'Pete's over:' How USC's hopes of recapturing glory failed the Trojans

ByTom Friend ESPN logo
Monday, November 2, 2015

Chapter 1: Mutiny

The minute Pete Carroll "bailed" on USC for the Seattle Seahawks -- otherwise known as the day the music died -- the sullen Trojans players tried taking back the program.

It was Jan. 11, 2010, and the nine previous seasons had been college football Camelot. Two national championships ... seven seasons ending with top-5 rankings ... three Heisman Trophy winners ... five Rose Bowls ... an .836 winning percentage ... 56 players drafted into the NFL ... all under the leadership of "Attention Deficit Pete," who by then was 57 going on 20. Carroll couldn't sit still during games, so he'd sprint down the sideline alongside his kickoff coverage team. He led the Pac-10 in hugs, but would be the first one to howl "Wooooooo!" after searing hits. He once had tailback LenDale White fake his own suicide by jumping off a building (instead it was a dummy in a No. 21 jersey) just to punk his own squad. Carroll belly-laughed because some players were in tears.

The coach was so Hollywood now, he had a SAG card. He treated Snoop Dogg like royalty and local high school coaches like gold. He transformed the University of Southern California into L.A.'s quasi-pro football team, until it turned out one of his players, Reggie Bush, was a pro, all right -- having allegedly taken $300,000 from a fledgling sports marketing firm.

So that January of 2010, with the NCAA breathing down USC's neck, Carroll was on a jet to Seattle, leaving his players in the lurch. A group of upperclassmen rounded up as many players as they could for a team meeting. Rumors were rampant that Lane Kiffin -- then the mercurial head coach at the University of Tennessee -- would replace Carroll, but most players wanted nothing to do with him. Some knew of Kiffin from his prior stint as a Trojans assistant, and, according to a former player at the meeting who does not wish to be named, they considered Kiffin a "clown." The players contacted alumni and asked them to go to then-athletic director Mike Garrett on their behalf. They wanted Garrett to hear their disapproval of Kiffin, and that they had a better head coach in mind. Someone who walked like Pete, talked like Pete, ran down the sideline like Pete and could assuredly keep Camelot going like Pete.

His name was Steve Sarkisian.

Chapter 2: Rise of Troy

That same Steve Sarkisian checked himself into rehab this month for alleged addiction issues, leaving USC with its fourth head coach in three corkscrew seasons. Every once in a while, the Trojans still flex their muscles on the field -- such as last Saturday's 42-24 beatdown of No. 3 Utah -- but all the victory did was confuse a fan base that is still paying for the Carroll era more than five years later.

Half the alumni want to impeach the athletic director, the other half is stuck in 2003 -- and another mutiny is coming as sure as the Santa Ana wind. "The program is an embarrassment, man," says former Trojans linebacker Riki Ellison, who wants heads to roll. "It's worse today than when we were at the height of NCAA sanctions."

But, as they like to say out here on the Left Coast, "SC is still SC."

Traffic still stops when the team crosses McClintock Avenue to the practice field. Security guards still high-five the players. Students still say "Fight On" to each other instead of hello. Will Ferrell still hangs on the sideline. It might not make sense, but that's how much still resonates from Carroll's Camelot.

You've got to go back to understand it all.

It was the year 2000, and a surly Paul Hackett had just ruined another Trojans season, going 5-7 and finishing eighth out of 10 teams. When he was then fired by Garrett, a seething Hackett reportedly told his team, "[Garrett] is your coach now!" And considering the arduous nature of the ensuing coaching search, it almost was the truth.

Garrett's first choice to replace Hackett was Oregon State's Dennis Erickson, which confounded much of the Trojans' fan base. This was the school of John McKay and John Robinson -- who led SC to five combined national titles. This was Tailback U. This was the school whose marching band was featured in a Fleetwood Mac song ("Tusk"), whose "Song Girls" made Chris Schenkel blush, whose fair-haired quarterback of the early 1970s, Pat Haden, was a Rhodes scholar. Its campus was a landmark of downtown L.A., and its football team had been playing games since 1888. So just the mere fact that Garrett was pursuing a coach from Oregon State -- which USC used to chew up and spit out annually -- was mind-boggling.

