USC Athletic Director Pat Haden hasn’t had an easy job the past few years. Trying to unearth himself from the collosal collapse that was the Lane Kiffin Era, Haden found a ray of hope. With an unruly fan base, a team that wasn’t playing together, and a football legacy that was falling apart in front of him, Haden reached to Coach Ed Orgeron for help. And Coach O saved him. The team came together. They started to have fun again. They started winning again. They nearly upset Notre Dame on the road. THEY UPSET STANFORD. And yet all of that wasn’t enough to give Orgeron, who admittedly was “underqualified” for the job by the standard book, a shot.
Haden went with former USC assistant and coordinator, and now former Washington head coach, Steve Sarkisian, for the job. I’m not here to pass my judgement on the hiring. To be honest, I want to wait and see results on the field before I make a decision on the move. There are few people in the world who know what Sark really has in store for USC, and those are the people who have already been mentioned in this article. Anyone else’s opinion on the situation, including my own, is merely speculation. But I do want to talk about the victim of all of this, a man who brought Trojan Pride back for thousands of fans, a man that I will miss seeing on the USC sidelines in any form: Coach O.
Coach O’s magical 6-2 run as interim head coach can be summed up in one word: Fun. Simply put, Orgeron brought fun back to USC football. Think about the time when SC was the most successful, the Pete Carroll era. Carroll is known for being an energetic coach who acts like one of the guys. The Trojans of the mid 2000’s loved playing for Carroll because they felt like they were playing with Pete, not for Pete. Carroll tried to identify himself as one of the guys, and it immediately bred success. The program went down in flames because Lane Kiffin was unable to change his rigid ways, sucking the fun out of the game, and turning it more into a business for a team of players that weren’t benefiting from it in anyway, along with the crippling sanctions of course.
USC reflects on the town that it’s in: Los Angeles. LA is a laid back town, a town that loves to have fun. That’s what the USC team is like. Now that’s not to say that it’s a good thing, but it’s simply another way to breed success from a football team that takes on the characteristics of it’s town and it’s coach. A team like Alabama thrives under Nick Saban because they buy into his no nonsense, work hard all the time mindset, and that is why they have been so successful. The teams of Matt Leinart, LenDale White, and “he who shall not be named” were so successful because, just like Alabama does with Saban, they bought into the Pete Carroll mindset of football. The important thing to remember is that there is no right way to do it as both have led to multiple national titles. The problem arises when a team and a coach have a different mindset or outlook on the game, as SC often did with Kiffin.
This USC team bought into Coach O’s system. They stood by Orgeron, not as a dominant, overseeing leader, but as a brother in battle on the field every week. How many times this year did you hear players like Cody Kessler, Dion Bailey, and others say “We will go through a wall for Coach O,” or “You will have to take me out on a stretcher to not play for Coach.” But talking about it only does so much. Just watch this.
Marqise Lee, who had been hobbled by a leg injury the entire fourth quarter, caught this pass to keep the game winning drive going. After the play, he wasn’t able to walk off the field, needing to be carried off, and he wouldn’t play another snap that game. That’s what Coach O brought to this team. Do you really think Lee would have played that hard for Kiffin? Doubt it. Could he play that hard for Sark? Sure, but Sark will have to earn that love and respect that Coach O already had.
Perhaps even more important than the immediate production we saw unfold in front of our eyes being lost by Coach O’s departure is the virtual no-win scenario that Coach Sark is now inheriting. It won’t be long before we truly find out how the players feel about this move. They can talk all they want about how great or bad it is, but next August, on USC’s opening day, we will see what Sark is doing for this team. But imagine what is going to happen the first time USC falls. The majority of Trojan fans had bought into Coach O. How quickly will the “Fire Sark” chants start coming in? After the first loss? The first interception of the season? The first negative play?! Clearly I’m exaggerating, but we all know some fans will be chomping at the bit to rip Sark apart the first chance they get. If Haden had stuck with Coach O, he wouldn’t have to worry about this. Now, he does, and it’s a big concern.
I can’t in good conscious finish this article without acknowledging the notable fault on Coach O’s resume. In three seasons at Ole Miss, Orgeron’s only head coaching job, he went 16-27, with only two wins over team with winning records at the end of the season. For all intents and purposes, he was terrible at Ole Miss, but bear in mind he inherited a bad team in the toughest conference in the nation, the SEC. Coach O got what USC was all about, and his record this year indicated that he was doing learning fast on the job. Just like anyone in their chosen profession, they get better over time, and Coach O would have done the same at USC, and will do at whatever school is lucky enough to get him.
I don’t know what the future holds for USC. No one does. The only thing I know is that I would have been more confident, had more hope, felt more pride for my team, if Coach O had stayed on. He deserved better. I saw a tweet earlier that perfectly described how this season has gone for USC: “Lane Kiffin was fired on the bus. Coach O was thrown under it.” I hope and believe that better days are ahead for USC. It’s tough to feel confident in that today.