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Steve Sarkisian feels right at home as USC's new coach

USC FOOTBALL

Players who were shocked and teary-eyed to see Ed Orgeron go are ready to move on with Sarkisian, who was offered the job Sunday night by AD Pat Haden.

December 03, 2013|By Gary Klein
  • Newly introduced USC football Coach Steve Sarkisian, left, shakes hands with USC President C.L. Max Nikias and Athletic Director Pat Haden following a news conference Tuesday.
Newly introduced USC football Coach Steve Sarkisian, left, shakes hands… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

Steve Sarkisian looked to his right at his wife and his three children. He acknowledged his parents seated before him a few feet away.

Then USC's new football coach, who grew up in Southern California and coached at USC as an assistant, succinctly summarized his feelings in three words:

"This is home."

At his introductory news conference, standing before a phalanx of television cameras in an auditorium packed with reporters and USC athletic department personnel, Sarkisian exhibited the confidence and presence that sold Athletic Director Pat Haden on the former Washington coach.

He was there to win, and had already gone to work.

Less than 24 hours after arriving in Los Angeles from Seattle, Sarkisian had met with Trojans players and assistants and had begun recruiting.

Sarkisian, 39, worked under Pete Carroll and alongside Lane Kiffin at USC, when the Trojans were regularly contending for national titles. But Haden said Sarkisian was different from both of the Trojans' previous head coaches.

"I think he's kind of created his own niche, his own persona by going up to Washington, " Haden said.

On Monday, USC players mourned the departure of Ed Orgeron, who guided the Trojans to a 6-2 record as interim coach after he replaced the fired Kiffin. Orgeron left the program when informed that he had not been hired full time.

Players still appeared shell-shocked Tuesday, but they had begun to move on.

"We had a group of guys who really wanted to play for Coach O," junior safety Josh Shaw said. "But the other side is you have to understand that this is a business."

"With Coach O now gone and Coach Sark here, we embrace him."

Said quarterback Cody Kessler: "When you have a guy that has that experience and knows what he's doing and has a resume that is second to none when it comes to getting guys in the NFL, you're very excited about it."

Haden described Orgeron as "one of the greatest Trojans of them all," and said he interviewed the longtime assistant several weeks ago for three hours.

"A lot of people wanted us to get caught up in a moment of emotion and make Coach O the head coach before the UCLA game," Haden said. "But I promised myself early on, no matter how it went, how many games we won or lost, I was going to wait…and get in front of all the people I wanted to get in front of."

Haden interviewed Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio in November, and USC also had contact with Texas A&M Coach Kevin Sumlin, who agreed to a contract extension Saturday.

On Sunday, after USC's 35-14 loss to UCLA, Haden, Steve Lopes — the chief operating officer of the athletic department — and senior associate athletic directors Mark Jackson and J.K. McKay took a plane to interview Boise State Coach Chris Petersen.

Then it was on to Seattle to interview Sarkisian.

"I was expecting to go in there and talk to him and knock his socks off," Sarkisian said.

Sarkisian interviewed for nearly three hours.

"I didn't come in with some PowerPoint and a bunch of booklets," he said. "I was being me."

Haden said he offered Sarkisian the job late Sunday night after returning to Los Angeles.

"By that time, we felt Steve was the uniquely right person for the job," Haden said.

Sarkisian accepted the job Monday. No details of the contract were released, but it is thought to be a five-year deal that will pay Sarkisian more than the $2.6 million Kiffin earned in 2011, the latest year for which USC salary figures are available.

Sarkisian said that he had "the utmost respect" for Orgeron and that they had had a good relationship when they worked on the same USC staff and when they competed against each other on the recruiting trail.

"I think the level of frustration comes from his thought that he was qualified for the job and wanted the job and you can't blame him for that," Sarkisian said. "Ed's a great competitor."

Haden said that USC "fought hard" to retain Orgeron and that "we wanted to make him a very well-compensated assistant coach." But Orgeron, he said, wanted to become a head coach.

"God love him, I hope he goes somewhere and makes me look like an idiot," Haden said. "I hope he gets that job somewhere and in five years he calls me and says, 'I told you I was the right guy for the job.'"

Orgeron met with players Monday afternoon, tears flowing as they gathered at the front of the room and embraced collectively. Orgeron hugged each player.

Kessler said Orgeron was "beyond crushed" at not getting the job.

"I don't think he would have been able to handle" coaching the bowl game, Kessler said.

During a team meeting Monday night, Sarkisian removed his suit jacket and donned a USC sweatshirt, telling players, "I'm home."

He recognized many from having recruited them and said he understood their sadness. And then he began the process of moving forward.

"He got a few laughs out of us when it was a tough time," Shaw said. "So we'll be fine."

Offensive coordinator Clay Helton will coach the Trojans in their bowl game. Sarkisian said he would observe but not interfere as he recruits and evaluates current players and staff members.

When Sarkisian begins overseeing practices in the spring, the Trojans will run the up-tempo, no-huddle offense that Sarkisian employed this season at Washington.

"It's a run-first offense, but we do strive for balance," he said.

Sarkisian compiled a 34-29 record in five seasons at Washington. Haden said he was not concerned about whether some disagree with his choice.

"My job is to choose who I think is the right guy," he said. "Lots of people could disagree…I get it. I can be absolutely wrong. We'll find out."

gary.klein@latimes.com

Twitter: @latimesklein

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