Biggest Challenges Steve Sarkisian Faces at USC

Sebastian Lena@SP7988Analyst IDecember 3, 2013

Biggest Challenges Steve Sarkisian Faces at USC

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    Can Sarkisian (right) pick up where he left off?
    Can Sarkisian (right) pick up where he left off?Harry How/Getty Images

    New USC head coach Steve Sarkisian certainly has some big shoes to fill.

    But that should be expected when taking over one of college football’s most storied programs.

    On Monday afternoon, the university announced the hiring of the Torrance, Calif., native, via ESPN. It concluded a lengthy, two-month search for the Trojans after the controversial firing of former head coach Lane Kiffin.

    There’s no doubt the school got it right with Sarkisian. Not to mention, with ties back to USC—he was the quarterback’s coach for a total of seven years—the 39-year-old knows what it takes to be successful in Los Angeles. 

    But that’s easier said than done.

    This will easily be the toughest test of Sarkisian’s young coaching career.

    Here are seven of the biggest challenges he’ll face with the Trojans.

Winning over Fan Base and the Players

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    Orgeron (center) was beloved by players and fans alike.
    Orgeron (center) was beloved by players and fans alike.Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    After the whole Kiffin debacle, the Trojans were a mess.

    The players had no interest in playing for their current coach, hardly giving the maximum effort on the field. In the stands, the fans showed a lack of enthusiasm for the team, hardly showing up to the Coliseum for home games.

    After five weeks, USC was 3-2, including an embarrassing 10-7 loss to Washington State at home where the team only mustered 54 total passing yards.

    Former interim head coach Ed Orgeron changed all that.

    He led the team to six wins in his first seven games. That included the granddaddy of them all: An upset of then-No. 4 Stanford, 20-17, on Nov. 16.

    Players, fans and even the band all made it known how much they loved Coach O.

    How can Sarkisian expect to easily replace someone who single-handedly repaired a broken community?

    According to The Los Angeles Times’ Gary Klein, players were left speechless after the announcement of Orgeron’s departure. Many were in tears.

    As is usually the case, there will be an immediate resentment for the successor of a departed beloved figure—one that many believe never got a fair shot at the job.

    With that said, it will be imperative that Sarkisian quickly relays that he’s only continuing the success that Orgeron helped begin, not replacing it.

Building the Right Coaching Staff

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    The right coaching staff can make all the difference.
    The right coaching staff can make all the difference.Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    The biggest reason for the fall of USC’s dynasty in the last decade was that the team began losing key members of its coaching staff.

    Offensive coordinator Norm Chow bolted for the NFL. Ed Orgeron left to become the head coach of Ole Miss. Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian later left to pursue other opportunities.

    Those moves all chipped away at the Trojans’ armor, making a once impenetrable force vulnerable to any opponent.

    It all makes Sarkisian’s decisions in building his coaching staff with USC all the more important.

    If he’s smart, he’ll keep around first-year defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. For the most part, the Trojans defense—ranked No. 15 in total defense—has done its job.

    Decisions will also have to be made on wide receivers coach Tee Martin and special teams coach John Baxter.

    And what about play-calling? Will Sarkisian handle the duties himself or bring on someone who is respected for his offensive knowledge?

    These questions alone will go a long way in determining Sarkisian’s success at USC, long before his team first takes the field.

Success with Recruiting

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    In five seasons with Washington, Steve Sarkisian only had one recruiting class that ranked inside the top 25, via That class was No. 19 in 2013.

    But regardless of his track record, his move to USC has already peaked the interest of several recruits already committed to both the Trojans and Huskies along with those still undecided.

    One of the biggest names affected by Sarkisian’s hire at USC was running back Joe Mixon (Oakley, Calif.), who tweeted Monday he is considering the Trojans.

    But he’s not the only one, according to B/R’s Tyler Donohue.

    Now, with eyes back on USC, it’s up to Sarkisian to use the buzz—and his recruiting talent—to bring on these new players.

    With the expectations that come with this program, a recruiting class that doesn’t rank in the top 15 is a disappointment.

Getting More out of the Quarterback Position

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    Sarkisian (left) has a reputation for mentoring great college quarterbacks.
    Sarkisian (left) has a reputation for mentoring great college quarterbacks.Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    Carson Palmer. Matt Leinart. John David Booty. Mark Sanchez.

    Those are four of the quarterbacks Steve Sarkisian worked closely with during his tenure at USC as the quarterback’s coach.

    Two of those players won the Heisman Trophy. All four were selected to the All-Pac-10 First Team.

    This time around, Sarkisian will have his hands full.

    In 2013, the Trojans were led by Cody Kessler under center. The sophomore threw for 2,623 yards, 16 touchdowns and six interceptions on 64.7 percent passing.

    Although he proved to be a decent game manager, Kessler never really showed the potential to be a quarterback that can go out and win games with his arm.

    In 13 games, he threw for 250 yards or more just twice. Furthermore, he never tossed more than two touchdowns in a game.

    Those qualities all were exposed in USC’s most recent loss to UCLA, 35-14.

    Fortunately, Sarkisian will have the chance to start fresh with Max Browne, who will be a redshirt freshman in 2014.

    A top-20 recruit entering 2013, Browne has the tools to rank among those previous four quarterbacks in Trojans lore. But it’ll be up to Sarkisian to take him there.

Developing a Winning Tradition

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    Sarkisian (left) must learn from his buddy Kiffin's (right) mistakes.
    Sarkisian (left) must learn from his buddy Kiffin's (right) mistakes.Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    In a seven-year span from 2002-08, USC was an impressive 82-9. That included recording at least 11 wins in every season, seven Pac-10 titles, a 6-1 BCS bowl record and two BCS titles.

    As a member on the coaching staff of six of those teams, Steve Sarkisian got a firsthand glimpse of that success.

    Now, it’s his turn to establish a winning tradition of his own.

    Maybe they’re spoiled, but Trojans fans don’t just enjoy winning, they expect it. The success of a 10-win season can overshadow the shortcomings of a head coach who doesn’t know what he’s doing.

    Just ask Lane Kiffin, who was heralded as a savior for the program after leading the team to a 10-2 mark.

    But that moniker quickly changed following a 7-6 record in 2012 and a 3-2 start this season.

    If Sarkisian wants to quickly get in the good graces of those in Los Angeles, he needs to win and win often.

Being Able to Win the Big Games

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    Sarkisian (center) must prove he can get his team ready to step up against big opponents.
    Sarkisian (center) must prove he can get his team ready to step up against big opponents.Stephen Lam/Getty Images

    In that same 2002-08 stretch, USC was a remarkable 30-4 in games against top-25 opponents. That includes impressive marks of 16-4 away from home and 11-2 against opponents ranked in the top 10.

    Furthermore, the Trojans were 6-1 in BCS bowls, making two trips to the BCS title game.

    Whenever the team was faced with a tough opponent, USC stepped up to the challenge more often than not.

    Home, away or at a neutral site, the result usually displayed the Trojans’ dominance over the college football landscape.

    Can Steve Sarkisian do the same at the school?

    Although his turnaround of Washington is certainly impressive, Sarkisian has struggled in big games. Since he took over back in 2009, the Huskies are just 8-18 against top-25 opponents and are 1-2 in bowl games.

    Those kinds of numbers won’t fly in Los Angeles.

    All stats and rankings used in this article are courtesy of

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