LOS ANGELES — Two days after USC hired Steve Sarkisian as head football coach, Riki Ellison remained shocked at his alma mater’s speed in making the decision.
The linebacker on USC’s 1978 national championship team played nine seasons in the NFL — seven for the 49ers during their 1980s glory era — but always kept close tabs on the Trojans.
So, on Dec. 4, 2013, Ellison emailed J.K. McKay, USC’s senior associate athletic director for football, warning that Sarkisian’s off-field behavior had “caused issues” during his five seasons as the University of Washington’s coach.
“I am very close to one of the UW Board of Regents who were looking to replace Sark due to his off the field activities that have caused issues in the community as well as their frustration with him,” Ellison wrote in the three-paragraph email that he provided to the Los Angeles Times. “Character and values have to be foremost in his new position at USC and you should be shaping that part just as much as you do with his football aspects as head coach.”
Ellison said he had previously interacted with McKay by email and in person but never received a reply.
The email takes on new relevance in the wake of Sarkisian’s firing by Athletic Director Pat Haden last month.
A statement issued by USC on behalf of McKay said that the university gets “hundreds of emails, pro and con” whenever a coach is hired in any sport.
Ellison said he also emailed at least two other USC officials on the same day in 2013 expressing concerns similar to those he expressed in his note to McKay.
Ellison provided the name of the Washington regent to the Los Angeles Times on the condition the person not be named to maintain their relationship; the regent didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Sarkisian slurred words and shouted an expletive during USC’s annual “Salute to Troy” preseason rally in August — something he blamed on mixing alcohol and medication — acted strangely during a game, appeared unsettled during a team meeting and then didn’t show up for a subsequent practice.
Haden has said USC thoroughly vetted Sarkisian before he was hired and noted that Washington never disciplined the coach. But Haden has faced persistent criticism for Sarkisian’s hiring in addition to not acting more forcefully after the August incident.
Sarkisian checked into a rehabilitation facility after his dismissal Oct. 12.
During a news conference two days after the firing, Haden defended the depth of the university’s research into Sarkisian’s background. He noted that USC used a search company to screen candidates, performed background checks and spoke to “dozens of people” who knew Sarkisian well.
“None raised an issue,” Haden said.
USC’s statement repeated details about the pre-hire procedure.
“Steve was here at USC several times as an assistant coach without an issue and then another 21 months … as head coach prior to the incidents that led to his dismissal,” the statement said.
On the day of Sarkisian’s firing, a report in The Times detailed Sarkisian’s use of alcohol at Washington. Accounts by former players and documents obtained through public records requests showed a man who often ran up large bar tabs while traveling on university business and left some players concerned about the extent of his alcohol use. One former player recalled Sarkisian appearing at some morning team meetings while smelling of alcohol “on one or two occasions.”
The tumult has led to questions about Haden’s fitness for the job, despite a statement of support from USC President C.L. Max Nikias. Haden didn’t attend last weekend’s upset of No. 3 Utah at the Coliseum, unusual from an athletic director during football season.
On the same day, The Times ran an article detailing Haden’s work for seven corporate boards and charitable foundations that pays him more than a half-million dollars a year — in addition to his $2.5-million salary from USC.
An athletic department spokesman said Haden “took a few days off last week, including Saturday” in the wake of feeling lightheaded on the sideline before USC played Notre Dame two weeks ago.
The day after that incident, interim USC Coach Clay Helton described Haden as “extremely chipper” and someone who “looked like his regular self.”
Ellison, known as Riki Gray during his playing days for the Trojans, hasn’t hidden his displeasure with Haden and the athletic director’s handling of Sarkisian’s off-field troubles. Last week, Ellison called for Haden to step down in a 3,200-word Facebook post, a message delivered with all the delicacy of a linebacker drilling an opposing running back.
The concerns date back to Ellison’s emails in the wake of Sarkisian’s hire.
“My messaging that was discreet and singular … on the issues on Sark were ignored,” Ellison said.
Ellison said that he hasn’t received any pushback, in public or private, to the Facebook missive or subsequent broadsides on social media, but has the support of other former USC players. He showed The Times recent correspondence with one prominent ex-player as an example of the sentiment.
Ellison also said he isn’t interested in being an athletic director or coach. He wants to restore the football program’s former glory, but sees Haden as an impediment.
“I feel like I’m out front,” Ellison said. “Nobody is saying to back off.”