Grading USC's Hire of Steve Sarkisian: Did the Trojans find the right fit?

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Can Sarkisian lead USC back to Pac-12 prominence?

Grading USC's Hire of Steve Sarkisian: Did the Trojans find the right fit?

After a five-year run as Washington’s head coach, Steve Sarkisian is headed home, as the 39-year-old coach is Pat Haden’s pick to lead USC back to national prominence.

Sarkisian was a logical choice to be USC’s next coach. The California native served as an assistant under Pete Carroll and coached for the last five seasons in the Pac-12 at Washington.

Did USC make the right hire? Let’s take a look at the positives and negatives before grading Sarkisian’s hire.

Positives for USC in hiring Steve Sarkisian

Familiarity
In the press release announcing Sarkisian’s hire, Pat Haden indicated Sarkisian “understands the heritage and tradition of USC.” Sarkisian is off the Pete Carroll coaching tree, spending 2001-03 and 2005-08 as an assistant with the Trojans. It doesn’t guarantee success, but Sarkisian – a California native – understands what it takes and the culture needed to win at USC.

Taking Washington from 0-12 to 8-4
Washington is one of the top 25-30 jobs in college football, but Sarkisian inherited a mess. In five years prior to his arrival in Seattle, the Huskies compiled a 12-47 mark, including a horrendous 0-12 record in 2008. Sarkisian brought a five-game improvement to Seattle in 2009 and has led the Huskies to four consecutive winning years. While 7-6 may not seem like much of an improvement, Washington has made small gains each year, and Sarkisian had a winning record over the last four seasons in Pac-12 games. Again, the overall record isn’t particularly overwhelming, but it’s clear Sarkisian is leaving Washington in better shape than how he inherited the program in 2009. Sarkisian also went 4-1 at Washington against rival Washington State. A similar record at USC against UCLA and Notre Dame would certainly help add support in Sarkisian’s corner.

Offensive Background
Winning and style points aren’t related, but Sarkisian’s background on offense should work well in the Pac-12 and at USC. There’s no shortage of skill players and quarterbacks on the recruiting trail, and Sarkisian should help draw some of that talent to USC. At Washington, Sarkisian’s offenses posted finishes of sixth (twice), seventh, tenth and second in total offense (conference-only games). There’s room to grow in those numbers, but Sarkisian started to put all of the pieces together in 2013, including the emergence of one of the Pac-12’s top receiving corps and running backs in Bishop Sankey.

Recruiting
Recruiting to USC shouldn’t be a problem for any coach. But if there was any doubt about Sarkisian’s recruiting ability, one look at the rankings should change those opinions. According to 247Sports, Washington has four consecutive top-25 recruiting classes, including the No. 18 overall haul in 2013. Now with the USC brand and an excellent staff in tow, Sarkisian is only going to reel in more talent to Los Angeles. And Sarkisian should be able to develop that talent better than Kiffin did in his tenure.

Negatives for USC in hiring Steve Sarkisian

Sarkisian isn’t the “big-name hire”
Good coaches can come from anywhere and a variety of coaching positions. However, USC is one of college football’s premier jobs, and it seems like the Trojans didn’t have a lengthy list of interested candidates. Did USC inquire about Vanderbilt’s James Franklin? It seems Pat Haden at least asked about Boise State’s Chris Petersen, but he wanted to remain with the Broncos. Sarkisian is a good coach and should do well at USC. However, with a 34-29 record at Washington, Sarkisian will need to win over some fans and boosters. An elite coaching job like USC should be able to attract plenty of interest among candidates. Did the Trojans want to move quick and Sarkisian was the only coach willing to jump now? Or was the list of interested candidates shorter than most expected? It’s an interesting storyline to watch as the rest of college football’s coaching carousel takes place this offseason.

Lack of a breakthrough season at Washington
There’s no question Washington improved under Sarkisian’s watch. But the Huskies never finished above third place in the Pac-12’s North Division. Considering where the program was prior to Sarkisian’s arrival, it’s no surprise it took a few years to get Washington in a position to challenge for a top-three finish in the North Division. Stanford’s recent rise also hurt Washington’s ability to climb in the Pac-12. However, the Huskies never closed the gap on Oregon and lost by at least 17 points in each of Sarkisian’s five meetings against the Ducks. In 2013, Washington’s four losses came against UCLA (10 points), Oregon (21 points), Arizona State (29 points) and Stanford (three points). The resources are in place for Washington to win Pac-12 titles. Why was Sarkisian unable to shrink the gap between the Huskies and the rest of the top teams in the conference?

Key Question

Who will comprise USC’s staff?
Ed Orgeron did an admirable job as USC’s interim coach, but he won’t return to the staff for 2014. Sarkisian had an outstanding staff at Washington, which included defensive line coach and top-notch recruiter in Tosh Lupoi. Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and linebackers coach Peter Sirmon are also held in high regard in coaching circles. Can Sarkisian bring some of his Washington staff to Los Angeles? Will Wilcox take over for Sarkisian? Will Sarkisian keep Tee Martin on staff?  Considering USC’s willingness to pay, Sarkisian should be able to surround himself with an outstanding staff – perhaps one of the best in the nation.

Final Analysis and Grade

Sarkisian is a good fit and solid, safe hire for USC. Considering his time under Pete Carroll, Sarkisian knows what it takes to win in Los Angeles. And while Sarkisian is friends with former coach Lane Kiffin, all signs point to the 39-year-old coach as a better leader and program builder.

But can Sarkisian go from a good coach at Washington to a great one for the Trojans? Coaching at USC has more advantages than Washington, so it should be easier to recruit elite talent. Sarkisian shouldn’t have to face much of an adjustment period, as he isn’t far removed from coaching as an assistant at USC and has spent the last five years at Washington.

While this is a solid hire, it does seem a little underwhelming. USC – one of the top-five jobs in college football – hired a coach with a 34-29 overall record at Washington.

Again, Sarkisian should win plenty of games at USC. But it’s a little surprising the Trojans didn’t land a splashy name like Vanderbilt’s James Franklin.

Grading USC’s Hire of Steve Sarkisian: B-

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