Nick Saban, Alabama take big gamble on Steve Sarkisian. Will it pay off?
TAMPA, Fla. — Steve Sarkisian smiled at the question.
“Is it like riding a bike?” a reporter asked Saturday. “It,” in this case, is calling offensive plays. Sarkisian, after 15 months off the bike, is about to enter the playcalling version of the Tour de France.
“We'll find out Monday night,” said Sarkisian, who has gone from USC’s head coach to an unemployed alcoholic to a $35,000-a-year offensive analyst to the offensive coordinator, quarterbacks coach and playcaller for a team playing for the national title in a span of 15 months. Sarkisian learned Monday that he would run Alabama’s offense for the national title game against Clemson, an eight-day-early promotion that represents perhaps the biggest coaching risk Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban has ever taken. Saban could have allowed Lane Kiffin to coach this game before moving on to become the head coach at Florida Atlantic, but Saban decided after the Peach Bowl that it would be best if the Tide moved on in the College Football Playoff without Kiffin.
Outsiders might view Saban as conservative, but in four months at Alabama, Sarkisian has learned that characterization couldn’t be farther from the truth. “Actually, he really is an aggressive mannered coach,” Sarkisian said. “He'll do things aggressively. He likes to play the game aggressively. He likes to coach aggressively. I think this is just another example of that.”
This is a huge roll of the dice by Saban, but five national titles earn a coach the benefit of the doubt. And the funny part is that if Alabama wins, the decision to jettison Kiffin and elevate Sarkisian will be used as further evidence of Saban’s genius. If the offense falters and Alabama loses, everyone will blame Kiffin.
Saban must have considered the situation with Kiffin untenable, because few coaches appreciate consistency of performance as much as Saban does. To make the offense listen to a new voice under these circumstances is unprecedented. Sarkisian was originally scheduled to take over the offensive coordinator job after Monday’s title game, but Saban moved up the timetable. Even though Sarkisian has learned the offense in his time as an analyst—a relatively low-paying, non-coaching position that involves breaking down film and assisting with the game plan—he hadn’t worked with these players on the field until this past week.
“You're hearing this guy, and then you got another guy that's coming in,” Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts said Saturday. “So it's kind of weird. But at the same time it's something that we're going to have to get used to. I mean it's something that I would have to have gotten used to next year because that's what we were going to deal with next year. So I mean with that, it is what it is. We have complete confidence in coach Sark, and we think he'll do a great job come Monday.”
It’s very weird, but it’s also a huge opportunity for Sarkisian as he works his way back from an ugly chapter in his life. Sarkisian didn’t want to talk Saturday about the issues with alcoholism that cost him his job at USC. “That part of it is probably for a different time,” Sarkisian said. “Today, this is about what are we doing to win the game Monday night.” Throughout a one-hour interview session, he offered a version of this sentiment each time he was asked to discuss his sobriety.
These are legitimate questions for a coach who lost his last job because of several different alcohol-related incidents, but Sarkisian also doesn’t have to answer them for just anyone. As long as Saban is comfortable with where Sarkisian is, that’s what matters. Saban was comfortable enough with Sarkisian in December to name him the offensive coordinator for the 2017 season, and Saban was comfortable enough with Sarkisian this week to dump the guy who built Alabama’s current offense in favor of Sarkisian. “Sark has done this for a long time, and he's called plays for a long time,” Saban said Saturday. “He's got a lot of experience. He’s got a lot of knowledge. I think he's very well organized in his approach, and I'd tell him what I tell any coach; We've prepared to do certain things in certain situations. Let’s stick with the plan. Until we have to adjust the plan, that's what the players know, that's what we've practiced.”
Alabama coaches and players said practice moved at a faster pace with Sarkisian running the offense. Several different players used the phrase “locked in.” In fact, so many used it that it sounded like a talking point fed to them to help them answer any questions about how things are different under Sarkisian. How different will things be? Not much, according to Sarkisian and Saban.
Like Kiffin, Sarkisian will work from the field. Sarkisian likes being able to talk directly to his quarterback. He told a story Saturday about his playing days at BYU. In his first game, then-Cougars coordinator Norm Chow worked in the press box. Sarkisian said communication wasn’t as crisp because it felt like a game of Telephone, and Chow ultimately moved down to the field. Sarkisian has taken that with him throughout his career.
Sarkisian probably will call the game in a similar manner as Kiffin. When Kiffin and Sarkisian served under Pete Carroll at USC, Kiffin called the plays from the booth and Sarkisian relayed them to the quarterback from the sideline. “The majority of it, we were on the same page, so it was a good feel for what we were doing. That's why I think this scenario's pretty good for me,” Sarkisian said. “I have an idea of how Lane calls plays. This isn't going to be trying to recreate the wheel. We've got a system in place here. We're going to do the things that we do well, put our players in the best position to be successful come Monday night.”
Sarkisian said he wasn’t surprised by Saban’s decision. “Quite honestly, in this profession, nothing really surprises me,” Sarkisian said, “especially my career and the way it's all kind of gone down.”
Sarkisian had planned to call games for Fox this season. His debut was supposed to be the Central Michigan-Oklahoma State game on Fox Sports 1, but summer visits to Alabama, Florida, the Atlanta Falcon and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers convinced him that he wanted to coach again. Saban, who also has former New Mexico coach and Maryland offensive coordinator Mike Locksley working as an offensive analyst, was intrigued by the idea of bringing in Sarkisian. “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,” Saban said. “And I liked him in the week that he spent with us. I told him, ‘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.”
Saban didn’t want to create an advantage for the season-opener, but consciously or not, he did create a backup option in case the Alabama-Kiffin marriage blew up before the season finale. Monday night against Clemson, we’ll find out if his gamble worked. “He entrusted in me the faith in me to go do it,” Sarkisian said. “Like I said, I'm humbled. I'm honored that he did. Away we go.”