When Erickson then had the audacity to turn the job down, that was the reality check. SC was officially a has-been. Next on the list to say no was Oregon coach Mike Bellotti. Trojan Nation was getting more embarrassed by the day. San Diego Chargers head coach Mike Riley, a former SC assistant, was reportedly next in line, and never got up the freeway. That left option No. 4, a retread named Pete Carroll.

He didn't exactly create a buzz. Carroll had failed in the NFL with the Jets and been so-so (a 1-2 playoff record) with the Patriots. He'd been fired by New England after the 1999 season and replaced by none other than Bill Belichick, who in the 2001 season would show him up and win a Super Bowl. So when he initiated his interest in the USC job in late 2000-- partly because his daughter was a volleyball player there -- few in the city were sold. At the news conference announcing the hire, T.J. Simers of the L.A. Times stood by the door saying caustically, "We'll see you back here the same time next year."

But then everyone marveled at how Carroll worked the room -- patting people on the back, talking a mile a minute and recruiting the talent-laden Southland high schools even faster than that. Over the next two years, he hired two puppy assistant coaches who could help him get the (Trojan) horses.

Kiffin and Sarkisian.

Chapter 3: Young guns

Lane Kiffin could've passed for a college sophomore. He was 25 and barely had to shave. But he also happened to be the son of Carroll's mentor, longtime NFL assistant Monte Kiffin.

At the time, Lane had been a quality control coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars, but he was a pretty boy who'd grown up around the game, and Carroll thought the college game might suit him. So he sent Lane on the road, and it wasn't long before Kiffin rewarded him by lassoing an explosive running back from Denver, LenDale White. Kiffin won White over by nicknaming him "21" -- which was the kid's jersey number -- and promising White he'd get to wear that number at USC. It seemed trivial, but Kiffin, maybe being 25 himself, knew how to push a 17-year-old's buttons.

"I know if it wasn't for Kiffin, I wouldn't have went to USC," White says now.

Kiffin's office-mate was Sarkisian, who had no tangible football lineage. Matter of fact, he had first come to USC as a walk-on baseball player, an aspiring shortstop who quit the game after seeing how good Gabe Alvarez, the starting Trojans shortstop, was. Sarkisian transferred to a junior college and was persuaded to restart his football career. He transferred to BYU and had a remarkable two-year run, setting an NCAA record by completing 31 of 34 passes (91.2 percent) in a game against Fresno State. And as senior, he passed for more than 4,000 yards and 33 touchdowns under offensive coordinator Norm Chow, who in 2001 had taken over that same role at USC. Chow wanted Sarkisian, who was then 26, as his quarterbacks coach. Carroll, after meeting him, signed off on it.

In turn, Sarkisian was fascinated by Carroll. The coach never had a low-energy day, and Sarkisian noticed how the players fed off of Carroll's fanaticism. The coach had a name for every practice of the week -- "Competition Tuesday," "Turnover Wednesday," etc. -- and Sarkisian was enamored by all of it. He studied the game, knowing his future depended on it, and after USC won its first title under Carroll in 2003, Sarkisian spent a year as quarterbacks coach of the Oakland Raiders. When Chow left for the NFL after USC's since-vacated 2004 national championship, Carroll recruited Sarkisian back to campus. This time, the two young guns -- Sarkisian and Kiffin -- would run the offense together.

"I remember Sark coming back, him hugging me," White says. "He was just so happy to be back. He used to call me 'Pudge,' like, 'Heeeeey Puuuuudge.' I was like, 'What's up, Sark?' He's like, 'Man, it feels good to be back in cardinal and gold.' Sark's just revved up, man."

"Just like Pete."

But Kiffin wasn't much like Carroll, and, with his new high-profile job, his true colors were starting to leak out. Carroll was a coach who, according to former players, was rarely profane in front of the team -- whereas Kiffin couldn't stop himself.

"You'd get the most insulting comments from Lane you can possibly imagine," says a former USC player who asked to remain anonymous. "Coach Carroll doesn't really swear much, so when one of his assistants starts, like, MF-ing you, it's like, 'whoa.' You never hear it from the head coach, so when you hear 'You dumbass MF,' it really hits you.

"People always ask me, 'What did you think of Lane?' It depends what Lane you get in that moment. If you get him in a good mood on a good day, he's like the greatest dude to be around. He's playful in meetings, pulling pranks, and we're throwing tennis balls at each other during film meetings. And if you get him on a day where he's just down in the dumps, he's the biggest d--- in the world."

