The question with Steve Sarkisian at this point is not whether or not he needs help for an apparent addiction issue. He clearly has some personal demons that need to be addressed and he should have the time, leeway and support from his employer, USC, to get the help he needs. And while all of the news surrounding his leave of absence as the football coach at USC hit a peak only 24 hours ago, it cannot be too soon to ask, “How did we get here and what happens next?”“
While the internet is full of people saying they are going to pray for Sarkisian’s well-being and others who are laughing at the troubles because it is USC and still posting memes with the Cutty Sark label, there are questions that go well beyond what happened at USC Sunday and deserve answers well beyond, “He is getting help.”
Once the story went public yesterday, there was an onslaught of media people who told stories they had heard about Sarkisian’s drinking issues going back to his days as head coach at Washington. The anecdotes never saw the light of day prior to yesterday because they had never been publicly verified, and because no one took the time to dig into them. Grown ups drink. Coaches drink. Reporters drink. Some within reason and some to excess. Nothing other than social media whispers ever went public about Sarkisian. There were quiet rumblings about an incident last year after a road game. Nothing on a large scale ever came of it. Now, he has shown up at a morning meeting allegedly under the influence, he goes home and misses the afternoon practice, he is put on indefinite leave and reporters feel compelled to recount all the stories they had previously heard but never reported.
Whether these stories ever made their way to print or not, however, they existed in one level of fact or another. And one has to ask, just how much due diligence did athletic director Pat Haden do before hiring Sarkisian at the end of the 2013 season? USC utilized a search firm to help with the vetting process, as is common in college athletics, and what the search found out and reported to the USC administration will never be known to the general public. It can easily be surmised however, that Haden and the administration knew certain events happened, and they undoubtedly talked to Sarkisian about them and chose to roll the dice with him anyway.
Sarkisian certainly has to be held accountable for his actions, but where does Haden’s culpability come in to play, having hired a coach who likely had an incident or two that involved alcohol to a problematic extent? Was USC monitoring Sarkisian? Did they assign someone to keep an eye on him to make sure he was ok? Did they meet with him on an ongoing basis to discuss these issues beyond the football field. The certain answer is no, they did none of those things. We know this because the signs were clear stemming from USC’s feeble response to an alcohol induced incident in August.
Sarkisian was undeniably under the influence at a private booster event. Of course in this day and age, it is absurd to believe there is such a thing as a private event. Video from someone’s phone hit the internet the next morning. By Monday of that week Haden met with Sarkisian and Sarkisian met with the media saying he had taken pain killers and had a couple of drinks; and the mix of the two caused the results we all saw. He said he agreed with Haden that he would get some help for the issue. He added, though, that he didn’t think he needed any help, but that he was doing it as part of the agreement with his employer. But as a measured step USC would take beer out of the coaches offices at the Coliseum. USC then trotted out a couple of players to meet with the media and give their love and support to “Sark” and we were supposed to assume this was problem solved.
Haden’s handling of the issue was absurd and frankly quite reckless, considering he had to have known the pre-USC stories and even some of the anecdotes from last year, (never published because they were never proven or investigated). To let the coach off with a plan to get help and allow to him to say he was doing it only because that was the agreement was a complete lapse of Haden’s responsibility to the school, the fan base and boosters, the football program, and most importantly to the man he hired as head coach.
What has happened since that August incident? Well, now we hear reports that assistant coaches believe Sarkisian was under the influence at the Arizona State game. Tales of other episodes are getting leaked to media outlets from “reliable sources,” because there are some in the administration that don’t want Sarkisian back at all. He has lost two games this year as we hit the halfway point of the season. USC is almost certainly out of the race for the Pac 12 South title. They still have some of their toughest games of the season in front of them. The return to Trojan glory has hit a huge speed bump and Sarkisian is now an easy out. Of course there is a problem. He missed practice Sunday because of alcohol related issues. But there was a laundry list of problems before this and Haden and the administration ducked any major resolve to address the issue at a legitimately deeper level because they had a lot riding on his success as a coach. Now the team is treading water and reporters are being spoon fed stories about past indiscretions.
Having consulted with one of the brightest attorneys I know, I was told Sarkisian could have cover under the Americans with Disabilities Act to get to keep a job, if not his current one, but USC just as likely has enough cover to never bring him back. But all of that could get ugly, and after Reggie Bush and NCAA sanctions and individuals like Josh Shaw embarrassing the school, USC probably doesn’t have the stomach for another public embroilment. In Haden’s tenure as AD, the school has had four head coaches in 25 months, and one of them, Clay Helton, is on his second stint as an interim head coach.
Haden has had two major hires at USC. Men’s basketball coach Andy Enfield was never more than a small school flash in the pan, and has been an unmitigated failure at USC. Sarkisian was the other major hire. Maybe he was the right choice and maybe he wasn’t. Chances are we will never know for sure. Due in large part to the USC administration’s ineptitude at personal and professional crisis management, the most likely scenario is that at the end of the season we will hear that Sarkisian is stepping down to continue his process of overcoming his challenges. Haden will move onto the search for his fifth football coach….or the school will be looking for its next athletic director and football coach.
EDITOR’S NOTE: As of 4:35pm Monday afternoon, USC Athletic Director Pat Haden announced he had fired Stave Sarkisian as USC head coach. Had said, “after careful consideration,” he did what he felt he had to do for the good of the student-athletes and the university.