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Pete Carroll's former assistants haven't tasted much post-USC glory -- yet

After leaving USC for head coaching jobs, Carroll's understudies have struggled. But three are in their first seasons with new schools and hope to push their programs forward.

November 03, 2009|David Wharton

Two months into the season, Steve Sarkisian needs a thesaurus to describe his first try at being a head coach.

Amazing. Disappointing. Hard to explain.

"I feel like every game gets crazier and crazier," he said recently.

Hard to deny that Sarkisian has done a reasonable job of leading Washington back from last year's winless debacle. But with the 3-5 Huskies visiting the Rose Bowl to face UCLA on Saturday, he gets measured by another standard.

It's the same benchmark facing Lane Kiffin at Tennessee and DeWayne Walker at New Mexico State.

They are former USC assistants, offshoots of a program that has gone 65-8 since the start of the 2004 season. During that time, six teams ranging from the Idaho Vandals to the Oakland Raiders have hired Pete Carroll disciples.

And, as of this week, their combined record is 30-73.

"Yeah, we feel the pressure," said Ed Orgeron, who lasted three seasons at Mississippi. "We all want to represent."

They face a version of the scrutiny that New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick's former assistants endure in the NFL. Call it the Carroll family tree.

"We'd better start winning," said Kiffin, who is in his first season at Tennessee and on Saturday earned his first victory against a ranked opponent, 31-13 over South Carolina. "Because that tree's not growing very well."

There is another side to this story, the possibility that the talent drained from USC's staff -- the likes of Norm Chow and Tim Davis also gone -- has finally caught up with the Trojans.

"A lot of guys," said Nick Holt, who spent two seasons as head coach at Idaho and is now Sarkisian's defensive coordinator. "They're all good coaches."

Not that the former assistants are carbon copies of their mentor.

Sarkisian and Kiffin were influenced by stints in the NFL. Holt brought something a little different to the job. Walker, who became defensive coordinator at UCLA after leaving USC, says he is more low-key around players: "I get most of my work done behind closed doors. Pete's more rah-rah."

But there are undeniable similarities between USC and the programs these men have run or are running, especially when it comes to practices.

You can see it on a muggy afternoon in Knoxville, the Volunteers sprinting from one drill to the next. And on a clear day in the Pacific Northwest, where the Huskies fly around during a scrimmage, hitting each other as if it were game day.

Fast-paced practices and a constant sense of competition have been key to USC's success, Kiffin said. Walker is trying to instill that mentality at New Mexico State.

"You've got to have energy and be aggressive," he said. "That's something we all learned from Pete."

They also have adopted Carroll's defensive philosophies, his nearly fanatical approach to recruiting, a determination to outwork rivals in the search for talent.

So why hasn't it worked?

Holt took an especially tough job, inheriting a losing program in a chilly northern town that was hardly a draw for recruits. The team was dealt a setback when a starting cornerback was shot to death in the new coach's first few games.

Kiffin also faced an uphill battle when he became the NFL's youngest head coach at Oakland, a franchise riddled with internal conflicts. He lasted a season and a half.

The prospects were better for Orgeron at Ole Miss, where by most accounts he succeeded in stockpiling young talent. But the Rebels won only 10 games in three seasons.

"My plan was to recruit great players," he said. "It just took me a little bit longer than I thought."

The fact is, winning head coaches do not always spawn winning assistants. Consider the men who have apprenticed under Belichick.

Nick Saban flourished at Louisiana State and is now winning at Alabama. Kirk Ferentz at Iowa and Pat Hill at Fresno State have also done well.

But Charlie Weis has struggled at Notre Dame. Eric Mangini, Romeo Crennel and Al Groh were fired from their first NFL jobs.

Carroll said he keeps tabs on his former assistants, watching games when he can, checking the statistics. He is quick to point out that Mississippi is now winning with players Orgeron recruited.

"You want to see how they do and how they handle everything," he said of his proteges. "You've spent so much time together, you feel connected and we'll be connected forever."

Carroll isn't surprised that they feel pressure to live up to his success.

"I would hope so," he said.

After the first three misfires by former assistants, there are three new chances.

Walker's team stands at 3-6, the outmanned Aggies suffering a lopsided defeat to Ohio State on Saturday. He said: "It's about changing the culture here and we're trying to keep our heads above water."

Kiffin's team is doing better at 4-4, with that upset win over then-No. 21 South Carolina and also a two-point loss to No. 3-ranked Alabama. The Tennessee coach -- who hired Orgeron to be his assistant head coach and recruiting coordinator -- talks about a lasting connection with USC.

"It's a pretty unique thing we had there," he said. "So we still have that relationship."

Several of the former assistants talk with Carroll frequently, and with each other. That includes regular morning calls between Kiffin and Sarkisian.

The new Washington coach has endured a roller-coaster ride, including an upset of then-No. 3 USC, a last-second victory over Arizona on a freak interception, and a loss to Arizona State on a 50-yard touchdown pass with five seconds to play.

This Saturday, he returns to Los Angeles to face struggling UCLA, revisiting a stadium where he helped the Trojans to a string of New Year's Day victories.

The surroundings will only heighten the sense of trying to live up to a standard.

"Pete has been there every step of the way and not just for me, for every coach who has come through there," he said. "I'm very proud of the fact that I was part of a great group of coaches."


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