Steve Sarkisian

What Steve Sarkisian’s hiring means to Notre Dame


When Notre Dame finishes the season next year in the Coliseum, they’ll square off against head coach Steve Sarkisian, who was tabbed to run the Trojan football program on Monday. After firing Lane Kiffin early this season, USC athletic director Pat Haden brings in another visor wearing, high-energy young coach from the Pete Carroll coaching tree, hoping to bring Troy back to the glory days that are feeling farther and farther away.

Sarkisian leaves Washington with a 34-29 record at his first head coaching stop. After taking over for Tyrone Willingham, who was fired after a winless 2008, Sarkisian won five games in 2009. He won seven games in each of his next three seasons, and leaves the Huskies at 8-4 this year. In Pac-12 play, Sarkisian has never won more than five games or lost less than four.

Here’s what Haden said about the hire:

“We are delighted to welcome Steve Sarkisian back to the Trojan Family,” Haden said in a statement. “We conducted a very exhaustive and thorough search, pinpointing about 20 candidates and interviewing five of them. We kept coming back to Sark. He is the only one who was offered the job. I believe in my gut that he is the right coach for USC at this time.

“He embodies many of the qualities for which we looked. He is an innovative coach who recruits well and develops players. He is a proven and successful leader. He connects with people. He has energy and passion. He knows how to build a program and create a culture that we value. He is committed to academic success and rules compliance. And he understands the heritage and tradition of USC.”

As it usually happens, some of the hottest potential candidates came off the board in the past few weeks, with Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin re-committing to the Aggies and Baylor coach Art Briles signing a multi-year extension. Yesterday, ESPN’s Joe Schad said the Trojans were focusing on Boise State coach Chris Petersen and Vanderbilt’s James Franklin. That the Trojans hired Sarkisian the next day tells you something about Schad’s sources or the attractiveness of the USC head coaching position, a job that still has to deal with the final effects of crippling NCAA sanctions.

USC fans had wondered what Haden would do with his first big hire, especially after showing such decisiveness in firing Kiffin. But the hiring of Sark could’ve just as easily been hatched by water coolers or barbershops surrounding Heritage Hall. That Haden hired a search firm to seek out a Torrance, California native who will be on his fifth tour of duty as a Trojan says something about the process.

If Notre Dame fans were upset with the hiring of Brian Kelly, fresh off an undefeated season and back-t0-back BCS Bowl appearances at Cincinnati, you can’t expect Trojan fans to go crazy for a guy with a 34-29 record after five seasons. (Seen snarkily posted on the interwebs: Charlie Weis was 34-27 in his five seasons replacing Ty Willingham and he got fired. Sark got the SC job.)

While Sarkisian and Ed Orgeron coached on the same Pete Carroll staff, Orgeron will not remain with the program, turning down a reported offer to be associate head coach and one of the highest paid assistants in the country. Yet continuity between regimes should be something to watch, as the connectivity between the Washington and USC staffs (not to mention their schematic philosophies) is pretty significant.

It’s too early for Irish fans to figure out if they dodged a bullet or not. (Art Briles or Chris Petersen with USC’s athletes? Forget it!) And while Sark is hardly the type of showy hiring that fans come to expect (Jon Gruden, anyone?), he’s a solid head coach, a good offensive mind and a young, energetic guy cut closer from the Carroll cloth than Kiffin ever was.

Still, it’s worth pointing out that the mood at Heritage Hall wasn’t about the triumphant hire of Sarkisian, but the difficulty saying goodbye to Orgeron.

As Washington now decides whether it should chase UCLA coach Jim Mora, the offseason coaching carousel has officially begun to spin.

But for Irish fans wondering about the hire compared to the decision that brought Brian Kelly to Notre Dame, USC wasn’t able to hire Gruden or Bob Stoops, either.

Evaluating VanGorder’s scheme against the option

ANNAPOLIS, MD - SEPTEMBER 19:  Keenan Reynolds #19 of the Navy Midshipmen rushes for his fifth touchdown in the fourth quarter against the East Carolina Pirates during their 45-21 win on September 19, 2015 in Annapolis, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Notre Dame’s ability to slow down Georgia Tech’s vaunted option attack served as one of the high points to the Irish’s early season success. After spending a considerable amount of offseason energy towards attacking the option and learning more, watching the Irish hold the Yellow Jackets in check was a huge victory for Brian VanGorder, Bob Elliott and the rest of Notre Dame’s staff.

But it was only half the battle.

