USC places Coach Steve Sarkisian on leave; Clay Helton interim coach
USC Coach Steve Sarkisian looks at the scoreboard after Stanford scored a touchdown on Sept. 19, 2015.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
USC football Coach Steve Sarkisian addressing the media on Aug. 25, 2015, about his behavior and language during a booster event on campus days earlier.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
USC football head Coach Steve Sarkisian looks on during action against Utah at Rice-Eccles Stadium.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
USC Coach Steve Sarkisian leads practice at Howard Jones Field.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
USC football Coach Steve Sarkisian takes to the practice field after addressing the media about his behavior and language during a booster event days earlier.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
USC football Coach Steve Sarkisian addresses the media on Aug. 25, 2015, about his behavior and language during a booster event on campus days earlier(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
USC Coach Steve Sarkisian watches his Trojans squad warm-up before the game against Idaho on Sept. 12, 2015.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Steve Sarkisian is taking an indefinite leave of absence as USC’s head football coach, Athletic Director Pat Haden announced Sunday.
Sarkisian, who is in his second season as USC’s head coach, did not show up for the Trojans’ practice around midday. Haden made his announcement after USC completed its workout.
Offensive coordinator Clay Helton has been named interim coach.
Haden spoke with the media after he and other top USC officials met with the team to inform the players that Sarkisian would be taking a “temporary leave of absence and Coach Helton will be our interim head coach,” said a player who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
Another player said when Sarkisian attended a meeting Sunday morning with his team that the coach “just didn’t seem right.”
Haden said when he learned Sarkisian was not at practice, which began at 12:30 Sunday, he called the coach.
“I called Steve and talked to him,” Haden told reporters. “It was very clear to me that he is not healthy. I asked him to take an indefinite leave of absence.”
Sarkisian and USC has said the coach was undergoing treatment -- what type hasn’t been specified -- since shortly after the coach embarrassed himself during a football pep rally on Aug. 22.
When Sarkisian spoke to the gathered Trojan faithful, he slurred his words, said several opposing teams “suck” and uttered an expletive before the rallying phrase “Fight On.” Witnesses said Sarkisian appeared intoxicated. The event was closed to the media.
A day later, Sarkisian issued an apology on USC’s athletic department website, which also carried a statement by Haden.
“I sincerely apologize to my players and staff and to our fans for my behavior and my inappropriate language at our kickoff event Saturday night,” Sarkisian said. “I have a responsibility to all of them and I let them down. Pat Haden talked to me after the event about my actions and I assured him this will not happen again.”
Haden said: “I met with Coach Sarkisian and I expressed my disappointment in the way he represented himself and the university at our Salute to Troy event. While the details of our conversation will remain between us, I am confident he heard my message loud and clear.”
The following day, Sarkisian held a news conference and said the incident was the result of him mixing alcohol -- “not much” -- with medication he did not specify.
It was then the coach said he was commiting to treatment. Asked if he had a problem with alcohol, he said he didn’t think so but was going to find out.
USC, which started the season ranked eighth in the nation in the Associated Press media poll and as the favorite to win the Pac-12 Conference championship, has a record of 3-2 after losing to Washington, 17-12, on Thursday.
Sarkisian left Washington to take USC’s job.
This is Clay Helton’s second tour of duty as interim coach of the Trojans.
In 2013, after Lane Kiffin was fired, Ed Orgeron was named interim coach. When Haden hired Sarkisian as Kiffin’s permanent replacement, Orgeron left the program and Helton led the Trojans to a victory over Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Another USC player who asked not to be identified predicted older, more experienced Trojan players would not be affected by the coaching change.
“We’ve been in this exact position before with Coach Helton,” he said. “The locker room mood is shocked, obviously. But the locker room is focused on what we can kind of make this season into. Like the older guys were saying, this season could be a complete disaster, or turn into an epic run like we had in 2013.”
Helton said he was up to the task and expressed confidence in his team.
“Fortunately or unfortunately, I’ve been in this situation before, and once again am very fortunate to have a group of first-class kids that are extremely talented and want to do something special here,” Helton said.
“They still have a lot of things out there that we can obtain with a big game against Notre Dame this week. The opportunity to still compete for the South championship in the Pac-12, and again very fortunate to have a group around me as a staff that is as first class as they get.
“We’ll take the same approach as we did the last time we were in this. It’s all about the kids and it’s all about the Trojan family and that is it.”
Follow Gary Klein on Twitter @LATimesKlein
Follow Lindsey Thiry on Twitter @LindseyThiry
Mike Hiserman contributed to this report.
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