If there’s one public event where the USC football coach needs to be at his most professional and inspirational, it is the annual preseason Trojans family banquet known as “Salute to Troy.”
Steve Sarkisian knew this, yet there he was Saturday night, apparently intoxicated, slurring his words, uttering an expletive and acting so unsteady that he left the stage before his remarks were complete.
On Sunday, an apology was issued by Sarkisian, and a public scolding was given by Athletic Director Pat Haden. But given the circumstances, are words enough?
Are the Trojans doing their rebuilt reputation a disservice by abiding yet another off-the-field humiliation? More important, are the Trojans doing Sarkisian a disservice by refusing to address what could be a bigger issue?
“I sincerely apologize to my players and staff and to our fans for my behavior and my inappropriate language at our kickoff event Saturday night,” Sarkisian said in a statement that did not mention the root of the problem.
The biggest issue here isn’t the curse word that Sarkisian used on stage — audible in a brief video clip — or that he apparently ripped several other schools by saying, “They all suck.” This sort of trash talking is easily forgiven when it comes from excited coaches during pep-rally style events; just ask UCLA’s Jim Mora.
The biggest issue is that Sarkisian made these statements while apparently impaired, even though this was one night when he absolutely had to know he would need his wits about him. The judgment here wasn’t just lacking, it was nonexistent, which should scare USC into wondering whether this issue could run far deeper than one night and a couple of cocktails.
“I met with Coach Sarkisian and I expressed my disappointment,” Haden said in a statement. “While details of our conversation will remain between us, I’m confident he heard my message loud and clear.”
The only message that rang loud and clear through the sports world Sunday was that USC might have a serious problem with its head football coach that might require more than a wrist slap. This would not be only for the Trojans’ benefit, but for Sarkisian’s sake as well.
What USC fans witnessed Saturday night, others say they have witnessed before. That smoke can no longer be ignored now that Sarkisian has publicly gone up in flames.
This is not the first time Haden has been faced with something like this. Four years ago, then-USC basketball coach Kevin O’Neill was involved in an alcohol-related confrontation with an Arizona booster at the Pac-12 Conference tournament. Haden immediately suspended him for that tournament. The suspension lasted only one game, but Haden was quick to send a strong message.
“We’re not trying to make any kind of statement here,” Haden said at the time. “This is who we are.”
So Sarkisian embarrasses not an opposing booster, but his own boosters, at an event far bigger in USC’s world than a basketball tournament, and yet he is penalized with only a lecture? Hmmm. Maybe, with only two weeks remaining until the start of football season, this is who the Trojans are now.
Twenty years ago, another power-conference football coach had an off-season, alcohol-related incident in public, this one leading to an arrest at a bar. Despite a 44-13-3 record at Michigan, Gary Moeller was quickly forced to resign.
There are many directions USC can take here, actions that could not only restore faith in the program’s leadership, but also show care and support for Sarkisian. No matter what happens next, it feels like something should happen next. If nothing substantive comes from Saturday’s humiliating moment, then the Salute to Troy was nothing but Shame on Troy.
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