Sarkisian was the opposite of that, but almost over the top. He would see a player in a hallway, say "Hey, wazzzzup?!" and then greet that player the same way 10 minutes later. According to several players, few knew whether Sarkisian was real or just trying to be Carroll.

"Guys would just tease him all the time,'" the player says. "He always said 'Bro.' And we're like, dude, you can't say 'bro.' You're older. You can't say 'bro' to a 21-year old-college student."

But make no mistake -- Sarkisian wowed the players with his coaching acumen.

"In meetings, Lane was kind of the scientific genius, like mastermind behind the scenes, and Sark was the CEO and president ... very eloquent speaker," says a former player. "We would have these offensive plans that we'd install on Tuesday, and Sark's up there presenting it, and he did such a good job. He's such a gifted communicator, and Lane doesn't say a word. But Lane was the one that kind of crafted it all. He's the genius, the offensive genius, and Sark was so gifted at communicating and relating to guys.

"Sark definitely had more of a forward face, he was the one that spoke to the media, did all that. It was that kind of unique dynamic. They're co-offensive coordinator, but one is way more timid, way more shy, and the other is very gregarious and out there."

Raiders owner Al Davis was familiar with it all -- he'd long been fond of SC players and coaches, from Marcus Allen to Todd Marinovich -- and, in 2007, he gauged Sarkisian's interest in his head-coaching job. Sarkisian, only 33 at the time, asked Carroll what he thought, and Carroll's take -- based on Davis' volatile history with head coaches -- was that it was a terrible risk. Sarkisian turned the opportunity down, so Davis simply hired his office-mate Kiffin, making him the youngest NFL head coach in the modern era.

Carroll promoted Sarkisian to assistant head coach. Everyone assumed someday the kingdom would be his.

Chapter 4: Mutiny denied

Problem was, Carroll wasn't going anywhere. There was always the annual NFL rumor out there -- considering the coach had unfinished business in the pros -- but when he kept shooting down rumors that he'd coach his hometown 49ers, it seemed Carroll was a USC lifer. Besides, sources say Sarkisian felt that, if he was ever going to get his dream job at USC, he needed some head-coaching experience. So he accepted the Washington job in 2008, just as the Huskies were coming off of an 0-12 season.

Obviously, at the time, the Reggie Bush investigation was the elephant in the room at USC, and the threat of NCAA sanctions hung over the program.

In 2009, for the first time since Carroll's first season at USC, the Trojans failed to win the Pac-10, going 9-4. They played in something called the Emerald Bowl, a near embarrassment.

And then, poof, on Jan. 11, 2010, Carroll was announced as the Seahawks coach, five months before USC was hit with a virtual death penalty by the NCAA because of Reggie Bush.

"Pete bailed on the program -- that's just me speaking as a player for USC," White says.

When Carroll told his USC players goodbye, the team was said to be enraged. "My son, Rhett, was a player, he was in that room, and they were disgusted at Pete," says Ellison, who played for John Robinson in the late '70s. "Because that's why they came to that school. They signed a letter of intent of their commitment to give four years to USC to play under Pete. To win national championships under Pete. To go to Rose Bowls under Pete. Hell yeah, they were pissed. Every one of them. The anger in that room is still settling. Pete personally promised them he'd stay, and he broke that promise."

That's when the group of upperclassmen -- not wanting the anti-Carroll, Kiffin -- staged their "mutiny," asking alumni to tell Garrett to get Sarkisian to come straight back from Washington -- to keep the Carroll era alive. They wanted nothing to change -- not Competition Tuesday, not Turnover Wednesday, nada.

Garrett, sources say, had grown close to Monte Kiffin when Lane was on USC's staff. Whenever Monte would come visit his son, he would inevitably kibitz with Garrett. They hit it off, and Garrett became just as impressed with Lane as he was with Monte. The younger Kiffin, after being fired by the Raiders, had resurfaced at Tennessee in 2009, winning seven games. He had been brash and had national cachet with recruits. So on Jan. 13, 2010, Garrett hired Kiffin instead of Sarkisian.

"The AD didn't want to hear us because he wanted Kiff," says a former player. "And that was a huge deal because not a lot of players had a relationship with Kiff from before, and Kiff was carrying this baggage from the Raiders stuff and the Tennessee stuff. So the players were, 'Hey, we didn't want this guy. This guy is kind of a clown. We don't want him; we want Sark.'"

