With all due respect for the demons Steve Sarkisian is about to battle and the human side of a story that pulls at strings reserved for things far more important than football, one can't help but take a dive down the hypothetical rabbit hole.
What if Ed Orgeron had been named USC head coach back in December 2013?
What if, instead of "resigning," Orgeron had been given the keys to this glorious Ferrari no one ever thought he would drive? He had, after all, ignited a lifeless program with a charismatic and captivating 6-2 finish.
What if, after picking up the pieces left by Lane Kiffin, USC athletic director Pat Haden had ended the high-profile coaching search right then and there by removing the interim tag from the coach beloved by his players?
On Monday, the man who replaced Orgeron was fired—less than two years after he took over one of the nation's great jobs.
In a release, Haden provided the following statement:
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.
The last part of this statement is critical. While the sudden opening of one of college football's most coveted jobs—which comes with a roster seemingly equipped to win big right away—is newsworthy, the well-being of Sarkisian is paramount. That cannot be stated enough.
And yet, with the benefit of hindsight, it's hard not to take a trip back in time—to the place where this all strangely came together.
Back on Nov. 20, 2013, months after Lane Kiffin was let go in the middle of the night, I wrote that Orgeron should be seriously considered for the USC head coaching gig.
His influence went above and beyond the average program caregiver. Orgeron injected the program with life. The players responded by playing loose and well. The weight and pressure vanished overnight. Everything, somehow, matched up accordingly.
A players' coach in every sense, Orgeron backed up his reputation as one of the sport's most likable people with tangible results. It was evident in the way the Trojans played.
A mere day 10 days after I wrote that column, however, USC lost to UCLA in a game that changed the coaching search entirely. With his team on an unbelievable run and the talk of Los Angeles, the momentum to keep Orgeron permanently might have been too impossible to ignore had the Trojans won that game.
When they lost, Orgeron's fate was determined.
It seemed unfair at the time, though Haden had a plan. In hiring Sarkisian, he was going to bring back someone familiar with the program, try to reignite the magical Pete Carroll era with one of the key members of that staff.
And yet, Orgeron seemed like a natural fit. His back-roads Louisiana personality meshed brilliantly with the constant motion and spotlight of Los Angeles. His only university ties were as an assistant coach, but, goodness, did it feel right.
While Orgeron had struggled mightily as a head coach during his tenure at Ole Miss, his formula seemed to work in a new situation with perspective gained. But it was not to be.
When Orgeron found out he was not being considered for the job, he resigned. Players, such as former USC defensive lineman Leonard Williams, did not shy away from voicing their disappointment. There was plenty of devastation to go around.
Words can't explain how I'm feeling right now....just lost a father. Way more than a coach #coachO— Leonard Williams (@leonardwilliams) December 2, 2013
I spoke with Orgeron the following October. Out of a job, he was completely at peace, spending the days working out, cooking and with his family.
His case for keeping a job he desperately wanted was simple enough; the thanks he offered after a messy breakup were genuine.
"You look at the overall body of work, and we had a lot of success there," Orgeron said. "We're very appreciative of the time with the USC family, and they were very good to us."
Fast-forward to present day. Orgeron is now happily employed by LSU, where he is the program's defensive line coach. It is a perfect position for a man whose home is Louisiana. It's also an ideal position for one of the nation's premier recruiters. It is, in many ways, a job he was destined for.
"It means a lot to represent the people of Louisiana," Orgeron told me earlier this year. "I have close friends, family, ex-coaches all the way from North Louisiana to South Louisiana. I've been all around the country, but LSU is a place I've always respected. It's just an honor to be coaching here. I understand the tradition."
At USC, the job Orgeron was told he could not have is open once again. And just like the last time a change was made, ex players are going to bat for the coach who didn't get his shot.
Former Trojans safety Dion Bailey, who skipped his senior season for the NFL, brought up Orgeron's departure as one of the reasons he decided to leave. Five others joined him, too, doing so for reasons unknown.
If we make the right choice i would've had 1 more year.. We have to get it right this time!! Coach O or Helton, Help keep the Jr.'s around!!— Dion Bailey (@dbailey_18) October 11, 2015
The likelihood of Orgeron being hired at USC now is remote, and remote might not be a strong enough word. ESPN.com's Arash Markazi has already reported that Orgeron will not be on the list of candidates, which should come as no surprise.
After everything that unfolded, it would be a strange marriage to spark back up. And if Haden is going to be the one to make this hire—which is a point still to be determined—I doubt he would feel any differently about Orgeron now.
Had Orgeron somehow beaten UCLA back in 2013, things might have been different. The Trojans' recruiting, which was excellent under Sarkisian, would have been dominant with Orgeron around.
A program that has struggled to find an identity since Carroll left—with the exception of those two wild months in 2013—might have finally found one. It's hard to pinpoint how such life is generated; it's far easier to know when it's absent.
The results are where the great mystery exists, though things would have been different. It's hard to envision how Orgeron would have handled life as USC's head coach, but it's not unreasonable to imagine success his second time around.
"When you have five years to think about what you would do as a head coach again, there are a lot of thoughts that you write down," Orgeron said last season. "I told myself that when I got my chance again, these are the things I wanted to do. So I did them."
Having failed at Ole Miss, many assumed Orgeron was not equipped to handle a job of such magnitude over the long haul. But everything aligned. He was different. The program was different. And, perhaps most importantly, he had the unwavering support of his players, many of whom he could still be coaching. The true value of this could have snowballed into something grand.
How grand is a question that will never be answered. At the bare minimum, it would have been much, much different.
Picking a head coach is an inexact science, to say the least. It's a process that fails far more often than it succeeds. In many interim instances, athletic directors and administrations would much rather test drive a current regime without a financial penalty attached and decide six months later whether they want to proceed.
That, however, is not the way this profession works. Well, in most cases.
USC was given that rare opportunity. The Trojans saw a coach bring an emotionally drained program back from the dead. They saw life. They saw wins. They saw the players rally. But instead of backing the success they seemingly stumbled into with, say, a modest two-year extension—a longer test drive, if you will—they decided to take a leap of faith.
And now, less than two years later, USC must do so again.