Josh Shaw controversy at USC poses early test for Steve Sarkisian

Josh Shaw controversy at USC poses early test for Steve Sarkisian
USC Coach Steve Sarkisian watches his players train Wednesday during a practice. The Trojans open their season against Fresno State on Aug. 30 at the Coliseum. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

Steve Sarkisian tried to smile, but it didn't come easy, the sweat beading on his forehead as he cooked in a campus patio chair while wearing a USC hoodie on a warm August afternoon.

"And it's only Tuesday," Sarkisian said with a grin.


There were still four days until Sarkisian's debut as USC's football coach, yet his honeymoon was over. His team had yet to take the stage, yet all eyes were upon him. The 2014 opening kickoff was in his hands, and that sucker was slippery.

What do you do when one of your team captains and best defensive players shows up with two badly sprained ankles and claims the injury occurred when he jumped off a balcony to save his nephew from drowning . . . then you receive information that it might not be the truth?

What do you do when you are so enamored with the original story you trumpet it on your team's website and shower him with public praise . . . and a day later make him unavailable for interviews while worrying he made everyone look like fools?

The issue here is about Josh Shaw, a respected senior cornerback who is facing serious questions about the veracity of his weekend account explaining his injuries.

But an equally big story is Sarkisian, because, if his hero crumbles, he's going to have to clean up the mess. The coach could have to make his first big decision before ever calling his first big play.

How do you discipline a player who possibly could have compromised the integrity of a program that is still recovering from integrity-attacking NCAA probation? How do you bench a player who has already sidelined himself with injuries? And does it matter that this cornerback might be your most important line of defense in the quarterback-strong Pac-12 Conference?

Welcome home, Sark. Don't let the door hit you in the face on the way in.

"There's a moral compass we have to operate with, that we represent this university with," Sarkisian said Tuesday afternoon, touching the USC logo on the front of his hoodie. "Every decision we make, this has to come first, and when it doesn't and we make a mistake, there's punishment that goes along with it."

Sarkisian wouldn't discuss the Shaw controversy during this interview because the situation was still fluid. But he had already made one smart move by admitting during a news conference earlier Tuesday that he'd received phone calls contradicting Shaw's story. This shows Sarkisian's willingness to publicly tackle even the most embarrassing of issues. Now Trojans fans are waiting to see what he does when the truth hits.

"[Character] is a huge deal around here, especially because we're just coming off probation," he said. "What I always try to ask myself, was a player's mistake an indication of their character or was it out of line for them? Is this truly who this person is, or did he make a mistake that he's regretful for?"

By all accounts, Shaw, a Palmdale native, has been a character guy, even in the way he transferred to USC from Florida two years ago to help his ailing father run his landscape business. He once spent five days building homes in Haiti with teammates. He was one of the players who showed up to support Sarkisian last winter at his first news conference. He gave a stirring speech at the USC student-athlete commencement ceremonies this spring.

"I often remind myself, I'm here to develop these guys, and we shouldn't let one incident define us," Sarkisian said. "Some incidents are obviously more severe than others and they deserve punishment more than others."

This is a tricky situation, one that could set the tone for the Sarkisian era before it even begins. If there is any purposeful dishonesty here, folks are wondering how Sarkisian will react in comparison to his predecessor Lane Kiffin. Remember, he is replacing a coach who never really seemed bothered by illegally switched jerseys and purposely deflated footballs.

"This is probably the most high-profile university program in the country, our players are going to make some mistakes, and how we deal with those guys, people are going to be critical one way or another," Sarkisian said. "When you come to USC, you have to understand the water that you're swimming in."

It gets deep, quick.

Follow Bill Plaschke on Twitter @billplaschke