Tears streamed down the cheeks of USC players on Monday after they said an emotional goodbye to one coach and readied for the arrival of another.
Steve Sarkisian, a former USC assistant who has been head coach at Washington for the last five seasons, was hired earlier in the day as the Trojans’ head coach.
Sarkisian, 39, replaces Ed Orgeron, who guided USC to a 6-2 record as interim coach after replacing the fired Lane Kiffin.
“It’s awesome to be home,” Sarkisian said after meeting with the team Monday night. “It’s been an emotional day or so for the players here, for myself and for my former team and those kids up in Seattle.
“But it’s awesome to be back. I’m fired up.”
Sarkisian will be formally introduced as USC’s coach at a news conference Tuesday.
USC Athletic Director Pat Haden said in a statement that the school “conducted a very exhaustive and thorough search,” identifying 20 candidates and interviewing five. Haden said Sarkisian, who worked under Pete Carroll for seven seasons, was the only man who was offered the job.
“We kept coming back to Sark,” Haden said, adding, “I believe in my gut that he is the right coach for USC at this time.”
After Monday night’s meeting, Haden said, “We had a fantastic meeting. Coach Sark really hit off well with our kids.”
Orgeron, 52, had hoped to land the position despite losses to rivals Notre Dame and UCLA. But when USC hired Sarkisian, Orgeron left “to pursue head coaching opportunities,” the school said.
Haden said he had a “very open and frank discussion” with Orgeron, who “understandably was disappointed” when informed he would not stay on as coach. Haden said they talked of Orgeron possibly remaining at USC.
“Ed is one of the greatest Trojans ever and we thank him for all he has done for the program,” Haden said.
Orgeron cried during an emotional meeting with players at the McKay Center in the afternoon.
“I’ve known Coach O since I was four years old and I’ve never seen Coach O cry before,” said senior offensive lineman Kevin Graf, whose brother, Derek, and father, Allan, played at USC.
Orgeron declined to comment upon his arrival and while exiting.
“I’m especially grateful for the players on this year’s team, the coaching staff and the Trojan Family for the way they all fought through adversity and became one,” Orgeron said in a statement. ". . . I’ll forever be grateful to the University of Southern California. Fight On!”
USC players learned of Sarkisian’s hiring Monday morning through news reports and social media. Many tweeted their feelings and most appeared somber as they arrived for the afternoon meeting.
“Coach O worked his tail off for us — we appreciate it and love him. He did an awesome job,” center Marcus Martin, a team captain, said, adding, “Coach Sark will come in and do a great job. . . . He’ll bring his own perspective and ideology. USC will be successful under Coach Sark because he’ll work his tail off just like Coach O.”
During the meeting, players were informed that offensive coordinator Clay Helton would coach them in their bowl game. Nearly all players exited without comment, some shaking their heads and wiping tears from their eyes.
Others still seemed stunned.
“I love Coach O,” freshman safety Su’a Cravens said. “That’s all I have to say. I love Coach O.”
So, apparently, did USC fans.
“My mom and everybody at home fell in love with Orgeron — that voice and everything. It was perfect,” said Michael McMonigle, a junior psychology major from Los Angeles who said he was related to walk-on receiver Robby Kolanz. “They love him. And if you can win over the players, that’s a big thing.”
Haden spent almost exactly two months searching for Kiffin’s long-term replacement before hiring Sarkisian.
After Kiffin’s firing on Sept. 29, USC representatives contacted agents to gauge the interest of high-profile coaches such as Alabama’s Nick Saban, according to a person close to the situation who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss it publicly.
Haden interviewed Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio in November, but his main target was Texas A&M; Coach Kevin Sumlin, the person said. Haden, however, could not meet with Sumlin in person until after the Aggies’ regular season was complete.
Haden was scheduled to meet with Sumlin on Sunday, the person said, but Texas A&M; announced Saturday that Sumlin had agreed to a six-year contract extension.
USC also contacted Boise State’s Chris Petersen, who reportedly withdrew from consideration.
Haden traveled to Seattle on Sunday to interview Sarkisian, who had long aspired to become Carroll’s replacement.
After the 2006 season, Sarkisian turned down an offer to become coach of the Oakland Raiders, a job that eventually went to Kiffin. Carroll and Sarkisian had sought assurances from former athletic director Mike Garrett that Sarkisian would be Carroll’s successor, but Garrett declined.
Sarkisian, the Trojans’ offensive coordinator, left for Washington after the 2008 season.
Now the former quarterback at West Torrance High, El Camino College and Brigham Young is back at USC after reviving a moribund Washington program that was winless the season before he arrived in Seattle. Sarkisian compiled a 34-29 record, including victories over USC in 2009 at Seattle and in 2010 at the Coliseum. The Huskies are 8-4 this season.
In previous stints at USC, Sarkisian tutored Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart and also Matt Cassel, John David Booty and Mark Sanchez. In 2005, Sarkisian and Kiffin oversaw one of the most prolific offenses in college football history.
Freshman quarterback Max Browne, a Washington native, said Sarkisian was the first coach to offer him a scholarship.
“It’s kind of crazy how the world works,” Browne said. “But it’s exciting. I think all the guys are ready for a new start.”
USC student Oliver Pope, a senior mechanical engineering major from Massachusetts, said he was reserving judgment on Haden’s decision.
“The last time they hired a Carroll disciple it didn’t exactly work, so it makes it look kind of shaky,” he said.
Sarkisian inherits a team that includes many draft-eligible sophomores and juniors, some of whom had said that Orgeron’s status would influence their decisions.
Because of NCAA sanctions that limit USC’s roster to 75 players — 10 fewer than the allowable maximum — those players cannot be replaced if they make themselves available for the draft.
Sarkisian will begin recruiting new and remaining players immediately.
Meanwhile, Orgeron will begin pursuing his next job.
After the afternoon team meeting, receivers coach Tee Martin accompanied Orgeron out of the McKay Center. Orgeron climbed into the passenger seat of Orgeron’s SUV, and then he was gone.
Times staff writer Eric Sondheimer contributed to this report.