As college football evolved into the Cult of the Coordinator, the high priest was Norm Chow.
Assistant coaches have steadily received more pay, pub, praise and potshots for their play calling in recent years. Television cameras cannot get enough of the men whispering furtively into their headset microphones from the press box or gesturing wildly from the sidelines. And the guy most often seen and saluted was Chow, who helped transform the Southern California Trojans into a certified juggernaut.
We saw more of L.A. Norm hunched over his play sheet in the box than we used to see of Boston Norm hunched over his beer in "Cheers."
So the nation wondered how USC would do when Chow left for the NFL last winter. Especially when he was replaced by the youngest offensive coordinator in Division I-A, 30-year-old Lane Kiffin, and his 31-year-old sidekick, quarterbacks coach Steve Sarkisian.
Is this any way to replace a high priest? With a pair of altar boys?
As it turns out, yes. The Trojans haven't just survived without Chow. They have improved.
USC leads the nation in total offense (580 yards per game) and is second in scoring offense (50 points per game). The Trojans are on pace to become the first team in 32 years to rank in the NCAA top 10 in both rushing offense (they're fourth at 264 yards per game) and passing offense (they're fifth at 316). They're the first team ever to have a 3,000-yard passer, two 1,000-yard rushers and a 1,000-yard receiver, with a second 1,000-yard receiver possible by midnight Jan. 4. They have an outside shot at the NCAA records for yards per play (they're averaging 7.5; Army set the record in 1945 at 7.9) and yards per carry (they're averaging 6.6; Nebraska set the record of 7.0 in 1995).
Now it comes down to this final test against Texas in the Rose Bowl. If Kiffin-Sarkisian ignites the scoreboard against the Longhorns with the national championship and a history-making threepeat on the line, can their own cult status be far behind?
They arrive at this extraordinary opportunity via divergent routes. Kiffin was born for it. Sarkisian sort of happened upon it.
Born to coach
Pete Carroll likes to tell the story about his days as an assistant coach at North Carolina State in the early 1980s, when the head coach's kid would wander into his office and mess up everything while the team was out practicing.
The head coach was Monte Kiffin. The kid was Lane.
"He was around the office and practice," said Monte, now the acclaimed defensive coordinator of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "He was a ball boy with different teams. He always wanted to coach."
Lane was intrigued by the X's and O's his dad would doodle on any available writing surface. What might have been hieroglyphics to most kids his age became a second language to Lane.
"Coaching always intrigued me," he said. "I think [Monte] knew it. He never pushed me that way, but he always implied that he knew it was going to happen."
The one significant departure Lane made in joining the family business was switching sides of the ball. His father ranks among the most celebrated defensive coaches in NFL history, but Lane always preferred offense.
He played quarterback in high school and at Fresno State. When Kiffin was a fifth-year senior at Fresno, offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford gave him a choice: suit up and not play much, or become a student assistant. An inevitable coaching career took its first formal step.
"He learned a lot of football under Jeff Tedford," Monte Kiffin said.
After a year with Colorado State and one with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Lane got the call to join Carroll at USC in 2001. The relationship between Carroll and Monte Kiffin predated even N.C. State, going back to when they were both assistants under Lou Holtz at Arkansas in the 1970s. Carroll hired Kiffin's kid as his receivers coach and plunked him down in the press box on game days next to Chow -- another opportunity to learn at the right hand of a master.
An acquired taste
Kiffin met Sarkisian at USC. If Kiffin was Carroll's guy, then "Sark," as he's called, was Chow's.
Sarkisian played quarterback under Chow at BYU in the mid-'90s, inserting his name in the school record book alongside guys like Young, Detmer, McMahon, Nielsen, Wilson, Bosco and others. But unlike Kiffin, who was probably in a three-point stance in his first ultrasound, Sarkisian was not born with football in his blood.
His two older brothers did not play, and he didn't put on a helmet until his freshman year of high school. Even after starring at quarterback for West Torrance (Calif.) High School, Sarkisian didn't plan on playing football in college. In fact, he first enrolled at USC as a baseball player.
"I never thought I was big enough to play college football," he said.
But the first stay at USC didn't last long. He transferred to El Camino Junior College, joined the football team, became a juco All-American and matriculated to BYU. There he set a school passing efficiency record and, in his words, "fell in love with the thinking side of the game."
"To play for LaVell Edwards and Norm Chow, that was a great two years," Sarkisian said. "I wanted to hear everything we were doing and why we were doing it."
Surprisingly, Edwards said he thinks Sarkisian might be the only one of his star quarterbacks who has gone into coaching.
"The real good players, they have a knack for getting it done," the Hall of Fame coach said. "There's something innate where they seem to grasp the situation. That was a mark of all the good quarterbacks we have, and Steve was right in there with the best we had for that. He just had that extra feel for it."
After three years playing in the Canadian Football League, Sarkisian went to work at El Camino, then got the call to join Chow at USC. By 2002, he was the quarterbacks coach. Last year, he was the quarterbacks coach for the Oakland Raiders, but returned to L.A. to partner with Kiffin after Chow left.
"We have a great relationship, great friendship," Kiffin said. "Even when he left last year, we were on the phone every week, talking about stuff."
Getting along was one thing. Getting it right was something else entirely. Kiffin and Sarkisian were about to become the most scrutinized assistant coaches in the country.
They had a few built-in advantages. One named Matt Leinart, another named Reggie Bush. Then there were the guys named Dwayne Jarrett, LenDale White, Steve Smith and Dominique Byrd. Don't forget a veteran offensive line. There are NFL coordinators calling plays for lesser talents.
But Leinart's feelings were bruised by Chow's departure. Even though he likes both Kiffin and Sarkisian -- he'll occasionally drop by Sark's house to play with his two young children -- the new guys had to prove they could keep the juggernaut rolling.
"We knew it was a big challenge, without a doubt," Sarkisian said. "But we had a couple of things going for us. One, we knew each other extremely well. We kind of grew up together in the system. And two, we're both great workers. We knew we'd work extremely hard to get things right.
"Expectations were high, but initially, our expectations were higher. We knew we were going to be a good offense."
Said Kiffin: "We envisioned it like this. Obviously, we're fortunate to have great players."
In many ways, the Kiffin-Sarkisian offense is identical to the Chow offense. But there have been a few notable differences.
• They've put the "run" back in running back for Bush.
In his first two years, he never carried more than 16 times in a game. This year, Bush has had 17 or more carries six times, including 47 carries his past two games for a defense-shredding 554 yards. He's caught 12 fewer passes, but his increased between-the-tackle running helped him win the Heisman -- and make USC's offense too balanced to stop.
• The passing game has been slightly more vertical.
Last year, Leinart averaged 8.06 yards per attempt. This year he's up to 8.82, despite a slight dip in completion percentage. Part of that is the emergence of the 6-foot-5 Jarrett alongside Smith as dual home run threats. The added impact of the running game has opened up more play-action passing as well.
• There is less art, more science to the play calling.
"Norm had an uncanny ability to call plays," Sarkisian said. "We may not have always known what was coming, but it worked. Especially in big games, he was willing to make calls nobody else would make.
"I think we're a little bit more on the structured side. We know what calls are coming. We know by the play sheet what to call, depending on the situation. The quarterback knows what's being called by the specific situation."
The entire season has pretty much gone according to the play script for USC and its young coordinators. Not even Norm Chow, high priest in the Cult of the Coordinator, could have schemed it up any better.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.