This weekend, Keenan Reynolds and Navy’s veteran offense come to town looking to wreak some havoc on a defense that’s struggled to slow it down. And after getting a look at some of the new tricks the Irish had in store for Paul Johnson, Ken Niumatalolo and his offensive coaches have likely started plotting their counterpunches days in advance.

How did Notre Dame’s defense slow down Georgia Tech? Brian Kelly credited an aggressive game plan and continually changing looks. So while some were quick to wonder whether Notre Dame’s scheme changes were the biggest piece of the puzzle, it’s interesting to see how the Irish’s strategic decisions looked from the perspective of an option expert.

Over at “The Birddog” blog, Michael James utilizes his spread option expertise and takes a look at how the Irish defended Georgia Tech. His conclusion:

Did the Irish finally figure out the magic formula that will kill this gimmick high school offense for good?

Not exactly.

The Irish played a fairly standard 4-3 for a large chunk of the game. James thought Notre Dame’s move to a 3-5-3 was unique, though certainly not the first time anybody’s used that alignment.

But what stood out wasn’t necessarily the Xs and Os, but rather how much better Notre Dame’s personnel reacted to what they were facing.

Again, from the Birddog Blog:

The real story here, and what stood out to me when watching Notre Dame play Georgia Tech, was how much faster the Irish played compared to past years. I don’t mean that they are more athletic, although this is considered to be the best Notre Dame team in years. I mean that they reacted far more quickly to what they saw compared to what they’ve done in the past.

Usually, when a team plays a spread option offense, one of the biggest challenges that defensive coordinators talk about is replicating the offense’s speed and precision. It’s common to hear them say that it takes a series or two to adjust. That was most certainly not the case here.

James referenced our Media Day observations and seemed impressed by the decision to bring in walk-on Rob Regan to captain what’s now known as the SWAG team. And while VanGorder’s reputation as a mad scientist had many Irish fans wondering if the veteran coordinator cooked something up that hadn’t been seen, it was more a trait usually associated with Kelly that seems to have made the biggest difference.

“It wasn’t that the game plan was so amazing (although it was admittedly more complex and aggressive than we’ve seen out of other Notre Dame teams),” James wrote. “It was plain ol’ coachin’ ’em up.

“Notre Dame’s players were individually more prepared for what they’d see. Notre Dame is already extremely talented, but talented and prepared? You can’t adjust for that. That’s more challenging for Navy than any game plan.”

Irish prepared to take on the best Navy team in years


Brian Kelly opens every Tuesday press conference with compliments for an opponent. But this week, it was easy to see that his kind words for Navy were hardly lip service.

Ken Niumatalolo will bring his most veteran—and probably his most talented—group of Midshipmen into Notre Dame Stadium, looking to hand the Irish their first loss in the series since Kelly’s debut season in South Bend.

“Ken Niumatalolo has done an incredible job in developing his program and currently carrying an eight-game winning streak,” Kelly said. “I voted for them in USA Today Top 25 as a top-25 team. I think they’ve earned that. But their defense as well has developed. It’s played the kind of defense that I think a top 25 team plays.”

With nine months of option preparation, Notre Dame needs to feel confident about their efforts against Georgia Tech. Then again, the Midshipmen saw that game plan and likely have a few tricks in store.

As much as the Irish have focused their efforts on stopping Keenan Reynolds and the triple-option, Navy’s much-improved defense is still looking for a way to slow down a team that’s averaged a shade over 48 points a game against them the last four seasons.

Niumatalolo talked about that when asked about slowing down Will Fuller and Notre Dame’s skill players, an offense that’s averaged over 48 points a game during this four-game win streak.

“We’ve got to try our best to keep [Fuller] in front of us, that’s easier said than done,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve got to play as close as we can without their guys running past us. I’ve been here a long time and we’re still trying to figure out how to do that.”


Navy heads to South Bend unbeaten, defeating former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco‘s team just two Saturdays ago. And while Diaco raised a few eyebrows when he said Navy would be the team’s toughest test of the year (they already played a ranked Missouri team), the head of the UConn program couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise.

“I have been competing against Navy for some time and this is the best Navy team I have seen for, let’s say the last half-dozen years,” UConn coach Bob Diaco told the New Haven Register. “I could click on footage from three years ago and see a lion’s share of players who are playing right now in the game as freshmen and sophomores. They have a veteran group, a strong group, a talented group and they look like the stiffest competition among our first four opponents.”

As usual, there will be those who look at this game as the breather between Clemson and USC. That won’t be anybody inside The Gug. So as the Irish try to get back to their winning ways in front of a home crowd, a complete team effort is needed.

“I’ll take a win by one,” Kelly said Tuesday. “That would be fine with me.”