TAMPA | Steve Sarkisian had plans for the 2016 season, but those plans didn’t involve wearing headsets or being a part of offensive game planning.
He was going to join Fox Sports’ college football coverage as a studio analyst.
That was before a mini-tour of fall camp stops around the Southeast got his football blood going. When the calendar flipped to August and Sarkisian started getting the itch to go to a training camp, he went to four fall camps, visiting the University of Alabama, Florida, the Atlanta Falcons and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
It was in his stop in Tuscaloosa that Sarkisian and UA head coach Nick Saban started kicking around the idea of joining forces. Alabama didn’t have room on the offensive coaching staff to hire an assistant coach, but an offensive analyst role – a staff position Saban has used to further distance his program from others – seemed like a good fit.
He left and pondered a decision.
“It didn’t take long,” Sarkisian said.
The two agreed that Sarkisian shouldn’t begin the new job until after the Southern Cal game to avoid the appearance that the hire was made to give UA an advantage in one game against Sarkisian’s former team.
In accepting the offer, Sarkisian knew it meant working with Lane Kiffin again — the two were co-offensive coordinators at Southern Cal in the mid-2000s. He couldn’t have imagined the season would end with Kiffin essentially fired as the offensive coordinator the week before the national championship game, putting Sarkisian back in the public eye for the first time since his very public battle with substance abuse which cost him his dream job at Southern Cal just a season ago.
Sarkisian had already been named Alabama’s offensive coordinator for the 2017 season, but Kiffin’s ouster put him in the uncomfortable position of taking over the offense for the most important game of the season. It also put him in front of the media for the first time since his exit from Los Angeles.
“I don’t think I could have foreseen four months ago when I was contemplating doing TV to get into this situation,” Sarkisian said Saturday morning at the College Football Playoff National Championship Game media day. “But very grateful and humbled and honored that Coach Saban and the entire Alabama Crimson Tide family entrusted in me to do the job.
“Like I said, I don’t think I could have foreseen it four months ago. But today and this week, it’s about doing the job and getting these players who have worked so hard for months that have put themselves in this position to play in this game to do the best job I can do to help them.”
Sarkisian handled his hour in the spotlight beautifully, mixing humor with candor, speaking sparingly but truthfully about his battle with substance abuse and the toll it took on his career. He weaved through the details that led him into the position he’ll stand in Monday night, when Alabama plays Clemson for the title at Raymond James Stadium.
A new voice in the ear of true freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts isn’t ideal against a Clemson defense that leads the nation in creating negative plays for opposing offenses.
Hurts labeled the change abrupt.
“It was kind of a sudden change for me because it’s like you’ve been getting coached by this guy all year and it’s a sudden change coming into probably the biggest game of the season,” Hurts said. “So it’s really different, but I think we feel good about the situation we’re in, and we all think that he’ll do a great job come Monday.”
Sarkisian doesn’t lack confidence in his ability to develop quarterbacks, but he said he’d let Hurts answer questions about if a new offensive coordinator affects him or not.
Much has been made, both locally and nationally, about the abrupt change of offensive coordinators. Hurts was clearly frustrated in last week’s performance, a game in which he threw for just 57 yards on 7 of 14 passing in a semifinal victory over Washington. Kiffin’s focus level for that game has been questioned, and that lack of focus directly led to the decision for him to immediately begin his head-coaching duties at Florida Atlantic rather than finishing out the season with UA.
Asked if a new voice would hinder Hurts, Sarkisian didn’t seem concerned.
“It can be if I don’t make my voice heard this week,” Sarkisian said. “I’ve been fortunate in my career to have worked with some pretty good quarterbacks and have had some pretty good success working with quarterbacks.
“I just went back to the basics with what I knew in coaching that position, my communication with that position. I think the response from Jalen has been really good.”
In reality, Sarkisian spent the year as an offensive analyst learning a new offense. There was some carryover from when he worked with Kiffin, but that was 10 years ago and Kiffin’s offense has evolved, especially in his three years in Tuscaloosa, where he learned the ins and outs of the hurry-up offense. This season he implemented many spread principals, too. Together at Southern Cal, the duo ran a West Coast offense.
Fresh on the minds of nearly every Alabama fan is the desire to run the football, and considering that sophomore running back Bo Scarbrough enters the game off an 180-yard, two-touchdown rushing performance and with fresh legs, that desire isn’t lost on Sarkisian.
“Every game is different,” he said. “When you get into ballgames, you play to the flow of the game. How your defense is playing, the things we’re doing well, what the defense is giving us and how we’re trying to attack.
“But ultimately you always want to strive for balance. You strive for balance. But every game’s different. You do what you have to do to win the game. You do what you need to do to win the game.”
The change from Kiffin to Sarkisian was supported by the other offensive assistant coaches, including Billy Napier and Mario Cristobal, who have been an offensive coordinator and head coach, respectively.
It also needs to be stated that Sarkisian doesn’t have a blank page to fill in terms of the game plan and play-calling. That doesn’t mean there won’t be new wrinkles or a couple of new concepts, but don’t expect wholesale or radical changes from what the offense has done this season.
“Sark has done this for a long time, and he’s called plays for a long time,” Saban said. “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 situation. 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, thats’ what we need to go out and try to do, and that’s going to give us the best chance to be able to execute and be successful.’
“I think he’ll do that.”
Reach Aaron Suttles at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 205-722-0229.