The scene at the USC football offices yesterday and the cloud it left behind, it could have so easily been avoided. Pat Haden had every justification at his disposal to fire Steve Sarkisian for football reasons on Thursday night. The Trojans, then ranked 17th in the country and clinging to hopes of a Pac-12 championship and beyond, lost 17-12 in the L.A. Coliseum to a Washington team that hadn’t beaten a Power Five opponent with a winning record in more than a year.
But Haden didn’t, showing a level of restraint he didn’t have when he dismissed Sarkisian’s predecessor, and now it may end up costing him his own job as well.
The most perplexing question in the aftermath of Sarkisian’s abrupt yet not-that-surprising leave of absence from the USC football program is his athletics director’s role in the saga. (One would think the College Football Playoff brass, where Haden serves as a selection committee member, would like to know as well.)
Before we go any further, consider the report the Los Angeles Times was able to dig up on Sarkisian’s habits at Washington:
- During a stop at a rib joint in Nashville in January 2013, for example, Sarkisian and three assistants ordered four shots of Patron Silver, four shots of an unspecified liquor and five beers. The coach cashed out at 11:53 a.m.
- 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.”
- 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.
Again, this was all at Washington. Haden said Sarkisian’s time in Seattle was vetted “extensively” before he returned to USC in December 2013. Did that extensive vetting extend to Pete Carroll? The former USC coach was Sarkisian’s boss for seven years and shared the Seattle football scene with him for four more. Certainly Carroll was one of the first calls Haden made when researching Sarkisian. Did he not know?
Now, fast forward to August 2015. Haden became nose-to-nose with Sarkisian’s alcohol issues when he personally removed his head coach from the stage at USC’s annual Salute to Troy event. Haden, Sarkisian and the Trojans’ brass huddled, and told the press the following Monday that Saturday night’s behavior was the result of mixing alcohol and medication, nothing more. Sarkisian would seek treatment, but he didn’t think he had a problem. He’d pay his penance with his players by running some sprints and doing some up-downs.
And then Haden sent him out to coach the biggest, most stressful season of his life.
So it should be no surprise that reports emerged of Sarkisian possibly being drunk on the sidelines of USC’s win over Arizona State, or him arriving to Heritage Hall Sunday morning under the effects of alcohol.
There are two avenues for Haden to take here: either he wasn’t fully aware of his head football coach’s pattern with alcohol, or he knew and thought it wasn’t serious enough to pull him from the sidelines back in August.
Both options are disturbing, and call into question Haden’s ability to lead USC through its current turmoil and beyond.