Steve Sarkisian’s 500-day odyssey from USC to Alabama

TAMPA — Monday night, Steve Sarkisian will lead the Alabama offense as the Crimson Tide attempt to repeat as national champions in their game against Clemson. It will also mark Sarkisian’s debut as an on-field assistant and the latest in a whirlwind series of events for the 42-year-old coach. For the past four months, the former USC head coach has assisted Alabama in strictly a behind-the-scenes role, but that all changed a week ago, two days after the Tide defeated his old team, the Washington Huskies, in the Peach Bowl. Alabama head coach Nick Saban announced offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin was out, and Sarkisian was given the keys to the offense.

The news was just the latest wild twist on a roller coaster ride unlike any coach in a national title game has ever been on. The following is an oral history of the past 500 days of Sarkisian’s life, from the August 2015 incident that brought his personal struggles into the public eye to now, told by many of those who witnessed it.

The “Salute to Troy” incident

Sarkisian celebrates with players after 2015’s season-opening win over Arkansas State, just two weeks after the “Salute to Troy” incident.
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

SHANE FOLEY (former USC QB, 1986-90): Salute to Troy is a feel-good event at the end of training camp where you have a lot of family members, young kids and significant athletic (USC) donors there.

MICHAEL LEV (former USC beat writer, Orange County Register) : The media are not really allowed to attend that event, as far as I know. (We were) in the media room, and I stepped outside to see if I could hear any of it because it was held in the (nearby) track stadium. I kid you not. I heard (Sarkisian) talking. I thought, “Gosh, he sounds really strange. What’s going on here?” I went back and said (to fellow reporters), “I think Sark might be drunk.” He just sounded off. I didn’t hear him cursing but just the way he was talking — slow but also loud.

LINDSEY THIRY (reporter, L.A. Times): Fireworks went off to signal the end of it, and (we) went out there. We spoke to a few parents and boosters. Every single one of them noted that (Sarkisian) seemed off.

PETROS PAPADAKIS (former USC player-turned-local radio host/FS1 game analyst): That event was always an event where assistant coaches would cut loose after camp. There was always a scrimmage, an autograph signing. Then Sark was supposed to have a meeting, a yearly promised thing with the Trojans Football Alumni Club. He didn’t show up. It was assumed he drank and took pills (Sarkisian later admitted he had mixed alcohol and medication before the event.). You just don’t miss it if you’re the USC football coach. He left them holding the bag. They were very unhappy.

FOLEY: I was the last speaker. I handed the mic to (USC AD) Pat (Haden) and he brought Sark up. At practice Sark looked fine. But once he started talking, you could tell (he was inebriated). He dropped a couple of expletives. It was beyond embarrassing. I think he went on for close to eight minutes.

DAN WEBER (columnist, USCFootball.com): Apparently, the first person who knew that Sark was in trouble was, ironically, Todd Marinovich. He walked by Sark and recognized that there was a problem with Sark before he went on, I’d heard.

LEV: I think Pacific Takes, an SB Nation blog, was the first one that broke the story, that he had been saying inappropriate things. Then ESPN.com posted an iPhone video of (of Sarkisian saying “Get ready to (bleeping) fight on, baby! Let’s gooooo!

The school issued an apology from Sarkisian the next morning. Haden was also quoted, saying, “While the details of our conversation will remain between us, I am confident he heard my message loud and clear.”

LEV: I don’t think at that point we realized the extent of his problems. There had always been rumors of him being a party guy when he was at Washington, but there was never anything concrete or on the record. I thought there would be some sort of reprimand or an apology and everyone would move on. It was just another embarrassing thing for USC.

SCOTT FELIX (former USC linebacker/defensive lineman, 2012-2016): He called all the team leaders (the next day) and really opened up. He made no excuses. He really humbled himself. We forgave him. We’ll always respect him for that. … People can have all sorts of internal struggles and we knew he was dealing with those, so you tried to be the best support system you can.

