Two Days After Loss to Huskies, USC Fires Sarkisian
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Southern California fired Steve Sarkisian on Monday, one day after the troubled football coach was put on leave.
Athletic director Pat Haden made the move one day after determining Sarkisian showed up at school in no condition to lead practice, although Haden refused to reveal specifics about the coach's condition. Offensive coordinator Clay Helton was appointed interim coach Sunday.
USC hasn't elaborated on Sarkisian's problems, but the second-year coach had an embarrassing public display in August at a pep rally where he appeared to be intoxicated while giving a speech. Sarkisian later apologized and said he had combined alcohol and medication, but promised not to drink again during the season.
Sarkisian's unsteady appearance Sunday prompted Haden to make the program's fourth coaching change in just over two years.
"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," Haden said in a statement.
"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."
Helton, Sarkisian's offensive coordinator, will officially lead his first practice Tuesday as the Trojans (3-2, 1-2 Pac-12) prepare for their annual rivalry game at No. 14 Notre Dame.
Sarkisian went 12-6 at USC, where he started as an assistant coach under Pete Carroll with the program's dominant teams of the past decade.
"This is an opportunity for Sark to get right and to get well," Carroll said Monday. "We're pulling for him. He's up against some big challenges and he's got to go ahead and take care of it. It's not about coaching now. It's about his personal life and getting things in order. I know he's committed to taking the right steps to do that, and it's hugely important for him."
Carroll said he had communicated with Sarkisian recently.
"I'll be there to support him," Carroll said. "I knew him before, and (he has) a lot to offer the world. It's been hard on him, and he's made it hard on people around him, too. He knows that. He's got to take the steps to take care of business now."
Sarkisian spent five years as Washington's head coach until 2013, when he left the Huskies for a reported five-year contract to return to his native Southern California, describing it as "a dream come true to be back in the Trojan family."
Sarkisian never faced significant public scrutiny for alcohol use in Seattle, although his enthusiasm for nights out became part of his identity among fans and boosters. An AP review of Sarkisian's expense reports from his years at Washington showed a steady acquisition of alcohol on his trips, ranging from mild indulgences to lavish liquor purchases, sometimes before lunch.
Washington athletic director Scott Woodward issued a brief statement: "It is evident that Steve is dealing with a serious personal matter and we wish him the best in facing whatever challenges lay ahead."
The 41-year-old Sarkisian is in the midst of a divorce from his wife, Stephanie, and he recently sold a palatial house south of Los Angeles. They have three children.
The hallowed USC football program has five AP national championships and more than a century of proud history, but it has endured turmoil for most of the past six years since Carroll left the school for the NFL's Seattle Seahawks in 2009.
The well-liked Haden, a former USC quarterback, is facing increasing public condemnation for his oversight of the entire athletic department, but particularly a football team with a national championship pedigree in upheaval for yet another season.
After the tumultuous 3½-year tenure of fired coach Lane Kiffin, Sarkisian and his players have made several public missteps during his short tenure. Sarkisian's coaching also received widespread scrutiny after a 17-12 loss to Washington last week dropped the preseason No. 8 team out of the AP Top 25.
Sarkisian's former colleagues and opponents offered words of compassion and encouragement Monday after he began his leave. The school hasn't said whether Sarkisian is seeking treatment.
Chris Petersen was a candidate for the USC job won by Sarkisian, and the former Boise State coach replaced Sarkisian at Washington shortly afterward. Petersen's unranked Huskies then beat USC in the coaches' first meeting last Thursday.
"This is a tough job," Petersen said Monday. "You just feel bad for the whole situation for everybody. We could talk a long time about that. It's hard enough to lose. It's a hard enough job when you're doing well, and when something doesn't go right in your situation and everybody piles on, I think it's very tough."
The talent-rich, well-funded USC football program won national titles in 2003 and 2004 before falling one game short in 2005, but the Trojans have been roiling in trouble ever since a lengthy NCAA investigation of extra benefits given to Heisman Trophy-winning tailback Reggie Bush neared a conclusion six years ago.
After Carroll jumped to the NFL, former athletic director Mike Garrett hired Kiffin away from Tennessee shortly before the NCAA hit USC with heavy sanctions that included three years of scholarship reductions.
Kiffin created or endured numerous controversies before getting fired by Haden at the airport shortly after a terrible loss in 2013. Most of Kiffin's woes were confined to amateurish gamesmanship, such as players switching jersey numbers during a game and a student manager underinflating footballs.
The Trojans then had four head coaches in 2013, with interim coach Ed Orgeron quitting in disappointment after Sarkisian was hired over him. Helton coached the Las Vegas Bowl and then joined Sarkisian's staff.
Ever since Sarkisian's arrival, the Trojans seemingly can't get through a month without some sort of drama — some of it having nothing to do with the coach.
Senior cornerback Josh Shaw bizarrely concocted a heroic story about getting injured while saving a child from drowning, only to be suspended for most of last season after confessing the lie. Haden made headlines early last season by going down to the sideline to yell at officials during a game at Stanford at Sarkisian's request.
Sarkisian's behavior at the Salute to Troy pep rally in August was an embarrassment, but the coach appeared to move past it in September after a contrite public statement.
But then the losing started: Stanford racked up 41 points while beating then-No. 6 USC at the Coliseum last month, and Sarkisian's offense was terrible against the Huskies.