Almost from the time they arrived together as assistant football coaches at the University of Southern California, Steve Sarkisian and Lane Kiffin were like two peas in a pod, both ready to be nurtured in the garden of football knowledge tended by then-coach Pete Carroll.
That was before the 2001 season. At the time, Sarkisian was a 25-year-old coming in after a job as quarterbacks coach at El Camino Junior College. Kiffin was 24, and a quality control assistant for Jacksonville in the NFL.
Neither had much coaching experience. Both craved the opportunity to absorb as much information as possible.
“They were kind of comrades as they grew up in the system, you know,” Carroll said. “They became real products of it. They’re much different – not the same individuals – but they got along well.”
Now, they are part of a special fraternity in FBS (NCAA Division I) coaching – 30-somethings who head their own programs.
Sarkisian, 36, leads the Washington Huskies into the Los Angeles Coliseum on Saturday to face USC, which is led by Kiffin, 35.
“Both of us have (worked) for this opportunity to be head coaches,” Sarkisian said. “He’s done a nice job. I think we’ve done a nice job. These are both jobs we thought were special ones, especially in the (Pacific-10 Conference). 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 in rare company.
The reins to FBS programs have usually been given to men in their 40s or older.
A 1999 study published in a journal for coaches and athletic directors revealed the average age for men hired for their first head-coaching job – FBS or otherwise – was nearly 38 years old.
At the time, the average age of FBS coaches was 48.
The numbers today haven’t changed much. Of the 120 FBS coaches, 28 were in their 30s when they were hired for their first NCAA Division I head job.
Four – all former quarterbacks – reside in the Pac-10, including Arizona State’s Dennis Erickson (38 when Wyoming hired him in 1985), UCLA’s Rick Neuheisel (34 when Colorado hired him in 1994), Sarkisian (34 when UW hired him in 2008) and Kiffin (33 when Tennessee hired him in 2008).
“Those guys obviously did a great job young, and made a really good impression on the people that have hired them,” Oregon State coach Mike Riley said. “That’s a little unusual, and a little hard to do.”
Others in FBS coaching have been head coaches before, so the numbers are a bit misleading: Riley was 33 when he first led Winnipeg of the Canadian Football League in 1983; Washington State’s Paul Wulff was 32 when he took over at FCS (Division I-AA) Eastern Washington in 2000; Colorado’s Dan Hawkins was 32 when he was hired at NCAA Division III powerhouse Willamette in 1993.
While many such examples exist, being an FBS head coach is a unique responsibility, full of wide-ranging duties in addition to actually coaching.
Why is it that it takes men longer in the FBS football ranks to be hired as head coaches than in other high-profile sports?
“Experience is such a valuable key to it,” Neuheisel said. “Managing 85 people is probably a little different than managing 13 or so in college basketball.
“And there are more assistant coaches who have earned their chance for a deal at this level, too.”
Or, as Sarkisian theorized: “This is such a big-business sport, it’s a little safer to hire an older guy.”
In the cases of Sarkisian and Kiffin, where they came from and who their boss was likely were major factors in getting their names considered for high-profile jobs.
In 2007, after two seasons as the USC offensive coordinator, 31-year-old Kiffin was hired by the Oakland Raiders as the youngest coach in the NFL’s modern era.
Sarkisian was in the running for the same job, but withdrew his name to become the assistant head coach/offensive coordinator at USC under Carroll.
“We went on a great run, and played a lot of championship football (at USC),” Kiffin said. “(It) helped all of us.”
Kiffin lasted one season with the Raiders, but was back in the college business late in 2008 when Tennessee hired him to run its program – just days before Sarkisian took the Huskies job.
In UW’s case, athletic director Scott Woodward pinpointed two priorities in hiring a man to replace Tyrone Willingham. One was finding “an expert at the top of the game” in football, whether he was a head coach or assistant, and Sarkisian was generally considered one of the better offensive strategists in FBS football.
Second, Woodward sought a top-notch recruiter.
Sarkisian was the best closer for securing talent at USC, which regularly hauled in top-five recruiting classes under Carroll.
“Age was secondary,” Woodward said.
In December 2008, Sarkisian – then 34 – became the youngest UW coach since Jim Owens, who was 29 in 1957. And at the time, he was the third-youngest in all of FBS coaching.
More than a year into the job, Sarkisian was asked last spring if he could have led UW at an earlier age. Stone-faced without hesitation, he responded, “Sure.”
“I had a great mentor – Pete was tremendous to me,” Sarkisian said. “This situation fit really, really well. I knew this conference well. … I knew the history here. I had a great athletic director and a great (university) president (Mark Emmert), so the transition was there for me.
“If I took a job two or three years ago in the SEC, or Big Ten or ACC, it might have been a little bit different because I wouldn’t have known it as much.