When Steve Sarkisian got hired by Pat Haden as Ed Orgeron’s replacement at USC, I was fairly confident that the Trojans were making a huge mistake. And two years later, I think it’s pretty unanimously agreed among athletic administration and boosters alike that yes, USC did mess up this hire, bigtime.
So when news came out Sunday afternoon that Sark would be taking an indefinite leave of absence, reportedly due to showing up to games and team meetings under the influence of alcohol, I couldn’t see it as anything less than an easy way out of the Sark conundrum for USC administrators and boosters.
Nobody in an AD’s office is going to come out and explicitly say that he messed up with a coaching hire, out of both pride and as a gesture of respect to the coach himself. But I think it’s pretty well-understood that between drunken outbursts at rallies and losses to teams like Washington, Sark was on thin ice in the eyes of pretty much all of the higher-ups within the program.
So in that regard, the news of Sark’s indefinite leave of absence (that I’m fairly sure will become permanent soon enough) didn’t surprise me all too much. Like I said, it’s an easy out for them, and they can move on from the Sark era without having to deal with football-related messy questions.
But what did surprise me — a lot — was the players’ and the assistant coaches’ seeming willingness to throw Sark under the bus with comments to the media.
BREAKING: #USC players said Sarkisian drank and passed out on flight back from Washington State game in 2014. Some reportedly took photos
— InsideUSC (@InsideUSC) October 11, 2015
BREAKING: #USC assistants pulled Steve Sarkisian out of player huddle on sideline during Arizona State game. Believed he was not sober
— InsideUSC (@InsideUSC) October 11, 2015
Let me be clear here: I am no fan of Steve Sarkisian — I never have been, and I never will be. But I find it absolutely revolting that everybody close to him is seemingly turning on him right now, at what’s likely the lowest point of his life.
Usually, in a situation like this, I’m confident that any half-decent athletic department — or one with a shred of decency — would deal with the problem internally and preserve the reputation of the coach at hand and considerations of privacy for everyone involved.
In fact, the University of Washington did just that. From leaked information that’s emerged over the last few months, it’s pretty evident that this drinking problem predated Sark’s tenure with USC by quite a bit. You didn’t see Washington waving giant red flags at the country and telling everybody about Sark’s drinking problems; in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they had staged an internal intervention of their own at some point.
But what’s important is that the University of Washington’s athletic department stood behind its head coach through good and bad and put him in a position to succeed. USC has failed in doing that — now, more than ever.
A man about to lose his dream job because of a problem like substance abuse needs nothing but help and support from his friends and co-workers — regardless of whether he was a bad football coach or not — and not continued kicking while he’s down. Because of this ensuing fallout, I think it’s all but guaranteed that Sark can never return to USC — and potentially college football altogether.
Here’s the thing: Amidst all of the incredible highs, soul-crushing losses, suspenseful recruiting battles and unforgettable thrills of a college football season, it’s really easy to lose sight of the fact that the people we idolize and demonize are just that — people.
They may hold the hearts of tens of thousands of people in their hands on a field every week and only make appearances in front of cameras and microphones and a cacophony of reporters, but at the end of the day, they eat, drink, breathe and have problems just like us.
What’s more, keep in mind that Sark has to deal with all of those personal problems while also enduring the grueling scrutiny of the pressure cooker that is USC football, where a job is never safe and boosters and fans alike can turn on you in a heartbeat. It’s remarkable to me that some people can actually thrive in such an environment.
Alcoholism is a crippling problem that fundamentally changes people and often requires interventions or a courageous decision to fix. It’s even harder for somebody in Sark’s position to seek help if he needs it, because he’s in such an exposed position and he was already under intense scrutiny from everybody as is.
And again, it’s absurd — and a crazy violation of Sark’s trust and privacy — that when such an intervention occurred, everybody he’s been working with for the last two years didn’t support him and instead those very people dealt death blow after death blow to his career with the continued leakage of incriminating details.
If anything, Pat Haden and USC shouldn’t have let things get to this point. They should have had this conversation during the offseason if it had been a recurring problem. Or, like I mentioned earlier, they could have dealt with things more privately and not said anything at all while putting Sark through a program. I’m sure things like that have happened plenty of times in the past within other programs.
The one thing you can’t do is turn the poor guy into a scapegoat for all of the deep-seated problems this program has and let him take a decisive fall for everybody else’s sake.
Bad things can sometimes happen to good people. I’m not saying that Sark is necessarily a good person, but I’m saying that everybody deserves support and the benefit of the doubt at their lowest points.
In that regard, USC has utterly, completely, disgustingly failed. The way this situation was handled by the Trojans’ administration, coaching staff and players is disturbing and grossly inappropriate.
We’ve had our differences, Sark. I’ve said bad things about you as a coach and as a person in the past, and if you get back into coaching at some point, I’m sure that I’ll have many, many more of those moments in the years to come.
But today, I’m with you. Best of luck in dealing with this problem and in coming back from this setback. Best of luck in handling the backlash from USC. Because you don’t deserve this — nobody does.
To discuss the apparent indecency of USC’s athletic department, shoot an email to Do-Hyoung Park at dhpark ‘at’ stanford.edu.