Steve Sarkisian isn’t Lane Kiffin and that’s a good thing for USC

At first glance, sure, it seems USC is outrageously placing its wobbly football program in the hands of a guy who was part of the regime which sent it staggering.

How could the Trojans hire Steve Sarkisian when he is so closely tied to a coach they just fired two months ago, his former coaching buddy, Lane Kiffin?

How could they hire Sarkisian just four seasons after USC was punished by the NCAA for infractions that occurred while he worked as a top assistant to coach Pete Carroll?


Why do they continually insist on piecing together the program with remnants of a Carroll era — from Kiff to Sark, c’mon! — whose two national titles resulted in ensuing years of frustration?

It’s simple. Steve Sarkisian was hired Monday because he is greater than the sum of his past and a nice fit for USC’s future.

“He knows how to build a program and create a culture that we value,” Athletic Director Pat Haden said in a statement. “He understands the heritage and tradition of USC.”

It is a move that will cost them some buzz, and has already cost them popular interim Coach Ed Orgeron, who immediately resigned to pursue a head coaching job that many wished would have been here. But it is a move that, while bringing up some bad Trojans memories, builds on only the best parts of Trojans tradition.

A winning college head coach? Check. After seven seasons as a USC assistant, Sarkisian took over a winless Washington team and led it to a 34-29 record in five seasons that, counting this season, will result in four bowl games. He is responsible for one of the worst USC defeats of the Carroll era, a stunning 16-13 upset of the third-ranked Trojans in 2009.

A coach who knows how to win on USC’s giant stage? Check. Sarkisian was 74-15 as an assistant under Carroll and 22-3 when serving as his offensive coordinator.

A coach who understands the most important USC position of quarterback? Check. As a player at Brigham Young, he led the nation in quarterback rating. He eventually became a quarterback guru at USC, and is credited for not only the Heisman Trophy maturation of Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart, but also for coaching up John David Booty to a pair of Rose Bowl victories while setting up Mark Sanchez to become a top NFL draft pick.

A coach that Hollywood will love? Check. This year’s Huskies team has the nation’s 19th-ranked offense with 69 points against Oregon State, a 32-point win over Boise State, and no games in which they scored fewer than three touchdowns.

Equally important is what Sarkisian is not.

He is not Lane Kiffin. He is not Kiffin 2.0. He is not a Kiffin encore. They are friends, but their personalities are far different. During the five seasons they worked together on USC’s offense, Sarkisian was on the field while Kiffin was in the booth. Sarkisian is a strong and visible leader while Kiffin kept his nose in a playbook. And, oh yeah, it was Kiffin, not Sarkisian, who called that doomed fourth-down run by LenDale White against Texas in the 2006 Rose Bowl.

Sarkisian is a product of the Carroll era without the arrogant penchant for breaking the rules. He is a disciple of Norm Chow but with much more presence. He is a Torrance native who is a savvy local recruiter — 34 players on the Huskies roster are from Southern California.

“He is an innovative coach who recruits well and develops players,” Haden said in the statement. “He is a proven and successful leader. He connects with people.”

Many folks, especially tearful and Twitter-mourning players, are upset that Orgeron did not get the job. But by losing to Notre Dame and UCLA, those players made it impossible for Haden to keep him. Orgeron was also upset, and the program suffers a big loss with his resignation. He deserves to be a head coach somewhere, and his passion-driven style would work well in a smaller market with lower expectations.

Another point of distress for some is that Sarkisian is not the defensive specialist that many feel is necessary to lead the Trojans back to greatness. Well, wasn’t being an offensive mind good enough for John McKay and John Robinson? And isn’t Sarkisian the best possible tutor for new quarterback star Max Browne?

When Kevin Sumlin received a contract extension at Texas A&M;, the Trojans lost their first choice. When Chris Petersen again decided to remain at Boise State, the Trojans lost their most interesting choice. But Sarkisian is certainly no consolation prize. Remember, he was a leading candidate to replace Carroll in 2009 before taking himself out of the running because he had just finished his first year at Washington.

He might not be a favorite of Trojans fans longing to separate themselves from their recent past but, despite the claims of revisionist historians, many good things came out of the Pete Carroll era. Steve Sarkisian was one of them, and should be welcomed home.

Twitter: @billplaschke