THIRY: There was a discussion with our editors and I got on a plane to Seattle. There had been too many things we had been told about Steve and his behavior (when he was the head coach at Washington.) I spent five days up there reporting, going to a handful of establishments that we’d heard there had been incidents at or places that he was a regular at. There was nothing egregious that he had done. It was just the rumors were so out of control. We wanted to get a sense of his behavior.

It was super awkward. We get into this to cover sports. But this was different. The guy drank, right? A lot of coaches drink. There had been no DUI. No arrests. There was nothing (before Salute to Troy) that said this is something we should be sniffing around.

The first press conference

LEV: It was not an uncommon scene to have a bunch of TV trucks for some sort of controversial aftermath press conference at USC. We were all waiting to see what’s going to happen. (At the next USC practice, three days after Salute to Troy), they have (captains) Cody Kessler and Su’a Cravens make some brief comments. I recall they both handled themselves with dignity, but that was the appetizer before Sark. There was a huge crowd (of reporters). His back is up against the wall. People crowding in. (L.A. Times columnist) Bill Plaschke asked if he had a drinking problem. His answer was ambivalent. (“No, I don’t believe so, but … I’m going to find that out.”) It was sort of a denial but left the door open. Not the kind of thing you’d expect in a typical post-practice media scrum. A substance abuse problem, which he might’ve had, is not something to be trifled with.

RYAN ABRAHAM (publisher, USCFootball.com): (Kessler) was talking about how (Sark) was punished by the players by doing up-downs. It was bizarre. Pat Haden talked about internal punishment but that Sark wasn’t going to miss any time as a coach. We all thought this all feels like it has the potential to be a powder keg.

PAPADAKIS: There was this weird gray area about whether Steve has an alcohol problem. It was so poorly handled. I thought they were trying to make light of something very serious.

WEBER: He was like a lost little boy. Head down. The only thing you took away from that was he’s really in a state of denial that he didn’t have a problem. He talked about a combination of alcohol and pills. I don’t know that there was anybody who came away from that (press conference) and thought, “This is going to turn out OK.”

YOGI ROTH (former USC assistant coach-turned-Pac-12 Network analyst): I’ve known Sark since I was 19. I didn’t know where (his issues) were at until last year. I was worried for him as a friend. Sark’s family to me. He gave me my Ph.D in football. We were connected via a headset or a whiteboard for four years. I knew he wasn’t right. You knew he was trying to hold it together because that was his dream job.

LEV: It was a tricky deal for a lot of us in the media to figure out how to talk about this situation. There’s still a tendency in the public to treat drunkenness as something funny. “He was wasted.” He didn’t really do something that was illegal. But it’s also a fact that alcoholism is a disease, and a serious disease. And the way Sark sort of brushed it off didn’t help. We weren’t sure how real (this was). If he really grasped the significance he might’ve stepped away, but he never did until it turned out the way it did.

Sark’s final days with USC

A 17-12 loss to Washington in October 2015 was Sarkisian’s final game as USC head coach.
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

Despite all of the Sarkisian issues, the Trojans began the 2015 season ranked No. 8 in the country. They had two soft games to start – Arkansas State and Idaho – and won the games by a combined score of 114-15. The following week, though, Stanford — a double-digit underdog — visited the Coliseum and defeated the Trojans, 41-31. USC rebounded with a blowout win at Arizona State, 42-14, before getting a visit from Sarkisian’s old team, Washington, in a primetime Thursday night game on Oct. 8. The Trojans were a 17-point favorite but got upset, 17-12.

ABRAHAM: It looked like everybody was pressing. Cody Kessler had always been efficient. He had a terrible game. After the game, Sark didn’t bring any players out like he normally did. He took all the blame.

LEV: That was a significant loss. That might’ve been the beginning of the end for him. That’s his ex-team. The Trojans are on their home field and they stunk up the joint. The next day they have a teleconference as they usually do. I recall telling one of my colleagues, “Sark didn’t sound right.” His voice was quivering. He seemed uncertain of himself. It wasn’t the same confident Sark that we had known.

