LOS ANGELES -- Pete Carroll had envisioned Steve Sarkisian eventually taking over for him at USC whenever he decided to step down.
On a staff littered with future college head coaches, Carroll had targeted Sarkisian as his successor and even went so far as to try to get the administration to guarantee Sarkisian would be USC's next coach when Carroll left.
What had been a fairly well-known story inside Heritage Hall for years was confirmed by Carroll when he returned to USC in February to speak after winning the Super Bowl with the Seattle Seahawks. As much as he liked Lane Kiffin, Sarkisian was the coach he thought was best suited to lead the Trojans after his departure.
Four years later, and in the aftermath of the sanctions that rocked the program Carroll had built, Sarkisian will look to build it back up, but don't look for him to dust off the same old blueprint Carroll used when he first arrived at USC.
"When I left for the University of Washington six years ago, my final meeting with Pete was actually at the Rose Bowl," Sarkisian said at Pac-12 media day on Wednesday. "We just got done playing Penn State. His final words to me walking out there were, 'Go be you. Because when adversity strikes, the real you is going to come out anyway.'
"I've always held on to that. I really feel like I have. Pete and I are different people. We're very different people. Do I hold on to some of the philosophies I learned from him? Sure I do. But we are definitely different people and that won't change here. You have to be yourself. I think I can be and by doing it the right way, I think we'll be successful."
It's easy to look at the Sarkisian hire as another attempt by USC to re-create the glory days of the Carroll era at USC. There's no doubt Carroll continues to cast a large shadow over the program he returned to national prominence a decade ago.
When Carroll left in 2010, he was replaced by Kiffin, who had been Carroll's offensive coordinator. When Kiffin was dismissed five games into last season, he was replaced by Ed Orgeron, who had been Carroll's defensive line coach. And when USC wanted a clean slate after last season, well, it hired Sarkisian, who had also served Carroll's offensive coordinator.
Sure, it's familiar, but when the Trojans take the field this season, the team won't look anything like the teams coached by Carroll, Kiffin or Orgeron. Sarkisian's football philosophy changed and evolved during his five seasons in Washington.
He will run a no-huddle, spread offense and a 3-4 defense. The pro-style offense and 4-3 defense that had become a staple at USC under Carroll and during most of Kiffin's tenure are now gone.
"As a coach you're faced with tough decisions and different things all the time," Sarkisian said. "And one of them is you have to do what's best for your team and best for your program. You're always trying to do what's best for your program to put your kids in the best position to be successful. We've made those decisions and they've been positive moves for us. I think you have to fully invest in them when you make those moves."
Sarkisian is trying to carve his own path at USC while recognizing the enormous shadow of the coach who not only loomed over him the last time he was in Los Angeles but also while he was in Seattle, where Carroll turned the Seahawks into Super Bowl champions. It's not so much about dismissing what he learned from Carroll but taking pieces of that philosophy and building upon them with his own philosophy.
No one can be Carroll, and nothing Sarkisian will do at USC will re-create what Carroll did during his time there. Sarkisian knows that. He was there long enough to know that was a special time that comes along only once in your career if you're lucky. It's not so much about trying to make a sequel using the same cookie-cutter script, but trying to create something new and looking toward the future.
Over the past four years, USC lost 30 scholarships and suffered a two-year bowl ban. The Trojans had 41 scholarship players for their 45-20 win over Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl, 41 fewer than the NCAA maximum. Expecting Sarkisian to follow the same script as Carroll did would not only be foolish, it would basically be impossible.
"Really, I'm trying to do the job the best way I know how to do it," Sarkisian said. "I'm not here to make any excuses for anybody. I'm not here to apologize. I'm here to lead USC football in the right direction and to try to win championships. I've never come into this thing thinking I need to apologize for anything that's ever gone on. It's about what are we doing today? How are we getting better today?"