BY Art Thiel 06:30AM 08/26/2015

Thiel: Fight on? No. USC’s Sark needs time out

Successful at a young age, Steve Sarkisian seems to think of himself as bulletproof. If the toughest consequence of being drunk in public is some up-downs, USC is enabling his worst aspects.

Steve Sarkisian with his former recruiting ace, assistant coach Tosh Lupoi — bros who knew how to work the corners. / Drew Sellers, Sportspress Northwest

Quite honestly, whenever Steve Sarkisian begins a statement with the phrase, “quite honestly,” there’s a good chance he isn’t being quite honest. Consider that USC’s football coach used his pet phrase in a press conference Tuesday at USC, saying he didn’t have a drinking problem, but was going to undergo “treatment” anyway.

If he isn’t ready to admit that he and booze together are trouble, the former Washington Huskies football coach is better off skipping the treatment and accepting a suspension for being a drunken lout in front of USC boosters Saturday at a campus event. Especially if he chooses to use the “mixing meds and alcohol” crutch — the last refuge of the celebrity excuse-maker.

Even if it were true, he shouldn’t have said so, because it implies poor judgment worse than what is already obvious.

He knew after practice that day that he was going to an important annual function that mandated he be at his best. Not only did he “accidentally” mess up his meds, he didn’t have the self-discipline to check himself before he reached the podium, and perhaps ask that someone take his place because he “felt ill.”

A lack of self-discipline has always been a rap against Sarkisian. His first head-coaching job at any level of football came at the Pac-12 Conference level at Washington, heady stuff for a 34-year-old who blossomed under the mentorship of Pete Carroll. His second job came at USC, one of the nation’s premier programs and schools.

A fella might just get to believe, at 41, he was bulletproof.

And it might just be true, if he suffers no public consequence beyond, “You’ve been a bad boy, Stevie — promise to never do it again.”

So far, Pat Haden, the athletic director who hired him at USC, has given him a stern public scolding. That stands in contrast to what happened 20 years ago at another equally prestigious program, the University of Michigan. Six days after he was jailed for being drunk and belligerent at a restaurant, football coach Gary Moeller was forced to resign.

He was so drunk that instead of keeping him at the Oakland County Jail, police transferred him to a hospital, fearing alcohol poisoning. Afterward, police released a recording of Moeller at the hospital. The partial transcript:

“I don’t go out to get drunk. My wife was with me. And all of a sudden, this big thing breaks out. This isn’t the intent. . . . No, I don’t want any mercy. I don’t want that. You won’t going to let me go? I understand why you can’t let me go. And I understand. . . . Do you know how embarrassing this is? . . . I want to keep this . . . thing from my kids. . . . I don’t want my kids to see me that way.”

There but for the grace of Troy, went Sark. Not arrested, not fired, not suspended, but at least humiliated — looking stupid in front of his own kids, his recruited kids and their parents who have a reasonable expectation that the head coach should know right from wrong.

This episode is not a mistake. Getting five when two is added to two, that’s a mistake.

In the hall of coaching misdeeds, being drunk and stupid in public is, as long as no one was hurt, not the worst thing. He richly deserves all the mockery, derision and snark.

At least the players knew the gravity of the situation. Asked by Sarkisian what punishment he deserved, they voted on a series of up-downs at practice.

Times have changed, Gary Moeller.

When Sarkisian was at Washington, rumors were steady of his carousing at high-end bars. But because nothing was caught on a video or a police report, the rumors stayed rumors.

But a football-recruiting episode on his watch at Washington, and a bizarre game-day stunt at USC using Haden as stooge, offered indications of a guy looking for a workaround when he it came to rules. The full Neuheisel, as it were.

The $100-bills-in-a-coffee-cup scandal-ette in 2013 developed when a local high school coach alleged that Sarkisian’s prized recruiting coordinator / assistant coach, Tosh Lupoi, poached away from Cal at high cost, gave $4,500 to provide tutorial services for a UW recruit. Lupoi was Sarkisian’s path to “gets” the Huskies no longer were getting.

Even though the Inspector Clouseaus of the NCAA did not recommend a violation, the story — of hiding cash payments in coffee cups and restaurant cushions — was so minor-league loopy that it couldn’t have been made up.

The more troubling episode came in Sarkisian’s first year at USC when, in his second game, Sarkisian was so furious with officiating calls that he summoned Haden from the pressbox to the sideline, imploring him to do something about those mean ol’ refs.

No one who witnessed the episode could recall its like in college football. Talk about the University of Spoiled Children.

Then there was the preseason episode when CB and captain Josh Shaw claimed that both his ankles were injured in a leap from a balcony because he was attempting to rescue a drowning child at an apartment-complex pool. The story sounded like great publicity, so Sarkisian approved its distribution via the school’s sports information department.

The truth came out quickly from eyewitnesses and LAPD: There was no rescue. Shaw was running out of the apartment of his girlfriend, with whom he had an argument. Cops were at the door.

No crime was discovered. But Sarkisian, duped by a player, looked foolish. And by association, so did Haden.

These episodes are linked by a lack of judgment surprising for a major college football coach — or a belief that he thinks he’s bulletproof.

