The man people called “Cutty Sark” behind his back, former USC football coach Steve Sarkisian, checked into rehab in October after he was fired following an outburst at a university booster event where his long-rumored problem with alcohol took center stage.
Sarkisian appeared drunk at the now-infamous “Salute to Troy” in August, insulting opponents and shouting profanities in the midst of a pep talk. He was eventually pulled from the stage. Sarkisian later apologized, saying his behavior was due to an inadvertent mixing of alcohol and an unspecified medication.
The former BYU quarterback’s troubles with alcohol extend back to his tenure at the University of Washington, where he was the head coach from 2009 to 2013. In fact, after the August incident, former Huskies tight end Michael Hartvigson wrote on Twitter, “Coach Sark is still having fun at USC!” adding as a hashtag #ThingsHaventChanged. And, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times, another ex-player said that in 2009 Sarkisian sometimes arrived at morning team meetings “smelling like booze and [with] eyes all red, like he’s been on a bender.” The Times gathered hundreds of receipts and expense reports from Sarkisian’s days with the Huskies that show alcohol was a constant presence.
The paper trail told a story all too familiar to those close to the coach. Yogi Roth, a man who formerly worked alongside Sarkisian at USC and is now a college football analyst, told the Seattle Times that he watched the “progressive disease” take down his friend and mentor, a man he considers family.
“Drinking beers in the coaching profession is ridiculously common. … I don’t think … that’s that big of a deal,” Roth said. “But what happens is, when you add in pressure, when you add difficulties in your personal life — which it’s clear he was going through — and you add in [running] one of the top programs in the country, on top of that a disease that’s progressing at a rapid rate, unfortunately bad things are going to happen. And that’s what happened, to be blunt. He would tell you that too.”
To better understand Sarkisian’s struggles, KSL.com, a television station in Salt Lake City, Utah, reached out to Dr. David Sack, chief medical officer for Elements Behavioral Health, a national addiction and mental health treatment network. Dr. Sack, who noted that he hasn’t treated Sarkisian, said alcohol addiction tends to be a progressive problem for former athletes and people in the spotlight like Sarkisian.
“It can take five to 10 years for alcohol dependency to reach an area where it dramatically impairs one’s functioning, and many athletes and former athletes don’t see a problem until they are well into their 30s,” Dr. Sack told the NBC affiliate.
In letting Sarkisian go, athletic director Pat Haden said in a statement, “Through all of this we remain concerned for Steve and hope that it will give him the opportunity to focus on his personal well-being.”
And while many have said Haden and others ignored warning signs about Sarkisian’s alcohol use, the coach himself also seemed to be in denial about the extent of the problem. Four days after the “Salute to Troy” fiasco, Sarkisian promised to “get help,” but said he did not believe he needed to take a break from his job. “I don’t even know if I need rehab,” he said at the time. “I can’t wait to start coaching again today.”
It took being forced out of coaching for Sarkisian to seek that help.
“There’s a misconception that in order for people to get better, they have to want to change,” Dr. Sack said. “But a lot of addiction recovery comes after forced sobriety. They often make changes that might not have occurred if there wasn’t a lot of external sanctions on them.”
Dr. Sack added that having a network of former athletes who have overcome similar problems will be critical to the coach’s recovery, and Sarkisian has that and more. A groundswell of support has emerged from players, friends and former colleagues, all expressing hope for the best outcome. The BYU student section addressed the coach via video with heartfelt messages of support. Said one young woman: “Hey Steve, we’re all behind you and we wish you luck on your recovery. You’re going to do great.”