The University of Southern California’s football program has once again made headlines for all the wrong reasons. On Monday, it was announced that Trojans head coach Steve Sarkisian had been sent home from practice and placed on indefinite leave when it became clear to athletic director Pat Haden that Sarkisian was "not healthy." Then on Tuesday, Haden made Sarkisian's leave a permanent one and fired him after just a season and five games. While Haden would not go into further detail, reports began to surface about the exact nature of why he had been sent home and the evidence pointed in a familiar direction.
Back in late August, the university held its annual “Salute to Troy” event to raise money for athletics. At one point during the evening, Sarkisian got on stage to speak to the gathered crowd and instead began slurring his words and uttering expletives. As it turns out, Sarkisian was drunk and on painkillers that night. As one would expect, the result was a steady stream of backlash and calls for Sarkisian's job. At the time, many of these seemed like knee-jerk reactions and most of them would still qualify for the title, but now things have changed a little.
Disclaimer: I should throw in a little caveat here before I go too much further. I defended Sarkisian in the press following this incident and I still stand by that defense of him now. This situation does not change the context of that situation, but it does provide us with a more complete picture. Sarkisian wasn't a popular hire with everyone following the firing of then-head coach Lane Kiffin, and the “Salute to Troy” incident didn't exactly set his actions apart from his predecessor. That said, getting drunk at a rally and showing up impaired to mentor young men are absolutely not the same thing and, as I just said, the situation has now changed.
What should happen next is going to be a subject beaten to submission by the media in the coming days. You're likely to hear the hottest of takes from the experts who saw this coming from a mile away, and though the answers will be many, the questions asked are likely to be minimal. These situations are often judged through the lens of wins and losses or on-the-field successes. This situation is about so much more than; this situation is about addiction, trustworthiness and enabling.
There are several aspects of this situation worth exploring in great detail. Finding out exactly how much Haden knew about this problem prior to his hiring of Sarkisian is one that should be near the top of the list. Reputable Pacific Northwest media outlets have written about this subject before, so it's not like the information wasn't out there. Assessing what Haden knew, if anything, will be critical to any future actions taken by USC.
Haden somehow missed the bus on this one and it's just as important to find out whether he didn't look for this or didn't want to know about it. If Haden knowingly took this risk with the expectation that Sarkisian would fix it or win enough games to hide it, then he must be judged accordingly. If Haden had a notion but not the full picture, it's worth peeling back those layers in an effort to understand why an AD hired following the biggest athletic scandal in the school's history would only do a cursory background check on his next football coach. Either way, Haden has lost trust on this matter and earning it back may prove to be an impossible task.
It's also important to understand how long this has been going on for Sarkisian. It will be critical for the media to do a responsible job sifting through the stories that are sure to come out now that this has gone national for a second time. It's easy to find someone who can relay a drunken story about Sarkisian, but the focus should be on talking to people who truly understand how deep this went. Stories and anecdotes from former players and media can help fill in the gaps, but they're not going to provide the deeper narrative needed for this discussion, nor should they.
A person's mental health simply cannot be defined by a story here or a story there. Mental health and addiction deserve so much more than that right now. Wins and losses were never going to provide Sarkisian and his family the comfort and counseling they need to overcome this disease, so making this about wins and losses isn't any more likely to produce fruitful conversation. Any discussions of wins and losses does an incredible disservice to all involved and only moves the focus further away from where it needs to be.
Making this about results also shifts focus away from how long this has been going on and why staff members never spoke up before now. It would be incredibly irresponsible to suggest that someone directly enabled Sarkisian's drinking, but the culture of silence in football allows for situations like these to fester and grow into something much more unmanageable. If you believe media reports out of the Seattle area and those of the Los Angeles Times, these problems were present when Sarkisian was the head coach at fellow Pac-12 member Washington. Given that, it seems logical to conclude that the coaching staff also knew about this problem back then, too.
In an ideal situation, an athletic director would sit down with them and have in-depth discussion about the severity and duration of this problem. This brings us back to Haden and how much he should be entrusted to do what is necessary in an effort to find out how deep this runs. Haden had an obligation to these facts long before either of these incidents ever happened, so how did this happen twice and why was it allowed to continue? At the very minimum, it would seem logical to have someone external to the situation conducting these investigations.
Somehow, someway, this situation progressed beyond Haden’s and Sarkisian's control. Once Sarkisian's problem got out of hand, Haden's Sarkisian problem got out of hand with it. Something had to be done, but it is still critical that the school attempt to understand how this happened. After ten years of stories like these dominating the headlines, USC owe it to themselves to finally start asking some questions that matter.
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Webb is a recruiting analyst for BarkBoard, Scout’s Fresno State affiliate. A contributor to USCFootball.com, Scout’s USC affiliate. He is also a regular guest and contributor for Reign Of Troy, USC’s FanSided affiliate. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.