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

Los Angeles Times - - Sports - By David Whar­ton

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.

Wally Skalij

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.”

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