That loss to Washington might’ve hit him really hard and might’ve had a profound effect on a guy who was having a really hard time keeping things together. I get there a half hour into practice that Sunday. Dan Weber comes up to me and goes, “Notice who’s not here?”

ABRAHAM: Normally, I wouldn’t go to that practice because only Sark was scheduled to talk, but I got a text from a booster: Something weird’s going on. And then another weird text about “look out for Sark.” I got there and there was no Sark. There were rumors that he had shown up drunk at a team meeting earlier in the day. (Senior associate athletic director) J.K. McKay walking around. Haden’s walking around. They kept assuring us someone is going to talk to you. We just didn’t know who.

At a press conference that day, Haden said Sarkisian had been asked to take an indefinite leave of absence and Clay Helton was named the interim head coach. One day later, on Oct. 12, Haden announced Sarkisian’s firing in an email sent to the media.

FELIX: The toughest point (of my time at USC) was that Sark wasn’t going to be around any more because you’re thinking, “Man, we gotta do this again.” It’s that uncertainty (of yet another coaching search). We went straight from the practice field in our gear into the team room. We’re still sweaty, still bloody. We kind of knew what was going on. We all love Sark. We wanted him to stay and wanted to him get better. But once they told us Coach Helton was taking over again, it was, “OK, let’s do this,” and we hit the ground running.

ABRAHAM: I think the players handled it fairly well. It was probably because they’d seen so much scandal and adversity over their careers. They came in with these smaller classes because of the NCAA sanctions. Then there was all the craziness with all of Lane Kiffin drama. After that, the whole deal with Ed Orgeron winning games and then not getting hired and the players are all crying. … They were so used to so many weird things happening. It was just like, “We don’t have a head coach any more, oh well, let’s go play Notre Dame.”

After the Trojans

Clay Helton greets fans before his first game as USC interim head coach, against Notre Dame.
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

Helton’s Trojans lost that next game at Notre Dame, 41-31, but then went on a four-game winning streak that included a victory over No. 3 Utah. Meanwhile, Sarkisian went to rehab for substance abuse.

ROTH: When he left to get help I said, “Go get right.” Clearly there was a sense of embarrassment, for obvious reasons. You’re holding on to your dream job. Your world is spiraling down around you.

He didn’t have his phone (in rehab). He was in there for about 40 days. I talked to him again in December. I called him every week. He didn’t answer every week, but I kept calling. When we got into the spring, we started talking every week and how he was seeing the world a lot clearer. He was spending a ton of time with his kids and spent time with coaches at every level of football. He had a ton of time to look at every part of his life. “What went wrong?” He’d process all the frustration and anger and had turned it into a positive. He is not cynical at all.

For him as a coach, he’s grinding in that world, (he didn’t) really take a lot of time for himself. Remember, when he was 32 years old, he turned down (the Oakland Raiders head coaching job) from Al Davis. I don’t think he’s ever had time to work on him. It didn’t save his career, but this saved his life.

STEVE SARKISIAN: I think the biggest thing I discovered in me is that I’m a good person. Not perfect, like none of us are. But the reality of it is, I also learned that I love this game. I love coaching football. I love being around these players. I love being around the coaches. I love all of college football. I love game day. When you get to go to that stadium, I really like to try to take it in. I think it’s important that we just don’t gloss over that kind of stuff. Enjoy the moment.

I think sometimes when you get in the midst of it as a head coach, you can get lost in all of that. This season (with Alabama), I’ve really tried to take it in and enjoy the moment, see the joy that these players get to have, see them struggle through practice, then make those subtle changes that they were struggling with on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, then actually go out and do it the right way on a Saturday. The satisfaction that they get and their position coaches get, I think those things are big.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

On Dec. 8, 2015, Sarkisian filed a lawsuit against USC, saying the school officials committed a breach of contract and discriminated against him. The complaint asks for at least $12.6 million in damages (the amount of money remaining on his deal when USC fired him), but Sarkisian’s attorney told TMZ he will seek more than $30 million. The lawsuit said that Sarkisian acknowledged a problem with alcohol and depression. It also stated that the coach had boarded a flight to check into an inpatient treatment facility and when the plane landed, Sarkisian learned via email that he had been fired.

