Sept. 28, 2010
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - Steve Sarkisian and Lane Kiffin share so much, they could be brothers. Or at least co-conspirators.
"Yeah, we talk. We text. It's a good friendship. It's one that keeps us healthy in the profession," Sarkisian, Washington's coach, says of Kiffin, the head man at USC. "So much of this profession is keeping things in close and in tight and you can't share with anybody. (I enjoy) the ability to share with Lane different thoughts, different ideas, different frustrations that maybe you don't want everyone else to see but you can bounce it off him and he understands."
They've been programmed in the same way, by the same mentor in former coach Pete Carroll. They first worked together in 2001, Sarkisian as a Trojans graduate assistant and Kiffin in his first full-time job as a tight ends coach for Carroll. By 2005, they were sharing play-calling duties for USC's offense, and the Trojans led the nation by averaging 580 yards per game that season.
Carroll calls them "great friends and comrades as they grew up in the system."
In 2007, Raiders owner Al Davis first asked Sarkisian, then Kiffin, to lead Oakland. Sarkisian, who had worked as quarterbacks coach in Oakland for one season in 2004, declined. Kiffin accepted - only after getting extensive counseling from Sarkisian on the uniqueness of life with the Raiders.
Now these two, young, former Trojans assistants are leading their respective Pac-10 programs out of dark times. They even look similar on the sidelines, their faces often hidden behind pulled-down team visors and play-calling cards.
Saturday night Sarkisian, in his second year at Washington, and Kiffin, in his first season leading USC, will be sharing the desire to beat each other. The Huskies (1-2) visit the 18th-ranked Trojans (4-0, 1-0 Pac-10) in Sarkisian's first game as an opposing head coach on his former home turf and proving ground of the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Washington's Pac-10 opener will also be the first time the 36-year-old Sarkisian has opposed his 35-year-old friend.
"Fortunately for everybody involved, Lane and I aren't going to be blocking or tackling or running or throwing or catching Saturday," Sarkisian deadpanned. "You know, both of us have been mentored for this opportunity ... these are both jobs we thought were special ones.
"It's a unique experience, this early in our careers, to be facing each other in such a pivotal ball game in the Pac-10 race."
They are somewhat different now that they are separated. Sarkisian features the shotgun offense for dynamic Huskies senior quarterback Jake Locker. Kiffin has so far returned USC to a more conventional, two-back offense that features power running plays and a deep stable of talented backs.
Sarkisian estimates he will have up to 40 friends and family watching from inside the Coliseum. He's glad his wife Stephanie is taking care of those plans.
"Anytime you go home you want to perform well," Sarkisian said. "You've got your high school coach watching. Your junior college coach is watching and your buddy is watching and your family is watching. So you want to make sure you put your best foot forward."
Sarkisian grew up in suburban Torrance and gained his foothold in the coaching profession at USC, yet he now sees Southern California as a second, past home.
And don't call this Sarkisian's second homecoming in two Huskies road games this season, either. Washington opened at Brigham Young, where Sarkisian was once a star quarterback.
"No, this is my home," he said in Seattle, where Washington gave him a five-year contract last year.
Sarkisian spent seven seasons with USC, the last two as Carroll's offensive coordinator in 2007 and '08. He's already won his first game against his former team. Last September's stunning upset of the third-ranked Trojans at Husky Stadium remains Sarkisian's signature win in his short time at UW.
He'd love another one on Saturday, though not for reasons as personal as last season's.
"I think there's something about when you are facing your mentor, in a weird way you want to make him proud. I felt like that going into last year's game going against Pete," Sarkisian said. "At the end of the game, whether we won or lost whatever happened, I was hoping that Pete would just be proud of how we played, the style we played.
"Going against Lane, his opinion of us doesn't concern us nearly as much as what Pete's opinion of us was. I respect Lane. I respect everything he's done. He's got a bright football mind. He's got a very good football team. But it's just a different feeling going in."
Carroll left USC in January to coach the NFL's Seahawks, opening the door for Kiffin's return to SC from Tennessee. Carroll will be traveling and preparing for Seattle's game on Sunday at St. Louis during this UW-USC meeting, but he promises to find a way to watch his protégés oppose each other.
"I'm just excited for them," Carroll said Monday from Seahawks headquarters in Renton, Wash. "I'm thrilled for whatever these guys get done. I'm a little closer to the SC program than to the Washington program, but we'll be rooting for everybody.
"I'm going to make sure and see this one."