The sanctions, though, left people even more macabre. The Trojans were handed a two-year bowl ban starting in 2010, and, from 2012 to 2014, they could offer only 15 scholarships a year instead of the regular 25 -- meaning they would lose a total of 30 scholarship players over three years. They also couldn't have any more than 75 scholarship players on the roster at any time, down from 85. Some recruits they had signed or were about to sign walked away as a result.

"Not only did we not get those guys, but they were playing against us," says a high-ranking member of the USC athletic department who didn't want to be named.

Utah defensive lineman Kylie Fitts, UCLA defensive lineman Kenny Clark and Washington receiver Jaydon Mickens were all originally planning to be Trojans. Now, they began to kick USC's rear ends. Kiffin, who first had to deal with Carroll's skeptical returning players, had a rough 2010, going 8-5. He bounced back to finish first in the Pac-12 South in 2011, but regressed in 2012 with a 7-6 season and a 21-7 loss to 6-7 Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl. Kiffin's Trojans became the first team in 48 seasons to be a preseason No. 1 and finish unranked.

Many of the boosters and much of the fan base wanted him fired right then and there. But the best thing Kiffin had going for him was that his boss was the male version of Mother Teresa:

New athletic director Pat Haden.

Chapter 5: Where have you gone, Pat Haden, a (Trojan) nation turns its lonely eyes to you

As soon as Garrett was ousted over the Bush debacle -- USC didn't say whether he was fired or resigned -- there was only one place to turn: to John McKay's old quarterback.

Haden had never really left the USC fortress. He had been a member of the school's board of trustees for nearly 20 years and was quickly recruited -- some say begged -- to take over the AD job. Being as altruistic as he is, he said yes.

He had had a plush life as an NBC broadcaster -- announcing, of all things, Notre Dame games -- but he was also a lawyer, a fundraiser and a friend to everyone in cardinal and gold. From the minute he stepped into the AD job, he was the face of the school. He attended 160-plus sporting events last year, from women's basketball to lacrosse. The former Rhodes scholar stressed academics and made it chic to work in the athletic department. "I feel like I work at Google sometimes," sports information director Tim Tessalone says. "Pat's so progressive."

Haden's energy was boundless, and he had the unfettered support of school president C.L. Max Nikias, whom Haden -- as a member of the board of trustees -- had campaigned heartily for a few years earlier. But, if there was a downside to Haden, it was that he was a peacemaker at a time that the school needed to, for lack of a better term, fight on. Rather than take on the NCAA at every turn for its crippling sanctions, Haden took a conciliatory tone, even calling the NCAA "fair-minded folks."

Right off the bat, the concern was that Haden was uncomfortable with confrontation, and, from a football sense, all that did was keep the taciturn Kiffin around for another nine months.

Finally in 2013, after an abhorrent 62-41 loss at Arizona State, Haden's version of dropping the hammer was reportedly having a USC official stand in front of the team bus at 3 a.m. -- once the team arrived back from Tempe -- so Kiffin could be pulled off and fired in a nearby airport conference room. After six months of Haden's marked leniency with Kiffin, the move seemed overdramatic and awkward. To some, the lack of professionalism was the first red flag of the Haden era.

Haden -- who declined through a USC spokesman to do an interview for this story-- tried to calm the Trojans masses who were bothered by this middle-of-the-night mayhem.

"We're going to be playing football 125 years from now," he said afterward. "I was just a tiny little piece of it, Lane was, Pete Carroll was, and we all add up into this continuum of USC football, and we just realized that our history has been great, and we need to be great again."

It was a nice little pep talk to the AD's constituency, but in the meantime, there were eight games left of the season to play. The interim coach was Ed Orgeron, another member of Carroll's Camelot. Coach O was a live wire, not a phony bone in his body. Originally brought to USC by Hackett, he had been Carroll's defensive line coach, assistant head coach and recruiting coordinator. He would take off his shirt in team meetings and pound his chest, encouraging players to pour water on him. It wasn't an act; he was the anti-Kiffin. He returned to USC's old-school style of physical football, and won six of his first seven games. Finally, a grown man was coaching the Trojans again, and after defeating No. 5 Stanford, Coach O seemed confident he'd be anointed permanent head coach.

