College football, I’m disgusted to say, is more professional these days than professional football. It’s greedier, dirtier, more ruthless and cutthroat and overrun by more snakes and weasels, thanks to the 12-year, $7.3 billion, ESPN-infused pot of gold called the College Football Playoff. The NFL’s 32 franchises share revenue. Universities only share within their conferences, creating a savage, frantic money scramble that isn’t kind to unstable souls.
I cringed when athletic director Pat Haden, in charge of the failed football factory at the University of Southern California, said he felt “a great deal of compassion” for Steve Sarkisian. His words came shortly after the school fired the head coach for cause, citing his recent instances of alcohol abuse and allowing USC to save the final three years of money owed him — more than $10 million. If Haden and the university fathers truly had “compassion” for Sarkisian, they would have cut him a settlement and at least waited until he left rehab to discuss it with him.
Instead, on the worst day of Sarkisian’s life, as he deals with a marital divorce that could leave him penniless while fighting a disease that could break him, a private university positioned to show humanity decided to knife the guy as he was traveling to an out-of-state facility. What better way to start anew, to try and find serenity in the world, than knowing your bosses treated you like a criminal instead of someone with an illness? Turns out Sarkisian learned of his firing via emails and texts from friends, and while Haden said he tried repeatedly to deliver the news via phone, he should have kept trying because Sarkisian was on a plane to rehab.
Yes, Sarkisian embarrassed the university and let down his players and their families with his drunken incidents. But it was Haden who enabled Sarkisian in late August by letting him continue as coach after his bumbling, slurring debacle at the progam’s annual “Salute To Troy” celebration. How sloppy was Sarkisian that day? Former USC quarterback Todd Marinovich, who has battled a heroin addiction and was in the audience, approached athletic officials and said, “We got to stop this.” That didn’t deter Haden, who prioritized a quickly approaching season — and his need for Sarkisian to coach a team then nationally ranked — over the very urgent priority of getting him immediate help with a leave of absence. By keeping his coach in the pressure cooker that is USC football, while using his vast experience as a medical expert (pause for sarcasm) in warning Sarkisian not to drink again if he wanted to keep his job, Haden only exacerbated the problems and ultimately may have pushed Sarkisian’s demons to the point of no return.
And yet, though Haden was the one who recommended Sarkisian’s hiring without sufficiently vetting his alcohol-related incidents at the University of Washington, we saw the audacity of the USC president this week, lauding the embattled AD as “a man of true character and integrity.” Said C. L. Max Nikias, who apparently is big enough to need spaces between his initials: “Pat Haden has been doing an outstanding job in leading Trojan Athletics in the past five years, and I want to reiterate my unwavering support for him. I look forward to working with Pat Haden as our AD for many years to come.”
This after Haden scolded himself for giving Sarkisian “a second chance,” saying, “The decision I made didn’t work out, and I own that.”
To praise Haden instead of firing him is to underscore what’s wrong with universities that derive too much self-esteem and identity from football. It becomes an exercise in pointing fingers when championship expectations are doused by two early losses. I have little regard for USC, which has underachieved most of the last two decades and had its one glorious run end with the Reggie Bush scandal and Pete Carroll’s flight to the NFL. And I’m thinking Sarkisian still would be coaching this week against Notre Dame in South Bend, regardless of his recent drinking episodes on the job, if he hadn’t lost to Stanford and Washington. The university used his drinking problem as a convenient way of getting rid of him and saving his salary.
A cynical view? Hardly. When John McKay was coaching the Trojans in their heyday, he was known to drop by an off-campus bar after practice and whoop it up with assistant coaches, program supporters, even writers. The legendary Bear Bryant was known to nip inside his office, and no one at Alabama dared to stop him while he was winning six national titles. Jim Harbaugh drove under the influence in 2005, but the University of San Diego didn’t fire him, nor did the conviction cost him future coaching employment with Stanford, the 49ers or the University of Michigan. Coaches drink.
It’s only the underperforming ones who are fired for it.
So as USC tries to get one right after successive whiffs on Sarkisian and Lane Kiffin — a tip: Stop trying to replicate Carroll and leave that era back in the aughts — and Oregon regresses without Chip Kelly, I keep returning to a conclusion: Stanford is the new gold standard of Pac-12 football. I realize Utah is having a nice run and ranked No. 4 nationally, and I realize Jim Mora has maintained respectability at UCLA amid the crosstown madness in Los Angeles. But if the criteria are dignity, class, success on the field, playing by the rules and, of course, high academia, no one in the conference is doing it better than Stanford. Having overcome an uncharacteristically ragged 2014 and a still-inexplicable opening loss this year at Northwestern, the Cardinal are in position to contend for another Rose Bowl — if not one of the four national playoff berths.
The reason is David Shaw. He is the anti-Sark, keeper of an equilibrium that has permeated the program since Harbaugh’s departure. His Palo Alto mission is a rare proud distinction for college football: Melding scholastic preeminence with a national title. The second part may not happen, but the fact he’s contending for another conference title — a home victory tonight over UCLA would help — with the same rigid academic restrictions is the best example of his merit as a leader and coach.
You never say never in an unsavory industry in which young men are making high-profile decisions. But I’d be shocked if Stanford ever was hit by a scandal. A few years ago, I looked at their overbeefed linemen and went … hmmm. But then I realized Shaw recruited overbeefed linemen for his pro-style power offense. The one knock has been his stubborn conservatism, his joyless approach to offensive football. But this season, the Cardinal are letting loose with binges of creativity, taking advantage of breathtaking weaponry in Bryce Love, Christian McCaffrey (son of Ed McCaffrey), and Barry Sanders (son of Barry Sanders). Ever imagine a backup quarterback, Keller Chryst (son of Geep Chryst), entering as a blocker?
David Shaw is getting down.
Better, he continues to be a rock of stability. He was asked what it says about college football when Sarkisian is terminated on the same day Steve Spurrier resigned at South Carolina. It would have been easy to rip on Sarkisian, who once accused Stanford players of faking injuries. Wisely, Shaw left the Sarkisian part alone, as is his way.
“It’s a crazy world. Things happen,” Shaw said. “With our profession, you can’t be surprised. Coach Spurrier had success for so many years, but he has displayed the attitude that ‘I want to do what is right and what I want to do. I’m going to enjoy my time doing it.’ I have a lot of respect for him. I’m sad to see him leave in this way.”
David Shaw will make $2.2 million this season, ranking him 47th among big-time college coaches.
Think USC would love to steal him?
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.