It’s hard to say from a distance whether Sarkisian needs clinical help with an alcohol problem. But he is the last guy I would trust to say he doesn’t have a problem, or that, as he claimed Tuesday, he’s already punishing himself.

In April, a story came out that his wife, Stephanie, had filed for divorce. Two months later, he put up for sale their estate in Rolling Hills for $9.5 million, a year after buying it for $8 million.

Judging by his looks and manner in the video, this is a man under extreme pressure. Haden needs to man up and realize Sarkisian needs time away from football and some serious counseling, for the sake of everyone concerned.

This is not the time to fight on.



  • Tian Biao

    great column – what fun! I’m loving this whole thing. Art, thanks for reminding us of his past misdeeds. ps, there is a silver lining for Sark: he moved to USC to feed his family, and now, apparently, he has one less family to feed.

    • LA_Banker

      Sark has his problems (as Thiel rightly notes), but deeming the dissolution of his family a “silver lining” is pretty unsavory.

      • Tian Biao

        oh come on, where’s your sense of humor? you can be pretty sure that Sark has heard worse.

        • art thiel

          Sark made himself an easy target and invited the inevitable pile-on.

      • art thiel

        This sort of mean humor is the result of a world with vanished privacy.

    • art thiel

      Tian with the zinger. It is laughable — as much as it is lamentable.

  • Joe

    You do know that Gary Moeller PUNCHED A COP that night? What a disingenuous article.

    • Pixdawg13

      You think that Sark wouldn’t have done that? He’s too wussy, is all. Moeller’s actually a tough guy. Sark? Not so much.

      • art thiel

        Well, as Sark said, you never know when mixing booze and meds . . .

    • dingle

      What’s the disingenuous part?

      Sark apparently has an issue with booze. The “I mixed it with medications” line is complete horse droppings, and he should be fired just for resorting to that bit of stupidity.

      Haden can’t fire him (yet) because he hand-picked him. Anyone else would have been looking for a job Monday.

      • art thiel

        Not sure it was fire-worthy. No one was hurt, just mortified.

        Haden is getting hung by the rope he’s giving Sark.

        • dingle

          OK, the bit about being fired for using that lame excuse was a bit of hyperbole, granted. It was fun to write, though.

          But I think if the coach had been someone that Haden inherited instead of hired, there’s a nonzero chance he would have been shown the door.

          It will be interesting to see how much more rope Haden will roll out for Sark. If the Trojans underperform, Haden might not have much to give.

          • art thiel

            Obviously Haden was invested in Sark, so he’ll get rope, especially after the Kiffin awkwardness.

            USC is nearly as clumsy as Washington was with football.

          • douglas fur

            Maybe Haden will luck out and the incident will cause Sark to straighten out for the season. It’s hard to have sympathy for Sarisian, as a Duck I felt bad for his cutting out on the Dawgs*, but with that level of self sabotage he definitly needs to get his head straightened out. It smells like someone who is in over his head and can’t admit to himself he can’t handle what’s happening in his life. A cry for help if I ever heard one.

            Seola Creek

            * a day late and a dolar short this line comes to mind- “oozing charm from every pore, he oiled his way…” out the door.

    • art thiel

      Moeller did hit a cop. And several other things that made his evening a fireable offense. I never said Sark should be fired. I said he should take time away to get help. Whether he’s suspended is up to the university’s behavior policy, should the Trojans have one.

  • bigyaz

    So easy to take shots at the guy once he leaves town and goes to a rival. Where are the links to all the tough columns you wrote about Sarkisian when he was at UW?

    • art thiel

      He never was drunk in front of a mic where I heard him. You sound like a guy who might be a Raise The Woof attendee. You tell me whether he did same.

  • Its onlySports(DavidWakefield)

    It certainly ranks right up there in the what can I do to make myself look like a head coaching “buffoon” Dep’t. not to mention he is the Pac12 head honcho Pinocchio in doling out the truth… we got plenty of that when rumors were swirling about the next USC head coach…Good ole Sark~he let on Washington was his dream job he was all Husky he wasn’t going anywhere and Boom!Literally before he had a chance to inhale after that statement he was a Trojan again.
    He still doesn’t beat Mike Price in the lets get drunk and do something beyond stupid category(Drunkenness and strippers in your motel room )then cover up lies that only served to add further embarrassment before he was fired from what some call the most prostedious Job in America as Alabama coach but

    • art thiel

      It’s why I wrote that he thinks he’s bulletproof. Rules don’t apply to him.

  • poulsbogary

    Re the booze and meds: he mixed them? or mixed them up? big difference.

    • art thiel

      If the claim is true, he, or someone close to him, should have denied him the podium. Maybe they all mixed their booze and meds.

  • PokeyPuffy

    My schadenfreude index is off the charts! Personal feelings aside tho, this is a really awkward episode, and very telling. He comes across with such supremacy and arrogance, and now he is finding himself living in a world with consequences.

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    • art thiel

      Haden overlooked knowable background issues in hiring Sark. Giving him such a prestigious job won’t fix any of the problems. Just make them worse.

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