by Garry Paskwietz
They say bad things happen in threes, and today was one of those days for the USC football program.
The first bad thing to happen, obviously, was the biggest. It started with the fact that Steve Sarkisian showed up at a team meeting this morning in a condition that has been described as inebriated, loaded, or a few other choice words. There are some who claim he was drunk, others who say it may have been prescription meds. At this point, does it really matter?
Don’t get me wrong when it comes to Sarkisian and any personal issues he may have. I really do hope that Steve gets whatever professional help he needs because, by all accounts, he needs it. But when it comes to the USC football team, and the situation this morning, it quickly became apparent to people around him that he was not fit to be speaking in front of the team, and he was quickly stopped from doing so.
When the team showed up on the practice field at 12:30, Sarkisian was nowhere to be found. That was certainly odd, as the head coach just doesn’t miss a practice. Then 1:00 came and went, still no Sarkisian, and then 1:30, and suddenly Pat Haden and J.K. McKay were on the field huddling with USC sports information director Tim Tessalone. It was clear something was going on. When practice ended shortly before 2:00, and a time when Sarkisian usually meets with the press to discuss what had happened that day, instead it was Tessalone telling the assembled folks to head to a conference room in Heritage Hall.
There it was Haden and offensive coordinator Clay Helton who met with the media. For anyone who has seen the video, Haden clearly looks worn from the process. Pat Haden is a decent man but there are parts of this job that do not fit him, and dealing with a tough situation like this is one of them. Haden said he had been at the basketball team season tip-off event when he got a call explaining the status of Sarkisian not being at football practice. He said he called Steve, who told Haden he was not healthy, and Pat told him to take an indefinite leave of absence. There were no further details given to the media regarding that conversation, or why Sarkisian was specifically absent from practice.
There will be plenty of talk in the coming days about the earlier Salute to Troy incident with Sarkisian, and questions asking if Haden chose the proper course of action at the time. Those will all be fair to ask. For now, however, the focus will turn to Helton and the job of guiding the Trojans through the remainder of the schedule, which starts this week with a trip to South Bend to face the Irish. Welcome to the job Clay.
Only Helton doesn’t really need a full introduction to the interim head coach status at USC, he has been here before in 2013 for the Las Vegas Bowl and guided the team to a bowl win. The circumstances will be a little different this time around, of course, as it’s not the Fresno State Bulldogs waiting, it will be Notre Dame on the 10th anniversary of the Bush Push, and then a trip back home to face undefeated Utah. That would be a tough back-to-back for any team, much less one that has had to deal with as much as this group.
But there just might be a silver lining to hold onto because if any group of players is prepared to handle the mid-season loss of a coach and a potential turn-around of good fortune, it is the Trojans and their upperclassmen who went through this two short years ago after the firing of Lane Kiffin and the joyous ride under Ed Orgeron.
One player who went through all that was senior center and team captain Max Tuerk, but his status was the second piece of bad news on the day when it was announced that he tore a ligament in his right knee last Thursday against Washington and will be out for the year. The Trojans do have a capable option in Toa Lobendahn, but any time you lose a player like Tuerk who is one of the best in the nation at his position it is always a blow.
Finally, the third bad news update of the day came with the twitter post from Daelin Hayes that he would be de-committing from USC. Hayes is a 6-4, 250 linebacker/rush end from Michigan who had long been one of the more vocal commits in terms of his love for the Trojans. There was a brief dalliance earlier in the season with Notre Dame, one that came notably on the heels of the Salute to Troy incident, but a campus visit last month from Hayes and his mother seemed to calm any fears and he signed financial aid papers shortly after that trip with a goal of enrolling at USC for the spring semester.
It remains to be seen if USC will still have a shot to re-sign him, one imagines a lot would hinge on the choice of the next coach, but in the meantime the Trojans have lost a commitment from a solid prospect, and you never want that to happen.
All in all, it just wasn’t a good day for USC. The Trojan program seems to have been through so much in recent years, so much upheaval and turmoil, and at some point you just want to see things settle down and return to the steady dominance we have all seen before. Maybe that process starts on Monday.