"He had just beaten Stanford, and he comes to one of my games to recruit," says Scott Altenberg, the coach at Junipero Serra High School in Gardena, California. "He's got offers out to three kids on my team, and he's saying, "I just feel so comfortable [at SC]. It feels like home.' And I'm thinking to myself, 'Oh man, he thinks he's going to get the job.' But I just knew he wasn't going to get the job. And he probably would've been a really good hire."

Perhaps if Orgeron hadn't lost the season finale to UCLA, 35-14, at home, he might have had a legitimate shot. But Haden, according to sources, didn't feel Coach O fit the USC profile. He was too Cajun, too folksy. What Orgeron had in his favor was he knew who he was.

But in the bowels of the USC athletic department, they preferred a man who didn't know who he was.

Chapter 6: Camelot Part II?

Sarkisian had put in five seasons now at U-Dub. By and large, he'd done a reputable job. Inheriting an 0-12 team, he had averaged seven wins a year and taken the Huskies to four bowl games. To say he was a hot commodity, though, was false. He wasn't on anyone's short list as the next great college football coach.

No one's, that is, except USC's.

USC was moving on from Orgeron, and although the Trojans perhaps should have been in conversations with the Nick Sabans, the Urban Meyers and the Chip Kellys of the world, they set their sights on Sark in Seattle.

Haden has stated that he hired a coaching search committee, but Sarkisian was the only candidate who was offered the job. Haden reportedly spoke with Boise State's Chris Petersen and former TrojanJack Del Rio, who, according to Ellison, told people he would've taken the position.

But Haden told people Petersen wasn't media savvy enough to handle L.A., and he didn't want to wait until February for Del Rio, who was committed to coaching the Denver Broncos' defense through the Super Bowl. There are indications USC also sent out a feeler to Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin. But if this was an exhaustive nationwide search, no one was saying.

Keyshawn Johnson, a former Trojans wide receiver who remains close to the program, says Haden "didn't get his hands greasy" with his search. More troubling -- according to Riki Ellison and multiple other sources -- the AD was swayed most of all by then-senior associate athletic director Mark Jackson, who was the ultimate Carroll confidant.

Jackson, a Boston native, was an assistant under Carroll in the late '90s with the Patriots and had for years been Carroll's eyes and ears in the Trojans locker room. "He was Pete Carroll's stool pigeon," says Ellison, whose son Rhett was a tight end for USC from 2008 to 2011. "Mark Jackson was Pete's mouth and intelligence inside USC football." But now Jackson had Haden's ear, and sources say he took complete advantage of it.

Jackson campaigned right away for Sarkisian's hire and urged Haden to use Carroll as a character reference. At the time, Carroll was still close with Sark, still texting him several times a week. So when Haden contacted Carroll, the coach recommended his protg for the job.According to a source, Jackson then was part of Haden's inner circle during the selection process, along with senior associate athletic directors J.K. McKay and Steve Lopes.

Jackson, who is now the athletic director at Villanova, did not return phone messages asking for comment. But he is the one who sources say laid the groundwork for the Sarkisian hire. On the surface, besides the role of the search committee, the university had vetted Sarkisian simply by calling Sark's mentor, Carroll.

"Why even ask Pete Carroll, the same person who helped get us on NCAA probation?" Ellison says. "Come on. Sark and Lane Kiffin are rich, entitled, blue-blood kids. They were Pete Carroll's favorites. The reason both of them ran this program is because of Pete Carroll."

A current high-ranking member of the athletic department says there is nothing wrong with that. "We just thought [Sark] was the best guy," says the official, a Haden confidant. "We looked at everybody else, and we went, 'We're almost passing him up for the reason: "Oh God, he's another Pete guy," they're gonna say that.' But he was perfect." It took about a minute for Sarkisian to accept the offer, reportedly worth $3.4 million per year. But the reaction in Seattle over his departure was almost indifference, almost a feeling of good riddance.

At Washington, sources say there had long been chatter about Sark's drinking and carousing, although the coach had never been in documented trouble. Ellison had heard the same from friends there but said all he could do was alert the USC athletic department. "But they ignored me," he says. According to the high-ranking Haden confidant, the athletic department felt the gossip about Sarkisian was inaccurate. Sark had had four prior stints at USC , from student to offensive coordinator. The Trojans considered him one of them.

