Steve Sarkisian Handling Raises Questions About USC, Pat Haden

By Ty Duffy

Steve Sarkisian was sent home by USC on Sunday. Subsequent reports highlighted the extent of his issues with alcohol. Monday, USC fired him. It’s hard to assess this decision with imperfect information. But, the move raises some questions.

First, alcoholism, or any form of addiction, isn’t simple sports column fare. It’s a complicated problem. The cause contains some moral element. The effect is that of a disease. A person’s brain and body become dependent and prey to compulsions. Deceit toward others and oneself becomes manifest. The addict is out of control and, in a very real sense, becomes a different person.

It’s not easy for significant others and intimate family members to identify, much less manage. Compound the difficulty when it is friends or colleagues at a greater remove. Is Steve blowing off steam? Does Steve have a grave, life-altering problem? It’s a hard, painful question to ask. The answer may only be clear in retrospect.

While a diagnosis explains erratic, destructive behavior and elicits sympathy and understanding. It doesn’t absolve the person entirely or mitigate the very real damage caused to others.

In an ideal world, an employer would work with the employee to get the help they need. Were Steve Sarkisian another USC employee, it’s easier to see things working out that way. The terms of employment for typical employees are different. But, we’ve seen universities stand by faculty members accused of worse, even high-profile ones.

However, the head football coach is no ordinary faculty member. He is, in most cases, the public face of the university. At a school such as USC, he is the integral cog of a multi-million dollar business with hundreds of employees. The title and the salary come with a greater responsibility.

We can’t say what Pat Haden knew, when he knew it, and to what extent he was complicit. From the outside, it seems implausible he and other staffers were caught off guard on Sunday. But, we don’t know.

At the absolute minimum, Sarkisian’s incident with alcohol and prescription drugs in August should have raised questions. Judging from the reporting, even a modicum of due diligence would have uncovered the extent of the problem. Either that didn’t happen, or a serious judgement error was made to allow him to continue coaching.

College football coaches have lost positions over alcohol related incidents. Gary Moeller resigned at Michigan in 1995 after an alcohol-fueled arrest. Mike Price was let go before coaching a game at Alabama in 2003 after multiple drunken incidents. College football coaches have survived alcohol-related incidents. Gary Pinkel was not fired for his 2011 DUI. While the reported pattern is disturbing, no specific Sark incident rose to that level.

We’ve also seen high-profile college athletic programs weather coaches taking an extended leave for health reasons, albeit not, to some extent, self-inflicted ones.

One must ask what role performance played here. Sarkisian’s firing came in the immediate aftermath of a disappointing Washington loss at home, dropping the Trojans to 3-2. Many saw the writing on the wall for him before the alcohol context came out. In a practical sense, firing Sarkisian hit the reset button on an underwhelming coaching hire, which Haden was responsible for.

We’ve seen programs weather coaches taking an extended leave for health reasons. If USC is 5-0 and Sark looks like the next Urban Meyer does he get the chance to go to rehab and come back? Perhaps a better question: If USC is 5-0, does Sark showing up to a Sunday morning meeting intoxicated even make it public?