USC’s football team had returned to prominence. After laboring under NCAA sanctions that limited scholarships and the school’s ability to attract top talent, the Trojans were back in the national top 10 in preseason polls. Excitement was building with the opening game two weeks away.
But then at the annual “Salute to Troy” pep rally, before a campus crowd of well-heeled donors, players and their parents, an apparently intoxicated Coach Steve Sarkisian slurred his words, insulted opposing teams and added an expletive to the school’s rallying cry, “Fight On!”
A video clip of his antics went viral. Suddenly, USC had a crisis on its hands. One of its highest-paid employees, the leader of its lucrative, face-of-the-university football program, had stumbled publicly, embarrassing himself and the school.
On Sunday, USC posted an apologetic statement from Sarkisian and a scolding by Athletic Director Pat Haden.
Then, at 8 a.m. Tuesday, the university known for managing its image fastidiously put a beleaguered Sarkisian in front of a phalanx of cameras and microphones. He uttered a wandering apology and explanation that left more questions than answers.
He said he had mixed medication — he wouldn’t say what — with alcohol, and said he would seek treatment, but was vague about what type or what for.
The only thing that was clear was that he was not letting go of the reins to the program.
His news conference began with a profuse apology, even to his children.
“The way I acted was irresponsible and something that I obviously don’t condone,” he said. “There are things we’re going to work on for me moving forward. But it’s a hard time.…"
Sarkisian, who is in his second year as USC’s head coach, said he had mixed the medication “with alcohol, not a lot … and I responded in a way that was not acceptable for me or for the university.”
The moral of the story, he said, was that “when you mix meds with alcohol, sometimes you say things and/or do things that you regret. And I regret it.”
Asked whether he had a drinking problem, Sarkisian responded, “I don’t believe so,” but he allowed that “I’m going to find that out,” and said he would enter a treatment program.
“I don’t even know if I even need rehab,” he said, adding that Haden had “put things in place” for him to find out.
Exactly what kind of treatment the university and Sarkisian had planned was not clear. The coach declined to provide details. Athletic Director Haden, in a text message, said, “The conversation and plan is between Steve and me.” University President C.L. Max Nikias did not respond to a request for comment.
As the coach of one of college football’s most visible programs, Sarkisian is under enormous scrutiny. He was hired in December 2013, a couple of months after Haden fired Lane Kiffin in a middle-of-the-night meeting at Los Angeles International Airport after a lopsided loss at Arizona State. Sarkisian, like Kiffin, was a top assistant at USC when the Trojans were winning and contending for national championships on a regular basis under former coach Pete Carroll.
Kiffin made nearly $3.5 million in his last season as USC’s coach, and Sarkisian was presumably signed to a similarly lucrative contract, although the exact amount won’t be known until the university divulges the information in tax filings. Sarkisian had turned around a struggling program at Washington, but he never won more than nine games during his five seasons in Seattle and many USC fans questioned Haden’s choice in hiring him.
Sarkisian riled USC fans when, after last season’s 9-4 finish — which included a last-second loss to nemesis Arizona State on a Hail Mary pass — he described the season as “a total success.”
The Trojans, who have been picked to win the Pac-12 Conference championship, open this season Sept. 5 against Arkansas State at the Coliseum.
More than once Tuesday, Sarkisian referred to the strong support system he had around him, but Haden did not attend the news conference and Sarkisian mentioned that he had reached out to, but not connected with, university leader Nikias.
The coach also faces pressure outside his job. He is going through a divorce and recently sold his family’s home.
Sarkisian did not explain how he planned to juggle time for treatment with the demands of his busy schedule during a football season.
Sarkisian acknowledged there had been alcohol in the coaches’ locker room — which he said didn’t make USC football “very different than any other organization or program” — but added that it would be removed.
“There won’t be alcohol in our building ever again,” he said.
Asked if he would swear off drinking for the rest of the season, Sarkisian responded, “Sure. Without a doubt. I want to win a championship, and I believe we have a championship-quality team, and that’s what my focus is.”
Sarkisian said he had met with his team and told the players he made a mistake. They had punished him, he said, by giving him calisthenics to do Monday. “And I’m sore today,” he added, “I have to admit. And I’ll probably do them again today, because I deserve them.”
Asked if he might find it difficult to discipline his players after his own missteps, Sarkisian replied, “I don’t think it’s going to be difficult.… I think our players understand, and I’m appreciative of that. We’ve got great leadership on this team. And so we’ll move forward.”
Quarterback Cody Kessler said the team remains behind Sarkisian.
“He came to us as a man, apologized, looked us in the face, told us some things, and that’s hard to do, but at the end of the day I think he earned more respect from us and the team,” Kessler said. "… Today, everyone couldn’t wait to come to practice, we couldn’t wait to have us back in an environment where we feel safe. We feel comfortable with him as our head coach. There’s no one else in the country we want as a head coach.”
USC’s players are accustomed to possible distractions. They played through NCAA sanctions, the firing of head coach Kiffin, the interim tenures of Ed Orgeron and Clay Helton in 2013, and the suspension of starting defensive back Josh Shaw last season after he made up a story that cast himself as a hero in explaining how he injured his ankles when he actually jumped off an apartment balcony trying to avoid police. (There was no arrest or charge in connection with the incident.)
“We’ve dealt with much worse,” linebacker Su’a Cravens said. “Obviously, everybody makes mistakes.”
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