Steve Sarkisian sued the University of Southern California on Monday, alleging the school breached the football coach’s contract and discriminated against him on the basis of a disability — namely alcoholism — when it fired him this fall.
Sarkisian’s attorneys also alleged wrongful termination and invasion of privacy in the complaint filed in Los Angeles County Court. Sarkisian contends he is owed at least $12.6 million left on his USC contract, along with other damages for “extreme mental anguish.”
“Instead of honoring the contract it made with Steve Sarkisian, USC kicked him to the curb,” the lawsuit reads.
The school responded sharply to Sarkisian’s lawsuit later Monday. USC general counsel Carol Mauch Amir said the school is “profoundly disappointed” by Sarkisian’s characterization of the circumstances around his termination.
“Much of what is stated in the lawsuit filed today by Steve Sarkisian is patently untrue,” Amir said. “The record will show that Mr. Sarkisian repeatedly denied to university officials that he had a problem with alcohol, never asked for time off to get help and resisted university efforts to provide him with help. The university made clear in writing that further incidents would result in termination, as it did.”
In the 31-page lawsuit, Sarkisian gives his first detailed public descriptions of the events surrounding his firing Oct. 12, five games into his second season in one of the highest-profile jobs in college football.
The coach says he was fired by email, one day after athletic director Pat Haden put Sarkisian on a leave of absence when Haden said Sarkisian showed up to the school in no condition to work.
Sarkisian claims he should have been allowed to seek treatment for alcoholism while keeping his job. The lawsuit describes Sarkisian’s descent into alcohol dependency in steady detail, citing the extraordinary stress of the USC job combined with his wife’s decision to file for divorce earlier this year.
Sarkisian also says he has completed inpatient treatment and a detoxification program during more than 30 days in rehabilitation. He has stopped taking medications prescribed by a USC doctor, and is sleeping well “for the first time in over 20 years.”
“Steve Sarkisian was ready to return to work, both physically and emotionally and in time to coach USC’s two remaining games of the regular season and any games beyond that,” the lawsuit reads. “Unfortunately, there was no job waiting for him. Steve Sarkisian took responsibility for getting help for his disability. USC refuses to honor its responsibilities.”
Sarkisian was an assistant coach at USC under coach Pete Carroll during the 2000s, and he returned to the school as head coach in December 2013 after five years at Washington.
Sarkisian’s behavior was first scrutinized last August when he slurred his words and used profanity in a speech at a preseason pep rally. He claims he was affected by two light beers and two prescription medications for anxiety.
The lawsuit says Sarkisian had no more issues with alcohol until a 17-12 upset loss on Oct. 8 to Washington. Sarkisian’s “depression and anxiety worsened and his consumption of alcohol when he was not working increased,” the lawsuit states.
“That weekend, however, Steve Sarkisian began to finally come to grips with the fact that he had a problem with alcohol, needed serious help, and needed it now,” the lawsuit states, citing Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia’s decision to seek alcohol treatment a few days earlier as a factor in Sarkisian’s decision.
Sarkisian arrived at school Oct. 11 still feeling the effects of drinking heavily and sleeping poorly. The coach claims he wasn’t drunk in a morning team meeting, but a combination of drinking, sleep deprivation and prescription medication made him “not appear to be normal.”
Sarkisian alleges Haden was unsupportive after the coach left the school that day before practice, claiming the athletic director “derisively yelled” at him over the phone before putting Sarkisian on leave and appointing Clay Helton as the Trojans’ interim coach.
“Unbelievable! Can’t you even go back to the office to finish the day?” Haden said, according to the lawsuit.
“No, I need to get help,” Sarkisian replied, according to the lawsuit. “I’m not right.”
Sarkisian says he didn’t learn he had been fired the next day until he stepped off a flight to an inpatient treatment facility, getting an email with an attached letter of termination. The coach claims Haden never asked Sarkisian if he had been drinking before the team meeting.
“That is because Haden did not care what had happened or what the facts were,” the lawsuit states. “Haden jumped at what he would later claim was ‘cause’ to fire Mr. Sarkisian and not pay him his rightful salary.”
Helton, a Trojans assistant since 2010, was named USC’s permanent coach last week. After winning the Pac-12 South while going 5-3 under Helton, the Trojans will face Wisconsin in the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 30.
USC has been hit with several lawsuits in recent years surrounding its football program, which only emerged in 2014 from several years on NCAA probation amid heavy sanctions for alleged misdeeds committed during Carroll’s wildly successful tenure.
Former players Brian Baucham, Morgan Breslin, Bryce Dixon, Armond Armstead and Stafon Johnson have all taken legal action against USC in recent years, alleging various mistreatments by the football program and the athletic department.