Steve Sarkisian had a decision to make in February. An offer from Colorado was on the table. Five-and-a-half years after his career went off the rails, he could sign on the dotted line and become a head coach again, and he could do it closer to home and within the familiar confines of the Pac-12.
The temptation was there. He was flattered.
He said no.
The timing wasn’t right. There were other opportunities, other interviews he could have taken, but he wasn’t ready to leave Alabama — not after he left so quickly the first time around.
Yes, Alabama agreed to increase his salary to $2.5 million per year, but he also valued the stability of his role as offensive coordinator. He was learning so much. Of coach Nick Saban, he said, “I’m with a really good mentor.”
The old Steve Sarkisian might not have looked at it quite the same way. He might have jumped at the chance to strike out on his own — never mind how difficult it is to win at Colorado — and take the next step in rewriting the story of a career that once seemed all but lost. But the old Steve Sarkisian is gone. Lane Kiffin looks at his friend today and calls him “Sark Nowadays.”
Sark Nowadays doesn’t yell so much. The fire’s still there, but he has mellowed. His blood pressure is a little lower, Kiffin said.
Sark Nowadays, Kiffin said, is better suited than he ever was to handle working alongside the prickly Saban. So far, there hasn’t been a single public blowup.
Kiffin and Sarkisian still joke about the good old days when they were hotshot assistants under coach Pete Carroll at USC and how Kiffin once asked Sarkisian to pick up his laundry. He’ll never live that down. They grew up in coaching together and ended up competing as head coaches three times. Kiffin is proud that he went 2-1 in those contests, but he added, “And then he got my job when I was fired at USC.”
Sarkisian lasted less than two seasons in L.A. before his alcohol abuse became apparent, and he was let go. Eleven months later, Kiffin helped get Sarkisian on staff at Alabama.
Kiffin, who is back in the SEC as head coach at Ole Miss, said of himself and Sarkisian: “It’s been a wild ride.”
“He’s done a remarkable job,” Kiffin added. “I thought after the year with Tua [Tagovailoa] and all the records last year, I thought he was going to go take that Colorado job.
“I wish he would have. Maybe we would have beaten Alabama if he wasn’t there. But he stayed, and that says a lot.”
It says that Sarkisian has changed. It also says that he’s willing to be patient.
Because if Colorado was ready to make Sarkisian a head coach in February, it’s safe to say that what he has done since then, coaching a quarterback in the thick of the Heisman Trophy race and orchestrating one of the best offenses in college football, will have even more suitors calling.
There’s no outrunning his past, but Sarkisian seems to be on the verge of getting a second chance. An industry source told ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg just last month, “Sark is a lot more hirable. I don’t think anybody will have a lot of questions.”
Sark Nowadays isn’t the same person Kiffin connected with in the early 2000s at USC. Back then, Kiffin coached receivers, Sarkisian the quarterbacks. They were together constantly, ragging on each other. They even carpooled to work.
Kiffin came from coaching royalty as the son of defensive guru Monte Kiffin. Sarkisian, on the other hand, was just a kid from Torrance, California, who went to El Camino College and BYU. He was out of the Canadian Football League and working in a cubicle in the software industry when offensive coordinator Norm Chow brought him to USC as a grad assistant.
But it was as if Sarkisian and Kiffin shared a football mind. When they were co-coordinators, they’d draw up 10 plays each for the week’s game plan, and at least eight of them would be the same, Kiffin recalled.
“They were best friends,” former USC quarterback John David Booty said.
Sarkisian would sit beside Kiffin on the bus ride home after games, slumped over and exhausted. Kiffin would ask, “What’s up?” And Sarkisian would tell him it felt as if he’d competed in the game himself.
Kiffin was more the laid-back type. Sarkisian, Booty said, was intense and approached every snap in practice as if it could be the last.
“He’s going to push you and push you and push you,” Booty said. “And at the end of the day, we’re glad he did.”
Mark Sanchez knows that side of Sarkisian well. But Sanchez, who played quarterback at USC from 2005 to ’08, said Sarkisian knew when to dial it back, too. If you were having a bad day, Sarkisian would pull your face mask in close and whisper so other players couldn’t hear.
This practice, Sarkisian would say, is slow and stinks.
Sanchez recalled the rest of the conversation.
“There’s one guy that can fix this, and I’m talking to him right now,” Sarkisian would say. “You get it? Fix it, please. Now you’re going to run wrist band, red seven. Go!”
Having played the quarterback position, Sarkisian understood the pressure that came with it and made it about having fun. Yogi Roth, an assistant on staff, said Sarkisian would tell quarterbacks, “You don’t have to be the guy who has a statue outside the stadium.”
He wanted them to let it rip, to play with confidence. If he asked about throwing a slant, he wanted them to say they wanted to throw a slant-and-go and take that shot deep. “All gas, no brakes,” was a familiar phrase Sarkisian tossed out in meeting rooms.
Sanchez would walk in late at night and watch Sarkisian drawing up plays.
