Through no fault of his own, Steve Sarkisian’s opening season as USC’s head coach has begun in much the same way his predecessor’s ended. With a circus.
Over the weekend, just after USC’s Salute to Troy dinner and before the official beginning of Sarkisian’s very first game week as the head coach, something happened to Josh Shaw, which resulted in high ankles sprains in both legs.
On Monday, that something was described by Shaw as a valiant rescue attempt which saved the life of his seven-year-old nephew. The tale of Shaw leaping from a second-floor balcony, crawling into the pool and hoisting the young boy to safety was featured, first, on USC’s RipsIt Blog and then on nearly every national news outlet in the country.
By Tuesday, that something had morphed into something very different. Something involving a police report, a screaming woman, and a man matching Shaw’s description scrambling off a third-floor balcony.
Wednesday, Shaw confessed his lie, but little else, and was suspended indefinitely by USC.
Unfortunately the Trojan’s troubles did not end there.
With a new and more disheartening story for each day of the week, Thursday’s bomb was lofted from an unexpected source.
Brown, a redshirt senior who had spent most of his career at cornerback before switching to running back this summer, took to social media Thursday morning with explosive allegations against Sarkisian.
“Sark treated me like a slave in his Office…Can’t play for a racist MAN!!!!!” read the now-deleted message on Instagram, along with an image which echoed the final phrase. That same sentiment was expressed on Facebook.
Soon enough the headlines roared:
From a non-football perspective, the week could hardly have gone worse. From a football perspective, the week was pretty terrible too.
After all, Sarkisian lost a key veteran starter in Shaw and a potentially key back up in Brown.
Still, in some strange way, Sarkisian has also been handed a blessing in disguise.
Every team needs motivation. Some coaches coax it out with mottos or slogans. Others feed the fire through competition or the call of glory.
In recent history, the Trojans have responded most clearly to a good ol’ chip on their shoulder.
They did so in 2011 when NCAA sanctions restricted their entrance into the post-season. Then again in 2013 when the world expected them to fold in the wake of Lane Kiffin’s firing.
And if nothing else, this week has provided USC with a nice-sized chip to urge them forward in 2014.
It’s not just that the events of the past four days have been frustrating. They’ve been downright embarrassing. For the athletic department, for the university, for the fans, for the players.
Never was the situation more mortifying than when ESPN anchor John Anderson described USC as a “clown college” on Wednesday night.
But that is what controversial narratives breed. Sweeping generalizations and punchlines, which USC has been on the wrong side of far too often.
The problem is that it’s not just three letters that are the butt of those jokes. Leonard Williams, Cody Kessler, Nelson Agholor, Javorius Allen and Hayes Pullard are.
Sarkisian should include that “clown college” remark in this week’s Friday night video.
“Are you clowns? Or are you Trojans?” Sarkisian should ask his players.
And their reply should come without hesitation.
Then, on Saturday under the Coliseum lights, they should leave no doubt.