If Auburn’s breathtaking win over Alabama on Saturday taught us anything (and let’s be honest that 30-24 thriller provided plenty more than just one lesson) it is that in college football the right coach can make all the difference in the world. Auburn went winless in the SEC last season, but then fired its coach and brought in Gus Malzahn, an offensive genius, to rebuild its program. Most experts felt it would take Malzahn three-to-five years to get the Tigers back amongst the upper echelon of the best conference in the country.
Turns out it took him less than 12 months.
We have seen this type of thing happen repeatedly in major college football over the years. No one thought Duke could ever be competitive in a BCS conference, let alone compete for a championship, until David Cutcliffe arrived and made it happen this year. Texas was mediocre for more than a decade until Mack Brown took over the Longhorns program 14 years ago and turned them into an annual title contender. Remember when Notre Dame and Alabama were considered programs whose best days were not only behind them, but collecting dust because they had come so long ago? Then the Irish found Brian Kelly, who got them into the national championship game last season where they lost to ‘Bama, who had returned to greatness since hiring Nick Saban six years earlier.
Coaches make all the difference in this sport. A program with no history can become relevant with the right man in charge, and a school with a football pedigree can become dominant with that same caliber coach.
That’s what makes Pat Haden’s decision on Monday to hire Steve Sarkisian as USC’s new head coach so puzzling. Sarkisian comes from inside the Pac-12, arriving in Los Angeles via Washington, where he spent the last five seasons rebuilding the Huskies.
When Sarkisian arrived in the upper northwest he inherited a program that went winless during Tyrone Willingham’s final campaign. Sarkisian quickly turned Washington around, getting them back to respectability in year one, and into a bowl game within two campaigns.
Yet he and the Huskies were never able to make much progress after that. Washington posted three consecutive 7-6 records from 2010-2012 and then went 8-4 this season. That’s a pretty mediocre resume to get the USC gig.
Now proponents of the hire will argue that Sarkisian knows the Trojan program, having served as USC’s offensive coordinator for seven seasons under Pete Carrol. The only problem with that is, so did his predecessor. Lane Kiffin was co-offensive coordinator at USC with Sarkisian, and his tenure went so disastrously that Haden fired him at an airport terminal in the middle of the night as the team busses with all of his luggage still on board pulled away.
Suddenly Haden wants to point to that same kind of experience as making someone prepared for the job?
Obviously Boise State head coach Chris Petersen was Haden’s first choice. When Petersen turned him down the Trojans were forced to move on to Plan B. Still, is a guy with a career record of 31-27 is the best a premiere program like USC can do?
Haden better hope so, because if this does not work it won’t just be his coach that gets “taken to the airport” when his tenure ends.