Southern California football coach Steve Sarkisian laughed nervously when he was asked this week what he would give for a drama-free week at Heritage Hall.
“I don’t think that exists around here,’’ Sarkisian replied via teleconference.
Drama in Tinseltown? Not even the writers for “NCIS: Los Angeles’’ could have conjured a more drama-laden narrative than the one Sarkisian and his ninth-ranked Trojans (2-0) scripted in the first few weeks of the season. On the heels of a 13-10 Pac-12 victory at Stanford last week, USC will strive for another win — sans the drama — when it faces Boston College (1-1) in a nonconference game Saturday night at Alumni Stadium.
After going 34-29 in five seasons (2009-13) as the University of Washington’s head coach, Sarkisian, a disciple of former USC coach Pete Carroll, returned last December for a fourth tour of duty at USC.
Sarkisian, 40, was tasked with stabilizing a proud program rocked by a three-year NCAA penalty for lack of institutional control that capped its roster at 75 scholarships, leaving the Trojans this year with only 67 scholarship players. The probation period ended on June 10.
“My expectations were that it was easy to take this job at USC because it was one of, if not the best job in America,’’ Sarkisian said. “I’m from Southern California and there’s a long line and history here of winning football and championships and accolades and all those things. That’s the expectation level here at USC.
“If you take this job and that’s not what you have in mind, then it’s not the right job for you, because that’s the expectation level of everybody involved in the program.’’
But it seems as if Sarkisian and his team have dealt with one distraction after another.
“They’ve been fine,’’ Sarkisian insisted, when asked what the last few weeks have been like. “We’ve learned a lot about our team. We’ve learned a lot about the maturity and the leadership of our team. I think these are great examples for us that we can hold on to for the future, our ability to focus regardless of the distractions that are going on outside.’’
The distractions have been numerous but have all come from within the program, including the strange case of senior cornerback Josh Shaw, who said he sprained his ankles jumping from the second-floor balcony of a Los Angeles apartment Aug. 23 to rescue his nephew from drowning.
When USC officials were apprised of suspicions about Shaw’s story, the player apologized and recanted, refusing to answer questions from police about his involvement in a possible domestic violence incident. Shaw was indefinitely suspended from the team but there are no charges pending.
So, the Trojans fought on. Until, that is, disgruntled running back Anthony Brown quit the team in August and leveled racist charges against Sarkisian on a social media posting that has since been deleted. Sarkisian, who flatly denied Brown’s allegations, guided his team to a 52-13 opening romp over Fresno State.
“With our focus on the task at hand, our performances followed, because this isn’t the first time we’re going to be faced with some distractions, or potential distractions, or adversity,’’ Sarkisian said. “If and or when it happens again, we’ll know how to handle it.’’
The second week of the season, however, presented another set of distractions.
Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott reprimanded Sarkisian and fined USC athletic director Pat Haden, one of the 13 members of the College Football Playoff selection committee, $25,000 for his sideline behavior during the Trojans’ victory at Stanford.
During the second half, Haden was summoned by text message to the sideline by a staff member.
Haden engaged game officials in an argument on Sarkisian’s behalf after the team was hit with a sideline penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct, which was followed by a 15-yard penalty and ejection of senior middle linebacker Hayes Pullard for targeting in his helmet-to-helmet collision with a Stanford player.
Pullard, as a result, will sit out the first half against BC.
“I apologize to Commissioner Scott, to the game officials, to Stanford, and to the fans for any distraction I might have caused during Saturday’s football game,’’ Haden said a release. “In retrospect, I should not have approached the game officials. I should have waited until after the game and gone through the appropriate channels.’’
While he would have preferred not to have to fight through all that adversity, Sarkisian felt it revealed the character of his players.
“As much as you want to win 35-0, you gain more from winning, 13-10,’’ he said. “When your senior captain and middle linebacker gets ejected and when you’re down at halftime, and when your kicker has to make a 53-yarder and you have to get a sack-fumble to secure the win, sometimes you get more as a team in wins like that than the ones that are 35-0.
“I sleep a lot easier when the games go the other way, but there’s a lot we can lean on from [the Stanford] game and there’s a lot we can take with us for the future of our program.’’
Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MBVEGA.