ABRAHAM: I was surprised when he sued the school, considering how sensitive these issues are that USC fired him the next day. Normally, you’d give a big school the benefit of the doubt that they knew what they’re doing, but you’ve seen plenty of examples of things at USC where they didn’t know at all what they’re doing.

PAPADAKIS: I wasn’t surprised. Steve didn’t get to where he got to because he was stupid. Yeah, he made a lot of mistakes, but I didn’t think he’d let Haden talk to him the way he talked to him and get away with it. I think he was willing to be culpable. Coaches are protected in contracts for a reason, because they can get fired in any moment. The guy’s life collapsed. I thought it was a fair thing that he sued the school, but I thought it was a giant mistake by the school to let anything become public.

Many in the media speculated that after the details of Sarkisian’s lawsuit became public, he wouldn’t get another shot at coaching in college football. Prior to the Alabama hire, he auditioned with FOX to be a college football analyst, but coaching was always his focus.

Gus Ruelas/AP photo

SARKISIAN: No, I knew I’d coach again. I wasn’t worried about that. I knew I’d coach again. It was just a matter of when and where. In the coaching world, I’m still very young — 42 years old. I’m very young. I believe I’ll be a head coach again.

JACOB ULLMAN, (SVP, production and talent, FOX Sports): We first met with him in February. He was open and conceded that he had made plenty of mistakes. As we continued to speak with him, he was organized and very diligent. You felt like he was in a good place. His audition couldn’t have gone much better. We had him do studio in mid-March and a game in late March. Both went great. I liked him better on games, but he was really good in the studio too. It was impressive.

JOHN ENTZ (president, FOX Sports Media Group): We were doing his game audition with (play-by-play man) Kevin Burkhardt at the time the Emmy nominations came out. We went down to the studio at the end of it and showed Kevin that he had been nominated for an Emmy in play-by-play and he was blown away. Sark was sitting there sort of just watching, taking it all in with this surreal grin.

PAPADAKIS: I’d heard some of the parameters involved with a 3-man booth (with me as the other analyst) because we knew there was potential that we could lose him late in the process and wanted to have a backup if it happened. … FOX asked me, “Are you OK to work with Sark?” I said, “I’m fine. Is he OK to work with me?”

SARKISIAN: I just had never had an August in my life that I can remember that I wasn’t at training camp. I visited the Atlanta Falcons, the University of Florida, the Tampa Bay Bucs and Alabama. My first stop was Atlanta, and it took one practice. As soon as I got out on that field with (head coach) Dan Quinn, that staff, I knew this is where I need to be, this is where I want to be. This is what I love doing. Football’s in my blood. I knew right away. Man, I love being around it. I don’t know if I want to be wearing a suit-and-tie sitting in a booth calling a game. I love being on the field.

I’d actually spent a little bit of time with Jon Gruden. He stepped out of the game as a true coach. What do you do? You develop a routine. You still study film. You’re still looking at the NFL. You’re looking at old cut-ups. Like I said, I knew I was going to coach again. I just wanted to be prepared when this moment came. So I stayed involved in studying the game and working at the game.

The Alabama era begins

Sarkisian with QB Jalen Hurts in September, as Alabama’s offensive analyst.
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY Sports

On Sept. 5 — two days after Alabama whipped Sarkisian’s old USC squad, 52-6, in the season opener — he was hired as an analyst for the Crimson Tide, re-uniting with his old USC colleague Lane Kiffin on Nick Saban’s staff.

