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Not exactly steady as it goes for USC Coach Steve Sarkisian

Not exactly steady as it goes for USC Coach Steve Sarkisian
USC Coach Steve Sarkisian takes to the Trojans' practice field Tuesday morning after addressing the media about his behavior and language at Saturday's "Salute to Troy" event. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

He seemed as unsteady as Saturday night. Yet in the light of a Tuesday morning, it was even more unsettling.

This time, Steve Sarkisian didn't appear impaired, he seemed confused. This time, instead of slurring his words, he was slurring his reasoning.

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Meeting with the media at the USC practice field for the first time since Saturday night's alcohol-fueled embarrassment at the "Salute to Troy" banquet, an emotional Sarkisian initially said he didn't have a drinking problem, but then said he wasn't sure.

"No, I don't believe so, but through Pat [Haden] and the university, I'm going to find that out," he said.

He explained that his erratic behavior was a result of mixing medication with alcohol. He said he was definitely going to begin treatment. But he didn't specify what sort of treatment, and said he would do so while still acting as the Trojans head coach.

"I'm going to go to treatment, I'm going to deal with it," he said. "In the meantime I'm going to be the head football coach. And I believe I can be."

Yet later, when asked if he could handle the demands of this treatment while continuing to coach, he hedged about the actual help he needed.

"I don't even know if I need rehab," he said. "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…. We'll see what comes out of it."

What came out of Tuesday's 10-minute news conference was the portrait of a painfully tormented man who seemed uncertain of the future beyond the next football practice. It was also the portrait of a university that obviously hasn't yet figured how to handle an internal conflict seemingly pitting the health of a football coach against the success of a football season.

Sarkisian is USC's highest profile employee on the verge of his most visible days on the job, his football team beginning play in less than two weeks. Yet he is also currently USC's most publicly troubled employee after his behavior Saturday raised red flags about his relationship with alcohol.

He held Tuesday's press briefing to expound on his earlier written public apology. But he only made things more muddled.

In one breath, he talked about the great support he had received from the university, including Haden, the school's athletic director. But in the next breath, he implied he had not yet spoken with the ultimate arbiter of his fate, USC President C.L. Max Nikias.

"You know, I've reached out to Max, I've tried to reach out to Max," he said with a hint of desperation.

He seemed open to the idea of treatment and rehab. But when he was asked if he would publicly give up alcohol during the upcoming football season, he acted as if it was the first time anybody had mentioned the idea.

"Sure," he said after a pause. "Without a doubt."

In the end, instead of projecting the image of a man moving past a one-time mistake, Sarkisian looked and sounded like a man mired in a personal muck. His presence was startlingly vacant compared to the two USC players who followed him to the microphone — quarterback Cody Kessler and linebacker Su'a Cravens. It was, in fact, Kessler who appeared and sounded like the team's head coach, offering the strong and confident statement that comes from a secure leader.

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"Bottom line for us is, that's our head coach," Kessler said. "We're going to support him no matter what."

But is USC really supporting Sarkisian by allowing him to continue to coach while he may be battling demons? Are they backing their coach, or failing him?

If Nikias was watching or listening to the news conference, how could he possibly believe that Sarkisian can be ready for Arkansas State? Was there any part of Sarkisian's session that the president would consider a cry for help? And if so, doesn't Nikias have a responsibility to his university community to answer that cry?

One thing seems for sure: If Sarkisian needs treatment, he won't be able to maximize its benefits while coaching football for 18 hours a day in one of the highest-pressure environments in sports.

"It's harder to maintain treatment on an outpatient level," said Dia Parsons, director of marketing and a certified drug and alcohol counselor at Avalon Malibu, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility.

Parsons was speaking generally, with no knowledge that this writer's story involved Sarkisian.

"It's often best that people take medical leave from their jobs to get the help they need … you just cannot focus 100% on your recovery while treated as an outpatient," Parsons said. "So many people come to us after failing on an outpatient basis. The way I see it, why not just get it right the first time?"

After Sarkisian acknowledged his flaws to his players Monday, the team leaders facilitated a different sort of treatment, ordering him to perform the various tough physical calisthenics required of any team member who breaks the rules.

Ah, but if only this issue could be handled with a few up-downs. The real test awaits. It is called the 2015 football season. Steve Sarkisian says he is ready. The question is whether Max Nikias is willing to bet USC's reputation on it.

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Follow Bill Plaschke on Twitter @billplaschke

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