USC and ASU: The Mouths that Roared

Mike Merrell FishWrap, FishWrap Archive

Mike Merrell’s Three-and-Out

By this time next week, half of the teams in the country will no longer be undefeated. As the season progresses and more teams fall, reality will set in for more and more fan bases — and coaches.

Positive, confident outlooks are to be expected, but there are good reasons for coaches to know how far to take it. Overconfidence is not pretty – and neither is the fruit it bears.

Unfortunately, some coaches slept through that lesson. At least one was maybe just too drunk for it to sink in. Bravado — loosely defined as putting your mouth where you wish your achievements were — is the subject of this week’s Three-and-Out.

1. USC and the Five Stages of Grief. It’s old news that USC head coach Steve Sarkisian got drunk at a booster event, used foul language, and let the world know that Oregon, Arizona State and Notre Dame “suck.” Since Sark is 1-10 against the three he seems to be admitting that his coaching has got some distance to go before it climbs the ladder to the “sucks” level. But that’s beside the point.

The bigger issue now is USC’s (lack of) reaction to Sarkisian’s misconduct. The initial reaction — as shown on the now infamous video — is cheering and waving pompoms. Cheering a foul-mouthed and drunk leader is bad enough, but the real shame is that after the heat of the moment, there was no visible institutional discipline beyond “Don’t do it again.”

The first of the five stages of grief is denial, and while many USC supporters are rightfully calling for Sarkisian’s ouster, he remains endorsed by the administration — and his drama continues to haunt the program. According to Kevin McGuire of, Sarkisian said, “I truly believe in myself as a coach to lead this team and to be the best coach for this team to go win a championship.”

His team — firmly in denial — apparently has, for now, bought it. But let’s get real — the best coach to lead that team to a championship is a guy who’s just gone on double secret probation for personal conduct and is going through a divorce? A coach who is 43-33 as a head coach with a ho-hum 2-2 record in second-tier bowl games? If that’s the best you can do for a coach, I guess you go with it.

Steve Srkisian seeks salvation.

Seeking salvation — or looking for a place to sleep it off?

Nonetheless, USC’s failure to impose any sanctions on Sarkisian — or put him on leave of absence to work out his issues — sends a poor message to the athletes, supposedly less mature people who would draw suspensions with that sort of behavior. It’s also a bit of an insult to coaches everywhere, who despite having two less digits in their annual salary still serve as exemplary role models for their athletes. Beyond that, it’s an affront to all working people who manage to avoid publicly embarrassing their employers and know they’d be canned if they pulled a Sarkisian.

Deflated ball, a midseason midnight firing, explaining away trashed ankles with story book heroics … It has been one thing after another for USC. Despite Sarkisian’s bravado, the program clearly just doesn’t have it together. And the man who shows up drunk at a major fund raiser and has other off-field issues to boot isn’t the one to put Humpty Dumpty together again. He has been charged with the impossible task of putting his tail between his legs and then being the alpha male. But as a Ducks fan you’ve got to love it that USC thinks this will work.

The second stage of grief is anger. When the Trojans get to that point — after losing a game or two — this is going to get ugly. Bargaining, depression and acceptance follow.

2. Arizona State and Elite Overstatements. ASU coach Todd Graham is an exceptionally ambitious coach and Arizona State is well-positioned to become a threat at the national level. But when it comes to setting and expressing goals, Graham just doesn’t get it.

As reported by, Graham has openly declared that the goal for his team is to win the 2016 National Championship. Granted, this is theoretically possible — after all, Arizona State is one of only 128 undefeated teams in I-A at this time.

But it’s not highly likely, and publicly declaring lofty goals that are not highly likely has a number of downsides, despite Graham’s self-adulation that it represents “elite thinking.”

In 2012 Graham expected this rookie QB to fold on the road in Sun Devil Stadium. Halftime: 43-7, Oregon.

In 2012 Graham expected this rookie QB to fold on the road in Sun Devil Stadium. Halftime: 43-7, Oregon.

First off, it isn’t elite thinking. The truly elite let their actions do the talking. Second, while some may buy it, the “blowhard” element stands out, and blowhard too often fails to impress.

Inherent in Graham’s statement of the national championship goal is the assertion that the Sun Devils are really that good — and here’s the problem with that. Graham claims status for something he has not yet achieved. There’s something dishonest — not elite at all — in that.

But this is not out of character. Graham is quick on the draw to proclaim his team “champions.” As reported by, after last year’s Sun Bowl victory over Duke, Graham said, “There was no way we were going to finish any other way than champions. That’s the only way those seniors were going to finish was the way Pat Tillman finished — holding up that Sun Bowl trophy.”

To put this in context, this was after Arizona State scored late in the game (the Sun Bowl) to beat unranked Duke 36-31 — a few weeks after losing to Oregon State and Arizona. Cue Queen: “We Are the Champions.”

Beyond that, setting unreasonable goals opens the door for feelings of failure. Three of Arizona State’s first five games are highly losable (Texas A&M, USC and UCLA). If your goal is to win a national championship and it’s over less than halfway through the season, what do you do? Maybe finish as champions at the Sun Bowl — but it can’t leave you feeling too warm and fuzzy, no matter how much sun you put on it.

3. Appreciate what we have at Oregon. Win the Day. Fast. Hard. Finish. Oregon wins without the bravado, without overstatement. Throughout the legacy of Rich Brooks, Mike Bellotti and Chip Kelly to Mark Helfrich, Ducks fans have been spared the hype.

Speak softly and carry a big stick. -- Teddy Roosevelt

“Speak softly and carry a big stick.” — Teddy Roosevelt

That’s 38 years that include a rise from the cellar to the penthouse, accomplished with no overreaching promises and no unsavory public displays. If it’s in the cards, Helfrich is the coach to lead the team to a championship — but unlike Sarkisian he would never say it. And Helfrich’s thinking is elite — but unlike Graham, he would never think of publicly putting that label on it. He just quietly gets it done. Stirring the masses with bravado is not part of the program at Oregon.

Other Ducks quietly getting it done — On a separate but related subject, this past week the U.S. women’s 4X100 relay team took second at the World Championships. Former Ducks English Gardner and Jenna Prandini (who just announced she is going pro) ran two of the first three legs. The anchor leg was run by current Duck Jasmine Todd. Three out of four Ducks! Meanwhile, Ashton Eaton broke his own world record in the decathlon and his wife Brianne Theissen-Eaton took silver in the heptathlon. Phyllis Francis rounded out the Duck medal winners by running a semi-final leg of the U.S. 4X400 relay that finished second. All accomplished without bravado.

It is a great time to be a Duck!

Top photo from video

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