"They say we hadn't vetted Sark right," the high-ranking official says. "We know Sark quite well. People know him very well. We vetted him. We just thought he was the best guy."

The L.A. Times has since claimed that Sarkisian kept beer stashed in his UW office and had been known to do shots of tequila before noon while on the road. But USC officials said that, to their knowledge, every one of his UW business expenses with alcohol on it had been approved. He was never reprimanded. So the Trojans thought little of the accusations, if they even heard them at all.

"He was definitely known for going to have a drink," says a former USC athletic department staffer who asked to remain anonymous. "How many people don't have a drink? He definitely enjoyed having a good time. So whenever it was time to relax or enjoy it, he was going to live it up. He wasn't going to hold back. But I wouldn't have been, 'Oh, he's an alcoholic; he needs to go to AA.' I don't know how to judge that or diagnose that. It wasn't to the point [of], 'Holy cow, we need to get this guy help.'"

The other issue among UW supporters was Sarkisian's Carroll obsession. They said he was so loud at restaurants, so often trying to win the room. It seemed forced, the way he yelled out everyone's name, the way he called everyone "Bro.'"

"Sark made it a point to kind of mimic Pete," says a former athletic department official. "And I think it kind of rubbed people the wrong way. Especially at U-Dub. He sometimes, like, tries too hard to be like Pete. ... So when he went to U-Dub, there were so many people that were like, 'I'm so glad he's gone.' Just because you can't fake that stuff. It's either real or it's not."

Says Ellison: "Sark isn't a head coach. Lane Kiffin isn't a head coach. Because they don't command the respect of the team. They have no wealth of character. They may look like Pete, talk like Pete. But they can't hold character in front of people that matter that have to play for them. They can see through that."

That was one other thing USC hadn't vetted: what made Sark tick.

Chapter 7: The fall of (Carroll's) Troy

Between the sanctions and the expectations, no one could've faked a happy face during the 2014 season. Not that Sark didn't try. He tried when he had only 67 scholarship players on his roster. He tried when his best defensive player, 302-pound lineman Leonard Williams, had to play 94 snaps in a game because he had nary a backup. He tried when the team would falter late in games because of sheer exhaustion. The team still managed to finish 9-4 and win the Holiday Bowl -- but the stress on Sarkisian was immeasurable.

In August, even though he had just landed perhaps the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation, he cracked. After his wife had filed for divorce, the father of three children was depressed, angst-ridden. According to several of his confidants, he was on medication for his anxiety and mood swings. He appeared at a booster event called "Salute to Troy" and, in a public forum, was inappropriate and profane. He reportedly shouted, "Get ready to f---ing fight on, baby, let's go!" and was yanked off the stage by Haden for appearing inebriated.

There was a segment of the fan base that wanted him suspended, while the people at Washington said, "I told you so." But Haden kept him active as coach, acknowledging that Sarkisian said he was seeking counseling and had incorrectly mixed his medication with alcohol.

According to people close to Haden, the meds for his depression had become more of an issue, by far, than his use of the alcohol. That's why Haden said he deserved a second chance. Naturally, out came the critiques again of Haden, that the AD was frightened of confrontation, that he was playing Mother Teresa again, that he was holding on to Sark, holding on to the Carroll era, the same way he held on to Kiffin.

"At least publicly suspend him for a week or two weeks," Ellison says. "No dean, no professor would be allowed to do that, would be allowed to go back and teach the very next day. Nobody would. So there was something vividly wrong there."

The 2015 season began with so much promise, with another top recruiting class on the way. Sark was back chest-bumping other coaches and players at practice. He was staging Competition Tuesday and Turnover Wednesday. It was circa 2003 all over again -- until reports surfaced that he reeked of alcohol during this year's game at Arizona State. Then, on Sunday, Oct. 11, he reportedly showed up intoxicated to practice and was sent home.

Haden heard the news while attending a women's basketball tipoff event on campus -- and, according to Tessalone, was paged over to the football complex to assess the situation. He put Sarkisian on indefinite leave but still didn't fire him. The alumni critics like Ellison erupted. Haden ultimately fired him a day later, but it was another awkward confrontation -- the AD dropping the ax while Sarkisian was on an airplane flying to rehab. Sarkisian couldn't answer Haden's calls; he reportedly heard about his dismissal from friends.