SABAN: Sark came in during fall camp just to visit and stayed with us for a week. We spent some time together. He watched practice. I asked for his observations. Before he left, he said he was supposed to do some TV work or something, but he would really like to get involved in a program someplace, and if there was any opportunity for him to do it here — and I liked him in the week that he spent with us. I told him, I said, there may be some opportunity for you to do that here, but since we play USC first, I’d rather wait until after that game until we sort of do it because I wouldn’t want people to think that we’re trying to bring you in to create some advantage or whatever. And that’s basically what we did. I think he was helpful all year long, helping in the planning and assisting in some of the things that we did all year long. I think it worked out well.

KIFFIN: Part of (the reason for talking Sarkisian into the job) in my head was that I may not be here the next year. And so I thought it was important he could help me for a year, and then if there was something where I wasn’t here, it’d be an easy transition for (Saban) to have somebody versus hiring Sark, not really knowing him and him not being around the system. I think in some ways, he’ll do a much better job than I do with (Saban). The best way I would describe that is his personality will work a little better with Coach Saban than mine does.

BILLY NAPIER (Alabama wide receivers coach): Sark’s extremely talented, he’s very qualified, he has been a head coach at two Power 5 schools, had a tremendous track record as a coordinator. For me, it’s been an outstanding opportunity to learn throughout the year. And I’ve had extensive conversations picking his brain about what we should do different.

SARKISIAN: In the analyst role, you still get to work on the game plan side of things. You still get to work with the coaches on giving suggestions and tips when we’re watching the tape. But it is frustrating as an analyst when you go out to practice and you’re not coaching. I mean, that’s what you love to do. But in my situation, when you’re not allowed to do that, it’s a lot of note-taking. It’s a lot of watching the other guys coach.

JALEN HURTS (Alabama quarterback): I really didn’t know who he was at first. I really didn’t introduce myself to him or meet him. I didn’t really know of him. Then it came a point throughout the season where I introduced myself and we kind of talked a little bit.

Back in the spotlight

Sarkisian, at media day before the national championship game.
Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports

Last Monday, some 36 hours after Alabama had defeated a Washington team that Sarkisian helped build, Saban dismissed Kiffin to focus on his new job as the head coach at FAU. Saban announced that Sarkisian, who already had been named the offensive coordinator for 2017, was taking the reins for the title game.

SARKISIAN: Quite honestly, in this profession, nothing really surprises me, especially my career and the way it’s all kind of gone down. So when the news came, I shifted right into coach mode, which is where I’m really probably the most comfortable. It was just time to go to work.

A few hours later, Sarkisian’s old USC team played — and defeated — Big Ten champion Penn State in a dramatic fourth quarter rally to win its first Rose Bowl since the end of the 2008 season, his last game as Pete Carroll’s offensive coordinator before he became a head coach. Scott Felix was one of several former Trojan players in the Rose Bowl crowd who had endured four different head coaches and were there to watch Clay Helton’s team.

FELIX: We were down 49-35. Things weren’t really going our way. I kept telling people sitting around me, “Man, there’s no way we’re going to lose this game.” I just had this gut feeling. All of these fifth-year guys had been through too much and dealt with all these distractions when we just wanted to play football to not go out winning that game. Not too many people understand what it was like going through all of that. For all the guys who had played at USC over the past few years (and weren’t in uniform) we all felt like we were a part of that game. I was emotionally drained. I was crying after the game.

SARKISIAN: I caught the tail end of that game. I started watching from the second half on. Quite honestly, for USC and those players, those coaches, the people there, I couldn’t be happier for them and more proud of the work that those players put in. What a great moment. What a great college football game to be part of. That setting, I’ve had a chance to coach in that game numerous times. I’m really happy for those players, especially the seniors. Those guys have been through a lot. To finish their careers the way they did, I couldn’t be more happy and more proud of them.

I can relate to them. They’ve been through a lot. There’s been a lot of expectations on a lot of those players when they arrived. To finally have that moment to end their career or end their season is something that they’ll cherish and will last a lifetime for them.

Additional reporting by Stewart Mandel.