Steve Sarkisian Fired by USC After Taking Leave of Absence

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured Columnist

Southern California head coach Steve Sarkisian fires up his players before an NCAA college football game against Washington, Thursday, Oct. 8, 2015, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

The USC Trojans football program moved on from head coach Steve Sarkisian a day after he was reportedly asked to take a leave of absence by athletic director Pat Haden.

Haden announced the decision in a release on the program's website:

After careful consideration of what is in the best interest of the university and our student-athletes, I have made the decision to terminate Steve Sarkisian, effective immediately.

I want to thank Clay Helton for stepping into the interim head coach role, and I want to add how proud I am of our coaching staff and players and the way they are responding to this difficult situation.

Through all of this we remain concerned for Steve and hope that it will give him the opportunity to focus on his personal well being.

Scott Wolf of the Los Angeles Daily News noted on Sunday that Sarkisian is "expected to seek treatment" and that players noticed the coach was "not sober" at a special teams meeting Sunday morning. Wolf also reported "a USC source called me during practice to say Steve Sarkisian was not in 'good shape' this morning."

Wolf reported "some USC assistant coaches believed Sarkisian was drunk during the Arizona State game on Sept. 26," which the Trojans won. Assistants needed to pull Sarkisian out of a player huddle on the sideline that night because they "believed he was not sober," per Wolf"His eyes didn't look right, he was too animated," said a USC coach, according to Wolf.

While USC lost to Washington on Thursday night, 17-12, the leave of absence appeared to be about much more than any on-field struggles. Ryan Abraham of USCFootball.com shared some details:

Ryan Abraham @insidetroy

#USC AD Pat Haden said Steve Sarkisian is not healthy and asked him to take an indefinite leave of absence. http://t.co/NT3g4gJpil

Brett McMurphy of ESPN provided more context to the situation:

Brett McMurphy @Brett_McMurphy

When Steve Sarkisian arrived this morning at USC, “he appeared not normal” source told @ESPN. “He hasn’t been in a good place all season"

Joe Schad of ESPN added the coach "seemed 'emotional' and 'unusual' at USC" on Sunday and passed along his "best thoughts for a return to health" for Sarkisian.

Wolf also reported Sarkisian drank and "passed out" on a flight after playing Washington State in 2014. Another report from Wolf stated a player on the 2014 team says Sarkisian drank a bottle of tequila after a game against Notre Dame.

Former USC quarterback Matt Leinart tweeted his support of Sarkisian on Monday morning: 

Matt Leinart @MattLeinartQB

Sark is a friend and he needs help. I ask everyone instead of the criticism show your support for him. This is much bigger than football!

Sarkisian's struggles go back to his time as head coach at Washington, with Nathan Fenno and Lindsay Thiry of the Los Angeles Times providing insight into Sarkisian's time with the Huskies:

One former Huskies player said he smelled alcohol on Sarkisian at team meetings. ...

Sarkisian's use of alcohol became a running joke among some Washington players, some of whom spoke about the topic on the condition they not be named because of the personal nature of the issue.

One ex-player said that in 2009, Sarkisian's first season with the Huskies, the coach sometimes arrived at morning team meetings "smelling like booze and [with] eyes all red, like he's been on a bender."

Another former player said he smelled alcohol on Sarkisian during team meetings on "one or two" occasions and, other times, noted that the coach's eyes appeared to be bloodshot and glazed while he seemed unusually confrontational.

Two other former players said Sarkisian and other coaches regularly consumed alcohol in offices — one said the coach typically kept an 18-pack of Coors Light stashed near his desk — and that he appeared uncharacteristically loud and unsteady on some team flights.

The head coach also issued an apology after the annual "Salute to Troy" banquet that was held before the season started when he was less than professional when given the chance to speak.

Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times said Sarkisian was "apparently intoxicated, slurring his words, uttering an expletive and acting so unsteady that he left the stage before his remarks were complete" during that banquet.

In addition to the apology, Sarkisian was scolded by Haden in the aftermath of the incident.

Plaschke added "this is not the first time Haden has been faced with something like this. Four years ago, then-USC basketball coach Kevin O'Neill was involved in an alcohol-related confrontation with an Arizona booster at the Pac-12 Conference tournament."

Haden suspended O'Neill for that tournament, which lasted one additional game for the Trojans.

While there is reason to be concerned with and for Sarkisian, USC still has more than half its season ahead of it on the football field. The Trojans were a popular playoff and Pac-12 champion pick before the campaign started, but the high-powered offense was lost against Washington on Oct. 8 in a defeat.

USC also fell to Stanford in a shootout this year, 41-31.

The silver lining for the Trojans is the fact Helton has experience as an interim coach with the program. He served in that position in 2013 and led USC to a 45-20 victory over Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl in the final game of the season where Lane Kiffin and Ed Orgeron combined to finish 9-4 at the helm.

The Trojans are a disappointing 3-2 overall and 1-2 in conference play thus far, but Helton is familiar with the personnel and has prior experience that will prevent him from being overwhelmed by the moment.