennessee Orange, but he was a respected coach who had enjoyed success, including a national title, with the Volunteers. Kiffin had the better program to work with and ended up with the better record at 7-5.
Sarkisian, on the other hand, took over a team that had not made a bowl since 2003. The Washington Huskies were coming off their program's first zero-win season and just needed ANY kind of hope. Sarkisian gave them just that with an upset of his former team and flirted with bowl eligibility for the first time in years.
Kiffin’s Volunteers had the better record—they made a bowl after all—but Sarkisian’s Huskies turnaround was a more impressive five-win improvement.
Going into 2010
After the 2009 season both coaches set out to work on building their programs for the future, but it was not meant to be. The longstanding rumor that Pete Carroll was going to give the NFL another try came to fruition, and suddenly the USC Trojans had an opening at the head coaching position.
Who were the two easiest candidates to think of? Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian.
A lot of things go on behind closed doors that we can only speculate about. Was Sarkisian offered the job? Who would have been preferred, Kiffin or Sarkisian?
The familiarity both would have brought to the program, and the similar personalities to Carroll led to the easiest transitions. When given the opportunity to come back and try to maintain what Carroll had started, Kiffin jumped at the opportunity.
We don’t know for sure if Sarkisian was offered, but what we do know is that he stayed in Seattle. He wants to build his own successful program, not maintain a current juggernaut.
Going into the 2010 season, Kiffin and Sarkisian will now get to compete year after year for the Pac-10 they dominated during their days at USC. There is no doubt that Kiffin has the stronger program at this point, but Washington is rebuilding and will not be a team you can take lightly much longer.
USC hauled in what some call the No. 1 class in the nation, but Washington also pulled in a top 10 class coming off a five-win season. There is little doubt that these men can recruit, which should lead to some epic recruiting battles in the future.
Either way, the storyline is set for years to come as the two former coworkers lead two of the West Coast’s traditional football powers. Kiffin needs to keep the USC machine moving, while Sarkisian is rebuilding his in Washington.
After one year the jury is still out on who will make the better head coach between the two men. Kiffin has a more experienced staff and with a more talented team produced a better record.
Sarkisian had to completely change the culture and mentality of a program, came off zero wins, and still only produced two fewer victories than Kiffin’s Vols did. The numbers may favor Kiffin, but I’ll take Sarkisian’s performance in year one anytime.
As for the future?
It will be difficult to maintain the high level of success Pete Carroll established at USC, but Kiffin has put himself in an excellent position to succeed. He has the energy and experienced staff to maintain the high level of play that leads to a nine-win season being disappointing.
Sarkisian has experienced the high level of success on the USC staff and has a plan to get Washington to that position. The resources are there, but the coaching hires have been the issue since Washington’s last Rose Bowl win. Finally it appears Washington has found a coach that gets it and understands the massive potential on Montlake.
Do not be surprised if USC and Washington are fighting it out at the top sooner rather than later.
Originally posted at The Sports Chronicle Blog.