Q&A: USC Coach Steve Sarkisian on good, and bad, of first season

Q&A: USC Coach Steve Sarkisian on good, and bad, of first season
Steve Sarkisia (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Steve Sarkisian was hired as USC's coach in December 2013, a few weeks before he observed the Trojans end a season of turmoil with a rout of Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl.

One year later, after finishing the regular season with a 8-4 record, Sarkisian is preparing his team for Saturday's Holiday Bowl against Nebraska.


Reporter Gary Klein recently met with Sarkisian for a question-and-answer session about what's ahead:

Has this job been what you thought it would be?

I didn't come in with expectations of what the job was supposed to be. I came in to do the job the way I felt like it needed to be done. The way I know how to do it.

Once you get past this year, do things get easier?

I think about a guy like [senior linebacker] Hayes Pullard. In the last five years he's had [four] different position coaches. . . . There's been a period here, not to blame anybody, when you go through sanctions, and coaches come and go. . . . So, hopefully, we can provide some stability here from the coaching staff standpoint, from a recruiting standpoint and the types of players we're bringing in to really build on the foundation I think we've laid this year.

What was the high point?

Just the first time coming down the tunnel and being the head coach and getting our first win here [over Fresno State]. There's some emotion going into that game and some excitement and lots of unknowns. Here's this new offense: What's going to happen? Here's a new defense. There's so many things that come into it. And then it's over and it's kind of like, "Wow, that was really cool. That was great. Let's try and go do it again next week."

How about a low?

I'm disappointed that we didn't perform better at Boston College and at UCLA. We just didn't play the way I know we're capable of playing, and that's on me. So the low is because, "Man, what did I do wrong? How can I fix it? How do I make sure that doesn't happen again?" That's all part of the process of growing as a team.

Is there one decision you made that you would change or want back?

I wish in the Arizona State game I would have had a timeout in my back pocket to use at the end of that game when there was some obvious uncertainty of exactly what was occurring. Because I think I could have really helped our team. . . . I feel like we've done a really good job of managing that, of having that timeout at our disposal whether it be on offense or defense, with a chance to ice a kicker, or a chance to call timeout to get the right play called. . . . For a variety of reasons, in that game, in the second half, we were out of timeouts.

You summoned Pat Haden to the sideline during the Stanford game. Would you do that again?

I would handle it differently. . . . Pat didn't deserve to be put in that situation and it's my job to manage the sideline. I obviously was emotional. I was upset about the penalty and how things transpired after that and, again, at that point I thought to myself, "I need to get myself refocused on the game and I can't become emotionally hijacked in what's going on over here." At the same time, with Pat's health, especially too, that wasn't the right thing to do. . . . But part of what comes out of it: I had half the team come up to me and say. "Coach, I love that we saw your emotion." So there's a silver lining on everything that happens.

Was the Josh Shaw situation a distraction?


I don't think so. I think there was a lot of disappointment. We had really high hopes for Josh and our defense. He was, really, the one veteran guy that we had back there. So we became very youthful when he wasn't there with us. I don't think the situation outside of a couple days in training camp was really a distraction. . . . It wasn't where I had to make a decision every day whether to bring him back or not. . . . I think he's a good person and I'm glad he's gotten the opportunity to play these last few games with us.

Most coaches would say they don't read stories about themselves in newspapers or online, that they don't pay attention to that. Do you?

No way. I learned that one awhile ago. In general, when you become emotionally motivated one way or the other by what a few individuals might think about you, man, you're in trouble. I don't care what profession you're in or what kind of person you are. . . . Some people think you're a good coach or a bad coach or a smart coach or a dumb coach or whatever it is. . . . I wake up every day with the same mentality — to come in here, to make our building as positive and upbeat and energetic as I can make it, so that translates to our players.

How long will it take to get the roster back to 85 scholarship players?

About three years. This senior class is very small but if you look at next year's class, the guys that are juniors for us now, it's really large. We're going to lose 20-something players next year. . . . That was the design of the previous staff, to really load that class. Well, that class is going to leave. We're getting 25 this year to replace the nine that are leaving, but next year it's going to be kind of even with the numbers that are leaving and the numbers that we're going to bring in. So we're going to hover in the mid-70s here for a couple years.

Do you talk much with Pete Carroll or Lane Kiffin?

Lane and my conversations and text messages have been more congratulatory: good game, good win, good play. He's obviously in the midst of a championship run with Alabama and we're getting ready for a bowl game. Pete and I have had a pretty good dialogue. We had a pretty extensive conversation last week on some different topics. It's not always just about the game.

How big was the win over Notre Dame for you and the program?

Awesome. . . . We played great. I was so fired up for the guys. I think they could have easily been moping around all week after not playing very good against UCLA but our guys came back . . . and went to work and came out and played a heck of a game for our seniors in their last game in the Coliseum. . . . I thought it sent a really cool message to our team about what we're capable of doing, what we're capable of being, and something hopefully we can continue into this bowl game.

Twitter: @latimesklein