The Steve Sarkisian Firing: A Lesson in (Poor) Leadership
It was on an early Sunday morning in late September back in 2013, following a 62-41 loss by the USC Trojans to the Arizona State Sun Devils in Tempe, that Pat Haden's botching of the most important hiring decision in his tenure as USC athletics director began. More specifically, it began just a few minutes after the wheels of USC's charter flight touched ground in Los Angeles.
It was in USC's private airport terminal that morning that Haden fired head coach Lane Kiffin, a decision Haden reportedly arrived at during a 28-0 ASU run in the third quarter the night before. Kiffin, 28-15 in four seasons at USC, tried for 45 minutes to convince Haden to give him a chance to redeem himself, but Haden's mind was made up. Say what you will about the venue for Kiffin's termination (an actual office might have been more dignified), but Haden's swift, decisive move was probably the right one.
From there, Haden has been right about very little having to do with the head coaching position for USC's storied football program.
With one of the most coveted head coaching jobs open, and a cupboard full of talent and fairly recent success to sell to potential candidates, Pat Haden's attempt at moving away from one Pete Carroll-bred co-offensive coordinator was to hire the other one. Haden wound up giving the USC head coaching job to former USC co-OC and then-current Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian, whose greatest accomplishment in Seattle amidst a 34-29 record was that he was better than his predecessor, Tyrone Willingham (which basically puts him in a group with every college football head coach with a pulse).
The Sarkisian era ended Monday afternoon, via press release, just two days after the now-former Trojan head coach was sent home from the facility for showing up to work drunk. It was the second documented alcohol-related offense on Sarkisian's part in the past couple of months, the first occurring at an alumni function when he drunkenly spewed expletives during a pep-rally-style speech.
Looking back, Sarkisian's first year at USC in 2014, on the surface, seemed fine. The Trojans went 9-4 and entered 2015 as a consensus Top 10 team. The most noteworthy and memorable occurrence, though, for the wrong reasons, was perhaps during an early season game against Stanford when Haden came down from his luxury suite to contest an official's call during the game. It was an odd look, and not a good look for Haden nor Sarkisian. However, as this season in 2015 unfolded, that incident retroactively could have been viewed as foreshadowing.
Sarkisian's 2015 downfall began during the preseason at the aforementioned USC function for donors and alumni (the Salute to Troy), during which he decided to disparage some of the school's rivals and embed one particular curse word into the team's slogan...
It was after this incident when other stories of Sarkisian's "night life" began to emerge, with many media members passive-aggressively alluding to a dark side Sarkisian had when it came to drinking. Reportedly, Sarkisian was a frequent patron of many bars in Los Angeles and would also drink in the locker room after games, a practice that was banned after the aforementioned Salute to Troy incident. When all was said and done regarding that function, the only punishment Sarkisian served was having to do "up downs" with his team. He blamed the incident on a mix of alcohol and meds, and that was good enough for Haden. Sarkisian avoided suspension.
Which brings us to this past weekend. Following a Thursday night 17-12 home loss to his former team, Washington, Sarkisian reportedly showed up at practice on Saturday in no condition to work. In a move that was long overdue, Haden finally sent Sarkisian home, placed him on leave and demanded he get treatment for alcoholism.
This story became a gateway to other Sarkisian drunken tales. One USC player confirmed via text to Shelley Smith of ESPN.com that Sarkisian had been drinking before a September 26 game against Arizona State, the same team whose ambush of the Trojans led to Kiffin's ouster two years prior. (Ironically, an inebriated Sarkisian coached his team to a 42-14 win.) Another article emerged in the LA Times outlining numerous bar tabs Sarkisian had run up while still the head coach in Washington:
Between bar receipts and hotel folios under Sarkisian's name documenting large quantities of alcohol purchases, and accounts of former Washington players attesting to Sarkisian smelling of alcohol at morning team meetings, the report is suggestive of a coach out of control. Some of the receipts in Sarkisian's name covered group outings, clouding specifics about whether Sarkisian consumed personally.
But the dollar figures are alarming.
One receipt noted 91 shots of tequila at a cost of $1,023 at a restaurant in Indian Wells, Calif., with at least 16 people in the party. Another indicated an expense of more than $1,600 at a resort hotel pool bar in 2013, and there were assorted bar bills for some of Sarkisian's one-day recruiting trips for more than $100. The report also indicated Sarkisian was a regular at multiple bars around Seattle during his five years at UW, and The Times spoke to a former player who alleged the coach drank 8 to 10 shots on a weekly basis at one bar in particular.
For Sarkisian, this is obviously a sad story that, at this point, has very little to do with whether or not he will coach somewhere again. He needs to stop drinking, for his sake and for the sake of the three kids he has with his ex-wife. For the kids at USC, especially those who placed their trust in Sarkisian by committing to play there, it's unfortunate. They get only one crack at going to college, and now, with OC Clay Helton taking over as the interim head coach, many of these kids are playing for their fourth head coach in three seasons (Kiffin, Sarkisian and two interim HC's, Helton and Ed Orgeron in 2013).
However, this story is as much about the man who chose Sarkisian, enabled Sarkisian and waited way too long to do anything about Sarkisian. Pat Haden was brought in to be the AD in 2010, hailed as a decorated intellectual (Rhodes Scholar), an accomplished attorney and a partner in a private equity firm. To the public, he was a well-spoken, seemingly informed color analyst on Notre Dame broadcasts.
However, as it turns out, he is piss poor at the one skill that truly matters for an AD (or any leader in business) — hiring.
With one of the best college football jobs in America, Haden settled on a coach who was 34-29 but had "ties" to the program, despite firing an average coach with "ties" to the program in Kiffin. You'd think that in justifying hiring a barely .500 coach, Haden would need some "below the surface" justification, and in seeking that out would, by accident, come across the tales of Sarkisian's drinking follies.
You would think.
If I'm a USC alum, or quite frankly, someone who drives the same roads as Sarkisian to work every day, I demand to know the following from Haden:
1. What was your process for selecting Sarkisian? What made him superior to other candidates in your mind?
2. What did you know about Sarkisian's drinking issues?
3. Why did you not punish Sarkisian after the Salute to Troy incident?
4. How did Sarkisian get to work the day he showed up drunk and you sent him home? Did he drive?
5. What is your plan going forward?
At this point, Sarkisian is not the only person who deserves termination. Hiring the football coach at a school like USC is like the final exam in a college course — it counts as like two-thirds of your final grade. In that area, Pat Haden currently receives an F, and it's time for him to go.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.