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Split Personalities

Sarkisian, Chow and Walker once were on the same side. But this week they are opponents. And oh, there are some issues.

December 04, 2008|David Wharton and Gary Klein | Wharton and Klein are Times staff writers.

The question seems reasonable, even predictable, but Norm Chow wants no part of it. He shakes his head repeatedly, raising his hands as if to ward off an intruder.

With this year's USC-UCLA game fast approaching, the Bruins' offensive coordinator refuses to discuss the time he spent coaching at that other school.

"There's nothing to talk about," he says.

The fact is, this year's edition of the cross-town rivalry involves more than football. The game looks to be a mismatch, so the real drama might be on the sidelines with a delicate web of relationships and hints of sour history between coaches.

Start with Chow and USC Coach Pete Carroll, seemingly the perfect duo -- the offensive guru and the defensive specialist -- combining to rebuild the Trojans in 2001. After four seasons, Chow was gone.

Add UCLA defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker, who served as Carroll's associate head coach for one season before leaving in 2002. Landing at UCLA a few years later, he engineered the 13-9 upset that knocked the Trojans out of the 2007 national championship game.

Then there is Steve Sarkisian, USC's current offensive coordinator. Years ago, Walker recruited him to play quarterback at Brigham Young, where Chow nurtured him into a starter. It was Sarkisian who rejoined the Trojans' staff as part of a reorganization that nudged Chow to the NFL.

Now, private quarterbacks coach Steve Clarkson, who has ties to both programs, compares the rapport between the former colleagues to "the elephant in the room."

"If I'm with Pete or Sark, Norm's name doesn't come up," he says. "And vice versa when I'm with Norm. It will always be the great ghost."

A ghost that might hover over the Rose Bowl on Saturday when Carroll, Chow, Sarkisian and Walker step onto the same field for the first time in seven years.

Prince of the city

For all the success Carroll has enjoyed at USC -- two national championships and six major bowl games in eight years -- some fans can't help but wonder what might have happened if Chow had stuck around.

The highly regarded offensive coordinator jumped to a similar position with the Tennessee Titans in 2005 after pursuing the head coaching position at Stanford. Carroll was considering a plan to promote him and, at the same time, relieve him of play-calling responsibilities.

Carroll later said he was merely exploring different combinations in case Chow or other assistants left. Some close to the program believe the coach was remaking the staff to align with his own persona -- youthful, energetic to the point of frenetic -- an ambience that did not fit Chow's professorial temperament. Carroll ultimately handed the offense to young Lane Kiffin and Sarkisian, back after a one-year stint with the Oakland Raiders.

In the years since, Carroll says he has spoken with Chow infrequently but added that he rarely has contact with former assistants, especially those he coaches against. Carroll has nothing but praise for his former coordinator.

Chow "did great when he was here. We had a great time, won a bunch of games and had a lot of fun," Carroll says. "I don't think that there's a whole lot more to it. . . .

"I've always promoted him in every way that I can and helped him in every way that I could."

As for fans wishing they had never split, Carroll recalls "a time when people were saying that. I don't hear much of it anymore."

Saturday marks the first time they will game plan against each other. Carroll is looking forward to the matchup and dismisses the notion that this game resurrects unanswered questions.

"He made a million dollars," Carroll says of Chow's leaving for an NFL-sized salary with the Titans. "That's pretty good."

The master

When Chow arrived at USC as part of Carroll's first staff, he was well aware of the stakes.

"The only reason we're here is because the other guys couldn't get it done," he said at the time. "If we don't get it done, someone else will be here."

Chow got it done by way of developing Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart into Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks, which made his departure all the more painful for USC fans who envisioned a string of national titles.

The 62-year-old Chow -- after two days of declining to answer questions about his time at USC -- speaks briefly of winning games and championships and having fun with the Trojans. He thanks Carroll for giving him the chance to work in the Pacific 10 Conference and jump to the NFL.

"I have nothing but good memories of what happened there," he says of USC. "You move on, just like in football you move on to the next play.

"There was nothing negative about my time there. I made some tremendous friendships and relationships that will last a lifetime."

But he won't talk about the specifics of his departure. And he won't talk about Sarkisian. The kid he mentored at BYU. The young coach he recommended to USC as a graduate assistant in 2001.

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