With Steve Sarkisian and USC, there were no potentially good endings.
To illustrate this, let's start with the last decision about Sarkisian's career at USC that hasn't been made yet: How he chooses to proceed now that USC has fired him for cause, with the "cause" being several alleged incidents of Sarkisian showing up drunk at times he shouldn't have been drunk. The cause is what seems to be a major drinking problem, for which he's entered treatment.
Going forward, Sarkisian has two options. He could do nothing. He can accept what's happened, more or less admitting that USC was right to fire him for his alcoholism. He'd be forfeiting millions upon millions of dollars and owning up to the fact that his drinking problem cost him his dream job. This is not a good option.
The other option is to fight USC's decision in court, perhaps arguing that firing someone in rehabilitation violates the Americans with Disabilities Act. If this happened, Sarkisian would have to publicly discuss the details of his alcoholism. USC's lawyers would surely force him to admit to the embarrassing nature of the things he's been accused of. He'd have to bare all his flaws with no guarantee he'd win anything. It would be ugly for all. This is also not a good option.
There is no pleasant solution. With alcoholism, there are no pleasant solutions.
* * *
There was only one potential good situation, and that was for USC to never hire him in the first place.
From a football perspective, Sarkisian's hiring was always confusing. Sarkisian did fine at Washington, but "fine" isn't what USC goes for. There were plenty of more accomplished coaches who would've seized at one of the most prominent jobs in college football, but USC and AD Pat Haden went with Sarkisian, in large part because the former coordinator was part of the Trojan family.
But this never quite sat right. Bruce Feldman's story from Sunday cites several USC sources who admitted they were never pleased with the selection to begin with.
From a non-football perspective, Sarkisian's hiring now makes even less sense. Haden claimed at the time that his investigation into potential coaches was "very exhaustive and thorough," but it seems to have been common knowledge to those around Washington that Sarkisian drank a lot.
By hiring and continuing to employ Sarkisian, USC was enabling him.
A Los Angeles Times story published Monday revealed a series of receipts for Sarkisian's tabs when he was Washington's head coach, as well as a story of a Washington alumni event at a local bar, where some felt Sarkisian might have been drunk.
Being a college football head coach is the perfect job to mask a drinking problem. The Times report illustrates why. As a head coach, Sarkisian was allowed -- perhaps expected -- to pick up and expense tabs while drinking with his staff or out on recruiting trips. He was allowed -- perhaps expected -- to drink at events at which he was supposed to rile up alumni.
Sarkisian probably isn't the only coach with a drinking problem. The job lets it happen.
* * *
Firing Sarkisian was borderline inhumane.
For a year and a half, USC had tolerated -- and in many ways allowed -- Sarkisian's problem. Then, in 48 hours, it decided the problem was so large that it needed to fire him at the moment he most needed help.
I don't talk about this a lot, but I used to have a drinking problem. About four years ago, my body developed a physical addiction to alcohol. I had drank so much that my body was more used to having alcohol in it than not, so if I stopped drinking, it reacted. My head felt wrong; my arms and legs were weak and wobbly and twitched involuntarily. The first time it happened, I thought I was having a heart attack.
All things told, I got through it easily. From the first shake to the last was about eight months.
I don't talk about it a lot because it feels like a personal failure, a sign I'm irresponsible, that I can't control myself, that I value a feeling over everything else. Even four years later, I feel like I'm making a mistake writing these words in public where anybody can see them. It feels like I'm telling the world that I'm a bad person and a screw up.
Luckily, the people who knew about my problem repeatedly told me that I wasn't a screw up and that I could fix the problem. They didn't tell people whom I didn't want to know. They were supportive.
At best, USC is pretending to support Sarkisian. USC's statement on the firing claimed this was a mutually beneficial situation, saying Sarkisian's firing will give him "the opportunity to focus on his personal well-being." But to me, it seemed like a way of feigning concern.
What helps people who are struggling is when those they trust stand by their side. USC opted overnight to legally sever ties from Sarkisian in the midst of his struggle. What got Sarkisian hired was the fact that he was part of the "Trojan family," and that family quickly, publicly disowned him.
What helps people who are struggling is when those they trust keep their problems in confidence. Those around USC sprinted to anonymously feed information about Sarkisian's misbehavior to the press, letting the entire world know about his most embarrassing moments. These were termed "leaks," but it seemed more like a flood. One wonders if the anti-Sarkisian sentiment stemming back to his hiring contributed to what seemed like a smear campaign against an addict. If so, it worked.
What helps is when the people you trust let you know that you're bigger than the problem you face, that a drinking problem doesn't make you a bad person. USC told Sarkisian his problem was so big and so bad, it wouldn't give him the opportunity to fix it.
Regardless of whether USC has support for Sarkisian, Sarkisian still has support for USC, based on comments he tweeted Wednesday night:
I would like to thank everyone for their huge outpouring of support and well wishes. This is a very difficult time for my family and me. I am facing these challenges the best I can and your support helps immensely. I wish my Trojans the best against Notre Dame and for the remainder of the season. No one will be cheering them on more than me. Fight On!
* * *
My first reaction was anger at USC for abandoning Sarkisian. But the more I think about it, there was no pleasant solution.
USC could've continued to employ Sarkisian as head coach, hiding what it knew about his problem. As repugnant as I find firing Sarkisian, this is somehow worse. Sarkisian frequently showed up drunk to work. Drunk people often fail to make rational decisions. Sarkisian's job involves sending young men to play a dangerous sport. For the safety of its players and the only bodies and brains they will ever have, USC had an obligation to remove Sarkisian from active duty.
USC could've moved Sarkisian to indefinite leave and left him there, with an interim head coach guiding the program until he returned, whenever he was healthy. In an ideal world, USC does this. Thinking pragmatically, it isn't really an option. USC would be allowing its program to stagnate, without any promise of a speedy return. Opposing coaches would more or less ensure USC wouldn't land a meaningful recruit -- "Oh, you're going to go play for the school whose coach is in rehab?"
USC could've moved Sarkisian into a non-head coaching role, making him a "consultant" while hiring some other head coach. This seems unwieldy and expensive. New coaches don't like the scent of old coaches.
It was either firing Sarkisian -- and putting him, as an addict, in an extremely vulnerable position -- or doing something unconventional -- and putting itself, as a football program, in an extremely vulnerable position.
USC opted to protect its football future and bottom line over the health of a person it supposedly cared about. It's probably the best situation for all parties involved, and even so, it makes me personally question the moral fiber of everybody on board with it.
This is what addiction does. It ensures every road you could potentially choose features pain.