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Can Steve Sarkisian Really Take USC Back to Its Golden Days?

Between the years 2002-2008, the USC football team never lost more than two games in a single season. The Trojans won the Rose Bowl four times and the Orange Bowl twice. Their lowest finish in the AP poll was No. 4.

Remember those days? You’d be forgiven if you don’t, for they seem like a lifetime ago. That USC, the one seemingly in a perpetual highlight reel, when losing was as uncommon as snow in southern California, is a figure of the distant past.

We are now in an age where that perpetual highlight reel is a perpetual punch line. Lane Kiffin, Reggie Bush, the entire 2010 season (it’s nothing short of a miracle they finished 10-4), now Steve Sarkisian — it has been one disaster after the next.

On the field, USC’s relative struggles are understandable. The NCAA brought down the hammer with its draconian sanctions that stemmed from the Bush saga. Kiffin was playing with a deck stacked far in the opposing team’s favor, and compounded the problem by becoming a PR nightmare. And it’s there, off the field, that USC can’t seem to get out of its own way, and with Sarkisian at the helm, it’s a wonder when it might stop.

Sark is currently in his second season as the Trojans’ head coach, and he’s had more vexing incidents in his brief tenure than most coaches do in 10.

There was the bizarre story about cornerback Josh Shaw, who injured his ankle prior to last season and fabricated a story about how he was saving his nephew from drowning. His nephew was not drowning. There was no nephew. He was having a loud argument with his girlfriend, prompting the neighbors to call the police, and he jumped off the balcony to avoid the cops.

13 November 2014: USC head coach Steve Sarkisian congratulates USC Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler (6) after throwing for a touchdown during an NCAA football game between the California Golden Bears and the USC Trojans at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, CA.

13 November 2014: USC head coach Steve Sarkisian congratulates USC Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler (6) after throwing for a touchdown during an NCAA football game between the California Golden Bears and the USC Trojans at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, CA.

That was, in retrospect, the first sign portending another underwhelming season. In Week 2, against Stanford, Sarkisian texted AD Pat Haden to come down onto the field because of a bad call. There was at least no midnight firing at an airport, but USC finished 9-4 with a team that should have never finished 9-4. But then again, should we expect more from Sarkisian?

He’s a career 43-33 coach who, in his five years at Washington, never finished better than 5-4 in league play. We should expect more from USC, yes, for it’s one of the most historically dominant teams in the history of NCAA football, owners of 11 national championships, 33 bowl victories, 163 All-Americans, six Heismans and 477 NFL players. It has been some time since it showed semblances of that program.

Now the Trojans are slotted at No. 8 in the AP poll and pegged to win the Pac-12, and they couldn’t even make it to the season opener with Arkansas State before Sarkisian made inexplicable headlines again. His actions at the annual “Salute to Troy” event, in which he appeared inebriated and could be heard cursing and claiming that the top Pac-12 powers “suck,” are unforgivable.

Some might argue that it’s just a banquet, and one curse word and a few drinks aren’t too terrible, but this is the biggest non-game event of the year for the football team. Sarkisian should know better. He did know better. He just messed up — again.

USC has full scholarships available again, and one of the best on-paper rosters in the country. There is no reason the Trojans should not contend for the Pac-12, and national, title.

If the past two years are any indicator, the only thing that may hold them back may be the man who is supposed to be leading them.

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