They leave on the best of terms
Two of this region’s sharpest football coaches found themselves at the Rose Bowl this week, both soon to leave us, both bound for fresh responsibility, both moving to far-away schools mired in the sticky muck of losing.
Coaching his last game from the USC sidelines was Steve Sarkisian, architect of the Trojans’ offense.
Not far away, up in the stands, was DeWayne Walker, defensive guru at UCLA.
As we turn the page on another season, Sarkisian now moves north to Washington, where he was recently named head coach, inheriting what has been one of the worst college teams of the last several years.
Walker, meantime, heads east, to New Mexico State, where this week he, too, was named head coach, inheriting what has been one of the worst college teams of the last several decades.
These two face long odds, and I’m sad to see them go. I know both to have keen football minds, sharp instincts, firm guts, and the determination to stick with their vision despite the critics. Both have the intangibles needed to be a great head coach.
In what was tantamount to a pair of exit interviews, the day following USC’s 38-24 suffocation of Penn State, I spoke separately with Sarkisian and Walker about what went coursing through their minds during the 95th version of the Rose Bowl.
“This was a special game, maybe the best in all my time here,” said Sarkisian, driving home from the team hotel. All year, he said, his young and inexperienced squad had struggled to rein in its immense talent and play with discipline and consistency.
But the USC offensive coordinator said that during December preparations he felt a growing, steadying sense of maturity from his players, none more than from quarterback Mark Sanchez, whose season-long string of erratic performances ended on the highest of notes. Sanchez conducted the Trojans like Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic.
“Mark was just electric, not only his performance throwing the ball but his mentality. . . . This football team just fed off that.”
It didn’t hurt that Penn State, statistically among the nation’s stoutest defenses, had a secondary with all the zest and creativity of stale margarine.
What did Sarkisian see from studying them?
“That there were big plays that could be made. . . . This was a defense that had not given up yards in chunks all year. We needed to do that, we thought we could. . . . Fifteen-yard gains, 20, 25 yards . . . and we did it.”
Did it, indeed. Sarkisian recounted a cascade of great plays. He stopped for a while to lament a missed opportunity: a rare Sanchez mistake, the quarterback failing to spot a wide-open Damian Williams for what looked to be another touchdown. Instead, the Trojans got a field goal. Sarkisian laughed at how, on the sidelines, the first thing he and Sanchez spoke of after the game was that one error.
Sarkisian said he left the field with his heart heavy and his mind spinning through Trojans highlights at the Rose Bowl: Carson Palmer’s last game against UCLA; Mike Williams’ catches against Michigan; Penn State crumbling.
He recalled looking at this year’s team, this game’s stars -- Sanchez, Stafon Johnson and Co., some of whom struggled mightily early on at USC. He remembered thinking of what he’d learned from them: the beauty of patience, the importance of letting young athletes find their way.
Now Sarkisian moves to Washington, winless this season. Huskies fans, as rabid as they come, expect a miracle turnaround and pray for the second coming of Don James. In all the losing, patience is one thing they’ve lost.
“I’ve turned down jobs because I didn’t feel they were right,” he noted. “This one, I wouldn’t have taken it if I didn’t think we could turn it around . . . and we will.”
“It was a sentimental game,” said DeWayne Walker, who watched the Rose Bowl with his wife, sitting just behind the Trojans’ sideline.
This makes perfect sense. Walker attended high school in Pasadena, played football at Pasadena City College, and coached many fine games at the Rose Bowl for the Bruins, the most exhilarating of which was the 2006 Bruins upset of the Trojans, which took place on his birthday.
Aside from that upset and others, Walker said he thought deeply about Pete Carroll during Thursday’s game. Walker served as assistant head coach during Carroll’s opening foray with the Trojans, a year spent trying to turn the tables after a spate of lost Trojans seasons.
“I’m at the game and I’m just going back in my mind farther than this game,” he said. “I’m thinking to how Pete started it. How he just came in and changed a culture. How he just changed a mind-set. How he had a vision and got everyone to see it.”
Walker says he is convinced he can do much the same, even at New Mexico State, which has not been to a bowl game since 1960.
(In the overall scheme of things, it’s a sliver-thin sign of progress that UCLA’s former defensive coordinator landed a head coaching job at a major college -- making him part of a group of seven black head coaches out of 119 total following recent hires -- but I do wish Walker had landed at a school that didn’t require an absolute miracle. Now, however, is a time for brighter thoughts.)
“You know, I’m feeling just great about this new job and our time here,” Walker said. “I said to my wife after the game, ‘This may be the last time we step foot in that great stadium.’ It was a great place to coach, a real pleasure . . . we won’t forget.”