LOS ANGELES — Steve Sarkisian confidently strode into the John McKay Center on Tuesday and immediately embraced both the lofty standards set by past Southern California coaches and the sky-high hopes of all Trojans football fans.
“We will not shy away from the expectations here,” USC’s new head coach said. “We’re here to win championships. I wouldn’t have taken this job just to come home. … Rebuilding is not a word around here. Coach O proved that.”
A day after hiring Sarkisian away from Washington, USC athletic director Pat Haden formally introduced him as the replacement for Lane Kiffin and interim coach Ed Orgeron, who led the Trojans to a 9-4 regular season.
Sarkisian, a Los Angeles-area native, was joined by his wife and three children. His parents sat in the front row at the school where their 39-year-old son was briefly a baseball player before three stints as an assistant coach under Pete Carroll.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I felt I had to take advantage of,” Sarkisian said. “The timing was right to do this. I think we’re going to do great things, and I couldn’t be more fired up to do it at home in front of my family and friends.”
Sarkisian believes he’s better prepared to take over a program of USC’s profile after the last five seasons at Washington, where he went 34-29 and turned a decimated program into a perennial bowl team. He left for the Huskies one year before Carroll bolted for the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, and Sarkisian believes the timing worked out to his advantage.
“I’ve had five years to learn to be a head football coach,” Sarkisian said. “I don’t know if I would have been ready five years ago. There’s a reason this is the best job in the country. It’s a big job. Today, I feel great about where I’m at as a football coach and a person.”
Sarkisian had a three-hour interview Sunday with Haden, who claimed Sarkisian was the only coach offered the job. Haden called Sarkisian “a proven, successful leader with significant head coaching experience that has built a sustainable program aligned with USC’s tradition.”
Orgeron resigned Monday and left behind a roster of confused, weary players. Sarkisian will stay in the wings while offensive coordinator Clay Helton coaches the Trojans in their bowl game later this month, but the new coach knows he’s got plenty of work to do in recruiting and staff hires to solidify the foundation of a national title contender.
He also knows he’ll have to smooth hurt feelings about the departure of Orgeron, who earned serious consideration for the full-time job after going 6-2 with losses to Notre Dame and UCLA.
“I understand it stings right now,” said Sarkisian, who recruited more than half of the Trojans’ current roster for USC or Washington. “Over time, it will get better. I’m going to be real with those guys, and they’ll be real with me.”
Only a few players attended Sarkisian’s news conference, although they included quarterback Cody Kessler, who was on the verge of choosing Washington out of high school before USC called — a familiar lament for Sarkisian with the Huskies.
Kessler was impressed by Sarkisian’s performance at a hastily called team meeting Monday night, a few hours after Orgeron announced his departure in a tearful, painful gathering.
“After the Coach O meeting, guys were freaking out,” Kessler said. “It was unreal. I was really proud of the way (Sarkisian) handled that situation. The guys like me who know him well, we weren’t surprised how he immediately came in and helped guys start to get over it.”
Haden confirmed he made strenuous attempts to keep Orgeron on the USC staff, but was rebuffed. The AD referred to Orgeron as “one of the greatest Trojans of them all.”
“I hope he goes somewhere and makes me look like an idiot,” Haden said.
Kiffin, who coached alongside Sarkisian for much of their USC tenure, was fired by Haden in late September after a 3-2 start to his fourth season in charge.
Although he went 28-15 and had a standout season in 2011, Kiffin had an awful fall from a preseason No. 1 ranking in 2012 and never reached the heights expected by USC’s zealous fans and alumni. His standoffish personality also alienated people used to the folksy, convivial Carroll.
Sarkisian is much more in Carroll’s mode, carrying himself with more ease and confidence than Kiffin. He’s also considered a formidable recruiter in the Los Angeles area whose job just got much easier.
“A lot of the kids that have committed here, I’ve already got them on my radar,” Sarkisian said. “We’re going to assemble a tremendous staff to make all that happen.”