Sports

John McGrath: Steve Sarkisian has a wild week at USC, and there’s more to come

A team captain lauded for his heroism is found to be a fraud.

A running back who quit the football program tells the world, via social media, that he was treated like a slave by the racist head coach.

Anywhere else, these events, which occurred within 24 hours of each other, would suggest a crisis screaming for damage-control measures. At USC, it was just another week of headaches for an administration used to them.

This, after all, is the school that decided to fire football coach Lane Kiffin five games into the 2013 season. Kiffin is nobody’s idea of a prince, but the reasoning behind his exit was absurd: Seems his team, deprived a deep bench because of scholarship-restriction sanctions unrelated to Kiffin, surrendered 28 third-quarter points on a sweltering night at Arizona State.

And though the Trojans rallied to make it something of a game midway through the fourth quarter, athletic director Pat Haden had seen enough. He met Kiffin at the airport, moments after the team flight landed from Phoenix, and told the coach he was toast.

The players were notified of the firing by a text message released at 4:25 a.m.

Clumsy? The search for a replacement was even clumsier.

Interim coach Ed Orgeron, who regrouped Kiffin’s players into a purposeful team that ended up winning six of its remaining eight regular-season games, presumed he was a candidate, and made his wishes known.

Lobbying for a dream job probably isn’t the best business strategy, but Orgeron is constitutionally incapable of subtlety. He inherited a flawed team and, two months later, got it into a bowl. His work was worthy of conference coach of the year consideration.

But rather than reward the popular Orgeron, Haden gave Washington’s Steve Sarkisian an offer the former USC offensive coordinator couldn’t refuse. And rather than return to an assistant’s role on Sarkisian’s staff, Orgeron quit.

The Trojans’ players response to this news, given college-aged kids’ impulse toward overreaction, was not surprising. Many of them cried. Three sent out Twitter texts comparing the departure of Orgeron to the loss of a father.

It was as messy a coaching-regime change as has ever been seen in college football, which is saying something. Eight months later, after spring practice and summer camp had restored the mood to normalcy, Sarkisian announced Saturday that senior safety Josh Shaw had been chosen a team captain.

So much for normalcy.

Shaw sustained a pair of ankle sprains from a Saturday-night balcony fall, a misadventure Shaw turned into a tall tale about rescuing his 7-year old nephew from drowning in a swimming pool.

It was a lie, of course, but what made this lie especially obnoxious was Shaw’s attempt to portray himself as an equal-opportunity humanitarian.

“I would do it again for whatever kid it was,” he said. “It did not have to be my nephew.”

Shaddup, dude.

Sarkisian can’t be faulted for buying that rancid can of beans, although a more shrewd coach might have waited to gather some facts before proclaiming Shaw a “heroic” figure who “put his personal safety aside. But that’s the kind of person he is.”

As for Anthony Brown’s Instagram accusations that Sarkisian is as a racist with a slave-owner attitude, they sound like a disgruntled backup running back venting his frustrations about the long odds he faced of becoming a starting running back.

Sarkisian is a complex guy who can’t be easily defined, but during his five-year reign as a serviceable Huskies coach who drew no comparisons to any icons of the profession, Sarkisian’s most vitriolic critics never raised race as an issue.

And there were plenty of issues, not the least of which was the circus surrounding the maybe-or-maybe-not suspension of star tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins from last year’s season opener.

Seferian-Jenkins did not play — reasonable punishment for driving while impaired the previous spring — but Sarkisian’s waffling on the edict reflected a coach more interested in clouding the opposition’s scouting report than delivering a clear message about discipline.

New Huskies head coach Chris Petersen had no such misgivings about suspending quarterback Cyler Miles for Washington’s season-opener Saturday at Hawaii. Petersen waited for the legal process to be sorted out, then made a decision: Miles, who participated with wide receiver Damore’ea Stringfellow in some needlessly stupid street encounters with Seahawks fans celebrating the Super Bowl victory over Denver, would be allowed to remain with the team after sitting out a game.

Stringfellow, who later pleaded guilty to two counts of fourth-degree assault and one count of malicious mischief, was informed he no longer had the privilege of wearing a Huskies uniform.

There are better ways to begin an era than bench a starting quarterback and tell a potential first-round draft choice to get lost, but that’s how Petersen rolls.

As for his predecessor? Sark will have better weeks at USC than the one he just endured. He also will have more of them.

john.mcgrath

@thenewstribune.com

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