HOLD THE PHONE
Friends and former USC assistants Kiffin and Sarkisian are about to face off as opposing coaches for first time, so if they talk during the week as usual, truth is unlikely to come out
The two coaches have made a ritual of chatting over the phone, once a week or so, talking mostly football. They often give each other advice, but this time might be different. This time, they might lie. Because this time, Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian will be game-planning against each other, their teams set to meet at the Coliseum this weekend.
Not that Saturday’s matchup between USC and Washington is reason to cancel the weekly call. Kiffin and Sarkisian have been connected at the hip — or at least by telephone — since their days as fledgling assistants a decade ago.
“I’m sure we’ll talk,” Sarkisian said. Kiffin explained: “Nothing changes.” Except, perhaps, the truthfulness of the conversation. “We’ll probably joke with each other about the plays we’re going to run,” Sarkisian said. “Just mentally mess with the other guy.”
The gamesmanship might have begun already. Last Saturday, when USC played at Washington State, Kiffin wore to the stadium a purple shirt — though several shades lighter than the Huskies’ jerseys — and showed a variety of formations and personnel configurations during a blowout victory.
Certainly, the upcoming game presents an intriguing contrast in football terms.
Sarkisian has gone a long way toward proving himself by reviving a moribund Washington program; the jury is still out on Kiffin. After lackluster stints with Tennessee and the NFL’s
Oakland Raiders, his 18th-ranked Trojans have been something short of convincing through four early-season victories.
But wins and losses don’t tell the whole story — this is also a tale of two guys who started their careers together and, over the years, have come to rely on each other.
They met on the USC staff in 2001, at least partly because of connections. Then-coach Pete Carroll hired 26-year-old Kiffin — the son of his mentor, Monte Kiffin — to work with the tight ends. Sarkisian, brought aboard as a 27-yearold graduate assistant, had played quarterback for USC’s new offensive coordinator, Norm Chow, at Brigham Young.
“We were the younger guys on the staff,” Sarkisian recalled. “And we were both offensive guys who were in a lot of meetings together.”
If their circumstances were similar, their personalities were not.
Despite the controversial statements that have marked his career the last year or so, Kiffin tends to be quiet and businesslike. Sarkisian is glib, more outgoing.
“He’s extremely friendly,” Kiffin said. “People like to be around that.”
In those early years, their wives, Layla Kiffin and Stephanie Sarkisian, grew close. At the same time, the husbands became accustomed to sharing hours of film work and late-night conversations. Sarkisian left for a season to become quarterbacks coach for the Raiders, then returned.
“The more football we could get,” Sarkisian said, “the more we wanted to talk about it.”
They found themselves in the spotlight in 2005 when Carroll decided to give them more authority over the offense and Chow abruptly departed for the NFL’s Tennessee Titans. Under an unusual system, the two up-andcomers shared responsibility for play calling.
They became known as “Sarkiffian.”
Though Chow did not leave under the best of circumstances, he expressed confidence in the pair, saying: “They won’t miss a beat.”
With Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush in the backfield, USC led the nation in total offense at 579.8 yards per game and ranked second in scoring at 49.1, going undefeated until a last-minute loss to Texas in the national championship game at the Rose Bowl.
“We just thought so much alike and had been around each other,” Kiffin said. “There was no power struggle or egos involved or fighting for credit. It worked really good.”
Fans and the media did not always agree, especially after the Texas defeat and a crucial moment in the fourth quarter when Bush was inexplicably relegated to the sideline. Detractors claimed the play calling was less imaginative than it had been under Chow.
“Totally unwarranted,” Carroll said of the criticism.
Either way, the “Sarkiffian” partnership ended a season later when, in 2007, Kiffin accepted the Oakland job after his buddy had turned it down.
“We definitely talked at length,” Sarkisian said of the Raiders opening. “Not every job is for every person — it’s got to fit your life, your personality, what you’re looking for at the time.”
No longer working together, the friends made do with texting and talking by phone. Their long-distance connection continued through 2008, as the Raiders dumped Kiffin at midseason, and into 2009 when both men got new jobs.
Sarkisian, who replaced Tyrone Willingham at Washington, would check in with Kiffin, who had taken over at Tennessee, during his morning commute to work.
“It’s great to have older mentors, but there’s also something about talking to someone who’s going through the same things you are,” Kiffin said. “Someone to relate stories to and bounce ideas off of.”
The relationship took another turn last winter when Kiffin jumped to USC. Now competing in the same conference, they wondered how things might change between them.
The answer so far: not much.
They still talk and text regularly, trading notes on opponents, asking for counsel on game plans and commiserating about injuries.
Now they will stand on opposite sidelines for the first time, coaches who know each other inside and out, looking for an edge.
When USC lost at Washington last season, the Trojans felt as though Sarkisian knew what they had called before the ball was snapped, but that might not be a factor with Carroll gone to the Seattle Seahawks.
His protégés say they have taken what they learned from him and given it different spins. The Trojans now run an offense that is a little more traditional; the Huskies favor the shotgun.
Sarkisian seems excited about going head to head on Saturday, saying: “It’s going to be fun.”
Just as typically, Kiffin downplays the matchup.
“That stuff is so overrated,” he said. “When you’re in the stadium, coaching, you get so lost in the game that half the time you don’t even know who’s on the other sideline.”
Still, it might be a little strange when they see each other on the field before kickoff.
“We’ve joked about it,” Sarkisian said. “I don’t think we’re going to have any secret handshake.”
They might just chat a bit, as they have always done.
Acouple of friends shooting the breeze. Maybe telling a few lies.
OF TWO MINDS: Steve Sarkisian, left, and Lane Kiffin joined Pete Carroll’s USC staff in 2001 at age 26 and 27, respectively. Four years later, they called plays for a defending BCS champion and were dubbed “Sarkiffian.”