LOS ANGELES—Steve Sarkisian and Lane Kiffin spent a hefty part of their 20s together on Southern California's downtown campus. If they weren't sequestered in an office up in Heritage Hall watching game tape and eating takeout food, they were simultaneously teaching and learning on the practice fields across the street.
Under Pete Carroll's watchful eye during the Trojans' incredible decade of success, these former college quarterbacks grew from raw assistant coaches into co-offensive coordinators of the USC machine while still remaining close friends. Before either coach had turned 35, both had graduated to run their own programs.
Sarkisian and Kiffin face each other for the first time when Washington visits the 18th-ranked Trojans (4-0, 1-0 Pac-10) on Saturday night, but standing on opposite sidelines isn't likely to quench this bromance.
"He's done a nice job, (and) I think we've done a nice job," said Sarkisian, who's early in his second season at Washington. "These are both jobs we thought were special ones, especially in the Pac-10. It's a unique experience, this early in our careers, to be facing each other in such a pivotal ballgame in the Pac-10 race."
While Kiffin's scandal-scarred program hopes to stay unbeaten by getting revenge for the Huskies' win over USC last season, Washington (1-2, 0-0) is in need of another tone-setting victory similar to last season's 16-13 upset of the Trojans.
But the subplots on the Coliseum sidelines will be numerous. Sarkisian went to Seattle with encyclopedic knowledge of Carroll's system, and he installed huge chunks of it with the help of defensive coordinator Nick Holt, who had the same job at USC. And don't forget, Kiffin's defensive coordinator, Ed Orgeron, also was on those USC staffs.
It's all intriguing to the man at the root of this coaching tree.
"They were great friends, and they were kind of comrades as they grew up in the system," Carroll said. "They became kind of real products of it. They're much different, not the same individuals, but they got along well, about the same age, had fun together and all that."
Carroll, who took over the Seattle Seahawks after last season, claimed he'll be "rooting for everybody" on Saturday.
But if both coaching staffs know almost everything about each other, who has the advantage? Kiffin claims Sarkisian's knowledge of the Trojans' upperclassmen gave him a big edge last season and again this year, while Sarkisian was quick to claim underdog status this week, saying USC is "the most talented football team in our conference from top to bottom."
"That's an old Lou Holtz trick that he learned watching TV a long time ago," Kiffin said. "To call a team that has the lowest scholarships probably in the country the deepest team in the Pac-10, that's an old setup trick. We can barely find enough guys to practice. Our service team is made up of some kids from science class. Half of them never played football before."
Speaking of Lou Holtz tricks, Coach...
"We watched the same show," Kiffin said with a grin.
Their careers split after the 2006 season when the 31-year-old Kiffin left USC to run the Oakland Raiders, who also considered Sarkisian for what turned out to be a disastrous hire. While Kiffin muddled through 20 games and multiple clashes with Al Davis before resurfacing at Tennessee last season, Sarkisian bided his time at Carroll's side and waited for an ideal job, even while receiving criticism from some USC fans for his conservative play-calling.
Through it all, Sarkisian and Kiffin never lost contact.
"Yeah, we talk. We text," Sarkisian said. "It's a good friendship. It's one that keeps us healthy in the profession, the ability to talk to another head coach and bounce ideas off him, because so much of this profession is keeping things in close and in tight, and you can't share with anybody."
It's not all seriousness, though. Earlier in the week, Kiffin joked about a text from Sarkisian solemnly informing him that Huskies quarterback Jake Locker would miss the game after getting hurt.
Locker is just fine, and his mobility poses the usual problems for USC's defense, which will shadow him with a linebacker on almost every play. The senior acknowledges he's hungry for a solid game to reclaim his mojo after Nebraska harassed him into a 4-for-20 performance two weeks ago.
The Trojans will have quarterback Matt Barkley, who missed last season's meeting in Seattle with an injury. Although the sophomore has shown flashes of last season's poor decision-making over the past two games, Barkley and his offensive teammates are eager to show off against the coach who recruited many of them to USC.