Now, segments of Trojans fans wanted Haden out with Sark. "Haden should resign, step down," Ellison says. "Pat Haden is incompetent and is destroying our program."

Other alumni -- who don't want to be quoted -- simply can't fathom Haden hand-picking their next coach, nor do they even want him near the process. Nikias has stepped in and said that his friend Haden isn't going anywhere, that he has his unwavering support. But it feels like mutiny -- all over again.

"If Max continues to endorse him, the president's going to go, I think," Ellison says.

"The people making the most noise about Pat are the ones that are outside the university," Tessalone said. "The $100 donors, not the million-dollar donors. Obviously, the $100 donors are the ones who spend all day on the message boards and talk radio and create all the noise. The people that matter the most -- the school president -- I think he knows where he stands with those guys."

Either way, leave it to Johnson to sum up the state of USC football:

"Enough of the Pete s---. It's over. No more Pete. No more Pete. Pete's over. It's done, it's dead. The dynasty is over, let's turn the page. Let's try to create another dynasty."

Chapter 8: Bubble-Screen U

The Trojans faced Notre Dame and Utah these past two weeks with Clay Helton as interim coach. The firestorm wouldn't cease. Days before the Notre Dame game, three recruits decommitted, including four-star linebacker Mique Juarez. Juarez was the one recruit they couldn't lose, and now he's considering, of all places, UCLA and Washington.

It was enough of a disaster that, before the Notre Dame game, former Trojans Keyshawn Johnson, Willie McGinest and Keith Rivers asked Helton whether they could address the team.

What ensued was an often profane pep talk that had Johnson dissing the Chip Kelly-to-USC rumors and telling the team, "No more bulls---. No more."

What seemed to bother alumni -- from Johnson to Ellison -- was the departure from smashmouth USC football, the football of Ronnie Lott and Troy Polamalu. That seems to be why Kelly is so unattractive to many alumni. Although the Trojans went out and rang up almost 600 yards on Notre Dame, they gave up 41 points in defeat.

"We're not a physical team," Ellison says. "We're a finesse University of Washington football team out there. That's what we've got out there. We're supposed to be like Alabama. We're supposed to be like Ohio State. But we're playing some sort of bubble-screen offense. That's what Haden and Sark wanted."

That same day in South Bend, not long before the opening kickoff, Pat Haden physically collapsed. He dropped to one knee, dizzy and unsteady, and it was metaphor for what kind of footing the program was currently on. The message boards again went wild, saying the AD was not healthy enough to pick the next coach. But Haden -- who was hospitalized in 2014 with what Tessalone says were bone spurs in his back -- was at work the next day, in the office before 8 a.m.

Through it all, Haden is expected to roll up his sleeves for this next coaching hire; Johnson and he have already spoken about it. It's still an attractive job, mainly because high school coaches say the Trojans still can just snap their fingers and reel in the players.

In fact, that old euphemism -- "SC is still SC" -- was never more applicable than when the Trojans slapped around Utah on Saturday night. That was a freshman, Cameron Smith, turning the game around with three interceptions. That was a sophomore, JuJu Smith-Schuster with eight catches for 143 yards and a TD. That was Tee Martin, SC's top recruiter who won a national title as Tennessee's quarterback, reassuring five-star high school recruits that the Reggie Bush/Pete Carroll era can be reinvented.

"One of my former players who's at SC now, Adoree' Jackson, he loved Reggie Bush," Altenberg says. "I mean, these kids all grew up watching that team, in the mid-2000s. The kids all grew up that way. The Reggie Bush days aren't over. And I don't mean it in a bad way. They're still living off that."

So Camelot might be over -- or need to be over -- but there's clear evidence that somehow the ghost of Bush is still strangely sustaining USC. Some reports have Haden interested in the Ravens' John Harbaugh. LenDale White wants Jon Gruden, and L.A.-based quarterback guru Steve Clarkson likes Herm Edwards. All three have pizzazz, all three are out of the Pete Carroll mode: former pro coaches who know who they are, all at least 50-something going on 20.

On the plus side, Johnson says, "At least there's no more coaches left on Pete's coaching tree that's worth a s---. So we don't have to worry about that again."

Unless this latest rumor is true ... that USC wants Carroll back.

It never ends.

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