Five months ago, Steve Sarkisian was a professionally homeless visitor to Alabama’s preseason camp. After being ushered out at USC amid reports of alcohol abuse, he had some TV work lined up. But Sarkisian didn’t want to talk football. He still wanted to coach it.
After Sarkisian spent a week in low orbit around the Alabama program, Nick Saban said he might have something for him. But to avoid any awkward optics, it would have to wait until after the season opener against his old team, USC.
Flash to Saturday. So much had happened so quickly. Sitting high in the national-championship media-day perch reserved for the Alabama offensive coordinator, the outcast before Game 1 now was one of the big stories of Game Last.
Outwardly relaxed, displaying a command of the microphone that nearly seven years of head coaching at Washington and USC had provided him, Sarkisian leaned heavily upon three words.
“Grateful, humbled, honored,” he said more than once.
One other emotion was also in play, he said.
“This is what I love to do,” he said. “I’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve been fortunate to coach in some big games in my career. This is another big one.”
Saban did indeed bring in the fallen coach after the USC game, assigning Sarkisian the modest title of analyst — a low-paying, non-coaching position in which he’d help game-plan from a distance.
His status changed quickly in the past three-plus weeks. First he was named to succeed Lane Kiffin as Alabama’s offensive coordinator next season, after Kiffin had moved on to head coach at Florida Atlantic. Then, as the arrangement for Kiffin to finish out the Crimson Tide’s championship run fell apart, hastened by a poor offensive showing against Washington in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl semifinal, Sarkisian got an immediate, battlefield promotion to OC on Monday. He’ll call the plays in the national championship game against Clemson.
“He told me how he was looking forward to working with me next year — it just came a little earlier,” Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts said, low-key about the move, as are all his teammates. “We’re just going to take it as it comes.”
As an offensive analyst, Sarkisian acknowledged he was chafing beneath the restrictions.
“It was challenging,” he said. “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 you’re watching the tape. But it is frustrating as an analyst and you’re not coaching. That’s what you love to do. In my situation, when you’re not allowed to do that, it’s a lot of note-taking, a lot of watching the other guys coach.
“To get this opportunity back on the field, I feel like I was almost like a bottled-up ball of energy, where I could get back on the field and do what I love to do.” To that point, the one difference Hurts said he noticed in practice this week was a little quicker pace, a bit of an emotional power surge.
As a coordinator, Sarkisian said he would work from field level, as did Kiffin. That keeps within easy range of Saban’s displeasure. More to his benefit, Sarkisian said, “I’m comfortable there. I think it’s important for me to have the one-on-one contact with Jalen on the field and seeing his demeanor and really talking through things.”
Having given up the play-calling at the start of his shortened final season at USC, Sarkisian has not dialed up a play since the Holiday Bowl of 2014. The Trojans went for 45 points in beating Nebraska in that one.
As a man working through the issues that sent him to an inpatient rehab facility, any talk of that would have to wait until another time, Sarkisian said. On Saturday, he politely declined to discuss where he was in his treatment. “This isn’t really about me from a personal standpoint,” he said in the tumult of media day.
The closest he came to anything personally revealing was when asked what he learned about himself while in coaching exile.
“I’m a good person. I’m not perfect — none of us are,” he said. “But the reality of it is I also learned that I love this game. I love coaching football, love being around these players, love being around the coaches.”
“I believe this season I’ve tried to take it in, enjoy the moment.”
Because of the familiarity with Alabama’s offensive system Sarkisian gained these past few months, the company line is that the sudden change in coordinators will have very little impact on the Crimson Tide’s preparation or performance. How well Sarkisian has been able to forge an understanding with his players and how well he’ll adapt to the play-calling demands of game night will be among the intrigues of Monday night.
But because Saban orchestrated this move, there is the inherent trust that, no matter how jolting it seems, the change in upper management will fundamentally alter nothing. Alabama is still Alabama, marching to the same beat.
“I keep asking people: Do y’all honestly think coach Saban would let us change anything this week?” offensive tackle Cam Robinson said. “You think he would change the way we prepare or the process we go through week in and week out? He’s not letting that happen. Nothing has changed because we got a new offensive coordinator.”
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