Cheering for Steve Sarkisian to Win A Crucial Victory

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Following the events involving Steve Sarkisian for the past week was gut-wrenching.

I covered USC football in Sarkisian’s first season, and I think back to the season finale. It was less than 10 months ago, last December in the Holiday Bowl.

Sarkisian seemed so energetic, so happy. The immediate future of USC football looked bright as Sark talked of tackling the program’s lofty ambitions in the years to come.

Coming off a nine-win debut, returning a host of young talent and bringing more aboard in a loaded recruiting class, there was little reason to doubt the Trojans — and Sarkisian — would hit the big time soon enough.

Fast forward to last Thursday, Sarkisian’s last game as USC head coach. I was as close to him on the Coliseum turf as I’d been last December in the Qualcomm Stadium press room, no more than 10 feet away.

The scene was so different. The eager anticipation was replaced with frustration and doubt. Sarkisian’s energetic proclamations of the future were replaced with angry boos and abuse from the few USC fans who remained after the Trojans’ 17-12 loss to Washington — coincidentally, the same Washington program from which Sarkisian had been hired away.

This is the reality of college football, if not sports in general. It’s a volatile yin-and-yang in which you’re either a winner or loser. There’s no in-between, and these are the labels that define coaches.

Sarkisian’s battle with alcohol abuse and the toll it’s taken on his career is an uncomfortable reminder that behind the winner or loser label applied to coaches, players, even administrators are human beings.

Sark’s reminder has been emotionally challenging for me both because my proximity to it, and the introspection it’s demanded of me.

***

Coaches and players exist as television characters who show up once a week to entertain us, no different than the cast of a favorite TV show.

Sure, they show up throughout the week in various capacities, largely as a reminder to tune in on Saturday. Even then, they’re still just TV personalities.

I always gravitated toward human interest coverage of athletes, first as a reader then as a writer when I first got into the business. I found that facet of sports journalism interesting, if not necessary, particularly now in a landscape dominated by hot takes.

It’s especially important when dealing with college athletes. Though they perform at a high level and command the attention of millions, they’re still 18-to-23-year-old young adults; not paid professionals.

Even then, there’s only so much you can know about a person talking for a few minutes here and there.

Moreover, some athletes are going to be nice, forthright and/or engaging; some will be aloof or just outright jerks. They’re no different than any other collection of people in any other walk of life.

Covering college football coaches does differ from the players in that these are paid professionals; well-paid professionals at that. Harsh as it may be, failure elicits criticism.

And, whereas only the most boneheaded would demand an unsuccessful college player have his scholarship, just about anyone who follows the game and has a pulse has an opinion on whether a coach should be fired.

His personality doesn’t really matter.

Sarkisian scored a few big wins in his abbreviated tenure at USC: at Stanford, at Arizona, Notre Dame, Nebraska. He also suffered some confounding losses: Boston College, the Jael Mary vs. Arizona State, and most recently, the Washington defeat.

With the expectations inherent at USC — expectations Sarkisian himself brought up often — he was bound to draw criticism for the losses, no matter his off-field conduct.

Had Sark been fired this week simply for lack of results, I doubt I’d be writing how interim head coach Clay Helton opened his address to reporters Tuesday saying, “Coach Sark is a very, very good man.”

Shows of support from current and ex-players, like Leonard Williams, might not mean as much.

I’d probably think less of stories like how Sark reached out to Jim Mora when the latter hurt his knee skiing. Mora was out of coaching when Sarkisian welcomed him into Washington football, something that the current UCLA head coach credits for sparking his interest in the college game.

Wins and losses define coaches, but they don’t always define people. Steve Sarkisian, the person, is chasing a W he has to have. It’s a victory that, regardless of anyone’s team affiliation, all should be cheering him on to succeed.

***

Mental health issues still come with stigma in our society. Addiction and substance abuse fall under the mental health umbrella.

It’s all too easy to dismiss the mental health battles a wealthy celebrity faces because notoriety and money are upheld as ultimate virtues — especially money.

I won’t pretend to know the struggle Steve Sarkisian faces. I do however empathize, knowing firsthand how difficult and painful internal strife can be.

For me, it was spending much of my teens into my college years feeling inadequate. My first coping mechanism was overcompensation, a false arrogance in response to the slights (real or perceived) I felt.

This only served to turn my perceived alienation into the real kind. By the time I realized this, I did a 180-degree turn and oftentimes tried too hard to prove myself by pleasing others.

When you’re an insecure 20-something, working in an industry where compliments and meaningful feedback are scarce, chasing back-pats is an action akin to banging your head against a wall repeatedly.

I worked in a job I hated, under someone I believe hated me, going nowhere professionally or creatively while I watched friends move on.

The Sark news rattled me in part because I think back to this difficult time in my life and realize how dangerously close I stood to crossing that line.

You have a drink to mask your sadness, anger and pain and only further fuel the sadness, anger and pain. I escaped my bad situation at the right time, but more importantly, my wife was a rock who helped me get to the light at the end of the tunnel.

That I had that light to chase also helped me. My heart breaks for Sarkisian because I can’t fathom the pain of reaching a dream as he had, and it not being enough to erase his struggle.

Money, success, stature: These are things our society values above all else, but none have the gravity of our own mental health.

I hope Coach Sark lightens that load in the days, weeks and months to come, and it makes the pursuit of his passion more meaningful.

Helton said Tuesday Sarkisian loves coaching the game of football, and the USC program is cheering him onto a return to his passion.

Based on Sark’s last public address, the below message from his Twitter account, the feeling is mutual.

Fight On, Coach Sark.