ON AUG. 22, USC coach Steve Sarkisian slurred his words, insulted Arizona State, Notre Dame and Oregon and shouted an expletive during a speech at the Salute to Troy, an on-campus booster event before the season opener. Sarkisian was pulled off the stage by a university administrator; in a press conference three days later to apologize for his behavior, he blamed it on his having mixed alcohol and medication. Sarkisian said he would not drink for the rest of the season, even while maintaining that he didn't have a drinking problem. "I'm going to go to treatment. I'm going to deal with it," Sarkisian said. "In the meantime I'm going to be the head football coach."
Perhaps predictably given that episode, the Sarkisian era ended on Monday: The second-year coach was fired a day after he failed to show up for an afternoon practice. At a meeting with his team on Sunday morning, Sarkisian was, sources told SI, "slurring his words" and "lost in his emotions." Athletic director Pat Haden told reporters that when he spoke to Sarkisian on Sunday, "it was very clear to me that he is not healthy."
Haden promoted offensive coordinator Clay Helton to interim coach—but how the 3--2 Trojans fare under Helton is almost beside the point. The larger question is the future of Haden, a former Trojans star quarterback and Rhodes scholar whose five-year tenure as AD has been filled with missteps large and small. His handling of Sarkisian's situation was flawed and insensitive: It now seems obvious that he should have forced the coach to take a leave of absence and to get help following the August incident. If Sarkisian does indeed have a drinking problem, getting it under control while coaching would have been nearly impossible. "Even with all of the time and resources in the world and a 100% focus on sobriety, it's an extremely hard endeavor," says Aaron Taylor, a former Notre Dame and NFL guard who stopped drinking in February 2002 after retiring from football. "Given what's required to coach in today's game, it would be easier for [Sarkisian] to start a technology company during the season than address [his issues] while coaching."
Haden's earlier mistake may have been his 2013 decision to hire Sarkisian, who was a Trojans assistant under coach Pete Carroll for seven seasons before holding the head job at Washington for five. Haden, who seemed intent on re-creating the Carroll years at USC, chose Sarkisian over former Boise State coach Chris Petersen (now at Washington). Petersen was widely seen as the stronger candidate. And on Monday the Los Angeles Times reported that Sarkisian's heavy drinking was evident during his days with the Huskies.
Haden's ham-handed dismissal of Sarkisian—the firing came less than 24 hours after he placed the coach on indefinite leave—fits a pattern. In September 2013, Haden, in the eyes of many Trojans supporters, waited too long to fire Lane Kiffin as coach. When the AD did finally make a change, after a disastrous 3--2 season start, he did so in the most awkward way possible: at 3 a.m., inside an airport terminal, when the team landed in L.A. after a loss at Arizona State.
For different reasons, the ousters of both Kiffin and Sarkisian were necessary. But in presiding over a coaching revolving door—Helton is the Trojans' fourth head man in three seasons—and handling the changes in command in embarrassing fashion, Haden has left himself open to questions about his own leadership. Few in college football doubt that USC will one day again be a national power. Whether Haden will be there to enjoy the new glory days is another question.
How the Trojans finish the season is almost beside the point. Haden's future as AD is the larger question.
MARK J. REBILAS/USA TODAY SPORTS
BEYOND THE GAME Sarkisian, who was 12--6 as USC coach, apparently has larger issues to tackle than football.