In hiring Sarkisian, USC settled for safe

What Pat Haden did, in the end, was settle.

He settled for a safe, known quantity, instead of a hot, new commodity. He settled for a good coach with potential, instead of a great coach with a proven record. He settled for a double down the line, instead of a home run over the center field wall.

The first reaction, upon hearing that Steve Sarkisian had been hired as USC's new head football coach, is that the Trojans basically were getting Lane Kiffin with a better personality.

But the more you think about it, you realize that's probably not fair to the man everyone calls "Sark." Yes, he's best friends with Kiffin. Yes, they were co-offensive coordinators under Pete Carroll at USC. Yes, they were the ones directing things on that fateful fourth-and-two against Texas in the BCS title game when Reggie Bush was left standing on the sideline. And yes, they both stubbornly have insisted on calling all offensive plays as the head coach.

The difference, though, is that Sarkisian did something Kiffin never did. He took over a decimated program at Washington and brought it back to respectability. He moved the Huskies several steps in the right direction. It's just that he could never reach those final few steps, the ones leading to a championship level.

Can he do that at USC? Sure, it's possible. He knows the landscape. He builds prolific offenses. He reportedly is bringing Tosh Lupoi, one of the country's best young recruiters, with him. The Trojans definitely could have done a lot worse.

It's just that there's this nagging thought that they also could have done a lot better. Sarkisian went 7-6 three consecutive years in Washington before improving to 8-4 (but only 5-4 in the Pac-12) this season. That is hardly a demonstration of a magical coaching touch.

Maybe what this hiring really speaks to is the fact that USC is no longer viewed as one of the most attractive jobs in the sport. Boise State's Chris Petersen reportedly took his name off Haden's list. Kevin Sumlin apparently preferred an extension at Texas A&M to a new office in the plush John McKay center. Vanderbilt's James Franklin was another sexy name that was thrown around, but he either bailed, or Haden didn't want to gamble on an upcoming, young coach from out of the area.

Did Haden even check with Jon Gruden's agent? How about Pat Fitzgerald at Northwestern? His team struggled in the final weeks of this season, but his credentials over the years are impeccable. Was he even considered a possibility? Jack Del Rio was another supposed candidate, but did his lack of availability until sometime in January or February rule him out?

We'll never know now. Just like we'll never really know how close Ed Orgeron came to getting the gig he so desperately wanted. If USC had beaten UCLA the other night, would all the Coach O fans out there be celebrating at the news he'd signed a contract today?

Many of those same fans are deeply disappointed now. Not just because Sarkisian was hired, but because Orgeron handed in his resignation. The thought of this program without his gruff, Cajun voice echoing in the background is not easy to imagine, especially after that stirring six-game run he had.

Even the most optimistic of Trojans boosters cannot guarantee you the program is in a better place today with Sarkisian as head coach than it would have been with Orgeron in that same position.

Strange, huh, how one night and one game can alter the future of so many?

And so begins the Sarkisian Era at USC, and we can tell you this much: He will be an excellent spokesman for the program. He is smooth with the public and good with the media. You could talk to Kiffin for a while and never really feel comfortable. But chat with Sark, and he can immediately put you at ease.

They'll love him at booster banquets and donor cocktail parties.

But how will they feel about him deep in November when UCLA and Notre Dame are staring at him from the other sideline? Nobody really knows.

Not that it matters at the moment. They will hold a news conference at USC on Tuesday, and Haden will say glowing things about his new coach, and Sarkisian will tell everybody how thrilled he is to get this opportunity.

The smiles will be wide, and the chatter will be encouraging. For many, it will be a happy day.

But for others, for all those fans and boosters who had set their hopes and their sights a bit higher, the whole thing will feel ... well, just a little unsettling.