Don’t stop at institutional arrogance. Slog downward toward insufferable hypocrisy, the enabling of a man who may have a substance-abuse issue, the hermetic sealing of a championship-level program as it seeks megamillions in college football’s unapologetically lucrative playoff bonanza.
Know this: If a University of Southern California football player had been intoxicated at an official school event, slurred his words, used profanity and assessed that three of the team’s opponents “all suck,” he would have been punished in one of two ways. He’d have been suspended for an amount of games. Or he’d have been kicked out of the program until further notice.
Steve Sarkisian suffered neither fate Tuesday. Though he’s the head coach at USC and, by extension, should be held to the highest of behavioral standards, he will not be docked a game or even a practice session. It appears he has skated from this debacle with no penalty harsher than a post-practice series of “up-downs,” a form of a pushup from a standing position, as imposed by a leadership committee of veteran players.
“He came back drenched in sweat,” quarterback Cody Kessler said.
No hangover jokes, please. Nothing is funny about this incident, how it was handled by the school administration and what it says about priorities when the collegiate experience — I kind of, sort of thought — should be about teaching proper lessons to young people.
Fight On, USC. Once again, you’ve shown what you are, the ‘S’ standing for soap opera and the ‘C’ for chaos. In heady times for Pac-12 football, where the quality now is on par with the exultant Southeastern Conference, the league’s so-called premier program remains an embarrassment. From the moment Pete Carroll fled a burning Coliseum amid a Reggie Bush scandal that included the loss of 30 scholarships, the vacating of 14 victories and the forfeiture of a BCS national championship, the Trojans haven’t gotten anything right. They hired one of their own, the doofus Lane Kiffin, only to dismiss him after a loss by an airport runway. Then they hired another of their own, Sarkisian, believing he was The Next Carroll and not realizing the boosters he left behind at the University of Washington were happy he was gone.
Now, it’s the high-influence cult of USC power people who would like to run him out. Or, at least, see Sarkisian take a determined stab at rehab. But neither of those options is possible when: (1) the school saw no reason to reprimand him; and (2) the coach refuses to acknowledge he has a problem, blaming his Saturday episode at the annual “Salute to Troy” event on a mixture of alcohol and drug medication.
“I was not right and I think the moral of the story is this: When you mix meds with alcohol, sometimes you say things and/or do things that you regret, and I regret it,” Sarkisian said at a news conference before practice Tuesday. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for all of our fans and donors and all the people that were in attendance, but I’m going to move forward, and we’re going to be great. I can’t wait to start coaching again today.
“I took medication. I mixed it with alcohol, not a lot, unfortunately, and I responded in a way that was not acceptable.”
Not to pretend I’m a drug counselor, but a person who mixes alcohol with meds is not thinking real straight. And if Sarkisian — a father of three whose wife, Stephanie, filed for divorce in April — is not well, I’m going to assume he is capable of more episodes, recalling his erratic streak in previous seasons that included two bizarre events involving Stanford and coach David Shaw. But because USC wants continuity and equlibrium as conference favorites and potential national-title contenders, the decision on-high was to proceed with Sarkisian. His bosses — including the man who hired him, athletic director Pat Haden — have given him an enormous break when no player on the team would have been accorded the same leniency.
They are dipping into a double standard and giving Sarkisian another chance so, in their view, they have the best chance to recapture their former glory and riches. The decision could backfire in ways they’ve yet to even imagine.
“I don’t know if I even need rehab,” he went on. “That’s part of the process, and I credit Pat Haden for this, that he has put things in place for me to have meetings to figure that out, and I’ll address them as they come. I’ve got a great staff that can support me along the way, and we’ll see what comes out of it.
“There are things we’re going to work on for me moving forward. But it’s a hard time.”
A human being going through a hard time — and who hasn’t? — isn’t well-served by moving forward into a stress mosh pit. Few addresses in collegiate sports are more pressurized than the USC football office, and if the Trojans slip up early, a possibility when Stanford invades Los Angeles on Sept. 19, the calls for Sarkisian’s scalp will be swift. Will he be able to handle the onslaught? With games at Oregon, Notre Dame and Arizona State also awaiting, along with tough home games against Arizona, Utah and crosstown rival UCLA, USC will lose a game or two or three. But anything less than perfection will doom the coach.
And then, what happens to him as a human being? Does anyone care?
“I want to win a championship. I believe we have a championship-quality team,” Sarkisian said. “That’s what my focus is.”
His focus should be on getting better. At the news conference, a reporter asked Sarkisian to identify the medication he was on last weekend. “When it comes to what medication I’m taking, I think that’s an issue that really should remain private,” he said.
Does he have a drinking problem? “No, I don’t believe so. But through Pat and through the university I’m going to find that out,” he said. “I’m going to treatment. I’m going to deal with it. In the meantime, I’m going to be the head football coach here and I believe I can be.” At least Sarkisian says he and his assistants no longer will drink alcohol in the locker room after games, though that also begs a very disturbing question: Why were they imbibing when young men, many not of drinking age, were dressing a few feet away?
Even when Sarkisian is well, it’s doubtful he’s right for the job. Remember the weird scene last September at Stanford Stadium, where Haden came rushing onto the field from the press box to talk with his coach and the officials after Sarkisian was whistled for unsportsmanlike conduct? “I got a text to come down because Sark wanted to talk to me,” Haden explained. “He thought the penalty called was unfair and the ref explained that he had warned him, so that’s why he had gotten the penalty. … It’s just been a really frustrating quarter with the penalties.”
So the AD has to come downstairs to protect his coach? Doesn’t sound like someone has much faith in the coach he hired. And what about the lie told last year by cornerback Josh Shaw, who claimed he injured his ankles while trying to rescue a drowning nephew when, in fact, he was jumping from the balcony of his third-story apartment building?
Oh, and remember when Sarkisian, at Washington, accused David Shaw and Stanford of faking defensive injuries to slow down the tempo of his offense? “We don’t fake injuries. We never have. We never will,” Shaw shot back. “I don’t care what Steve Sarkisian thinks what he saw. … We didn’t [fake injuries] versus Oregon, so why in the world would we against UW? We are one of the most respected programs in the country, and I won’t put that on the line just to beat Washington.”
Shaw has too much class to chide Sarkisian for his latest problem. Not that there is anything to say, really. USC said it all by doing nothing Tuesday, nothing but making a troubled man do a few calisthenics.