“He would go through different series,” Sanchez said. “Like, ‘Oh, s—, we’re going to hit them with the A-12 divide for Z getaway. Oh, God, Ronald Johnson is going to blow the top off these motherf—ers. And if it’s not there, you can dump it down to your comeback. That would be Patrick Turner. That would be No. 1 for the USC Football Trojans. And if he doesn’t get it, we’ll just dump it down to another five-star guy.'”
It was like Jon Gruden grinning wildly about running Spider 2, Y Banana. In fact, Sanchez said Sarkisian reminds him some of Gruden, and Kiffin added that Sarkisian does a killer Gruden impersonation.
If Sarkisian thought you weren’t as amped as he was, he’d call you out. Sanchez remembers Sarkisian challenging him once, “Hey, bro, if I’m talking too fast for you, you want to take a break? You want to get a Mountain Dew or something? You OK? You gettin’ a little sleepy?”
Then he’d dive back into the play sheet.
“That’s a touchdown if you throw a dime like I would,” Sanchez remembered Sarkisian saying. “If not, you have Anthony McCoy running the wheel. And if not, you can dump it down to Stafon Johnson. How about that? Let him scamper off. See, what we’re doing here is throwing four guys into one area. We are flooding and overflowing the defensive side. They can’t cover all four. Trust your eyes. Trust your feet. Boom! We’re in!'”
Said Sanchez: “You’re just like, whaaaat? This is so awesome.”
When Sarkisian got his first head-coaching job at Washington, he was the same way. Doug Nussmeier was offensive coordinator, and it was clear to him early on that Sarkisian knew exactly where he wanted to go and what the organization should look like.
They took over an 0-12 program that hadn’t gone to a bowl game in seven years. Nussmeier said Sarkisian was confident and infused everyone with that feeling.
“He’s one of the sharpest X’s and O’s coaches I’ve ever been around,” Nussmeier said. “When you get in a room with him, he’s going 180 miles per hour. He has an infectious personality. It’s go, go, go. You can see his mind working and how he’s always a step ahead.
“It’s fun, and it’s energizing. It’s wide-open.”
The Huskies beat USC. They beat Nebraska. They went to three straight bowl games. In five seasons, they finished with a record of 34-29.
Then USC fired Kiffin, and the Trojans brought back Sarkisian.
Then everything started falling apart.
They didn’t know, Kiffin said, just how good they had it. Back when they were young coaches at USC, they didn’t look around and recognize that double-digit wins weren’t a given, that two Heisman Trophy quarterbacks in three years wasn’t the norm, that competing in three consecutive national championships wasn’t how most seasons would end.
They didn’t know that it wasn’t real life they were experiencing. It was history.
“And then, when you get to the top and it’s taken away, it hits you,” Kiffin said. “You spend your whole life, and you don’t ever get a job like that, and it’s gone. And that’s hard to deal with because you don’t ever know if you’re going to get back there again.”
But perspective comes from failure, whether you’re ready for it or not. And failure forces you to confront your ego, Kiffin said.
Kiffin got a head start on that process when USC athletic director Pat Haden called him off the team bus and fired him on a tarmac midseason in 2013. Two years later, Sarkisian suffered a similar fate. But there weren’t airplanes taxiing when Haden told Sarkisian that he was out at USC; it was worse than that. There were reports and troubling video of Sarkisian showing up to work drunk, and just like that, his career prospects were nil.
Sarkisian later revealed in a lawsuit filed against USC that he had undergone “intensive” treatment, and in 2017, he told reporters that his alcoholism was “something I have to work on every single day, and I do work on it every single day.” (Sarkisian and Alabama assistants are not permitted to speak to the media during the season.)
Picking up the pieces, Sarkisian was ready to go into TV as an analyst. Then Kiffin told his boss at the time, Saban, that Sarkisian might be worth bringing in as an analyst — a low-profile, off-the-field position that Saban has made a habit of offering to recently fired head coaches looking for fresh starts.
Sarkisian said no at first. To this day, Kiffin doesn’t know what made him change his mind. But Kiffin said there are two types of coaches: those who can make the transition to the periphery of the game and those who eat, sleep and breathe ball and can’t stand not being at the center of it all. Sarkisian is the latter — someone who thrives on the schematics of the game. “He’s brilliant,” Kiffin said.
The deal was finished for Sarkisian to join Alabama before the season opener against USC that year, but Saban held off making it official until a few days after the game. Right away, Sarkisian got to work as Kiffin’s right-hand man in charge of game-planning for first-down and red zone situations.
William Vlachos, a former Alabama offensive lineman-turned-analyst, said it took only four days for Sarkisian to learn all the offensive terminology. What’s more, Sarkisian sat in on meetings and learned all of the team’s defensive verbiage.
You could tell right away, Vlachos said, how much trust existed between Sarkisian and Kiffin. That first game in the coaches box, Sarkisian was “on fire,” Vlachos said.
“He knew what plays to recommend to Lane and knew the words: You need to do this, this and this,” Vlachos recalled. “Then he’s looking back at me like, ‘They brought this blitz.’ It was unbelievable how he could regurgitate and process that quickly.”
Vlachos, who’s on staff at Colorado now, saw a lot of former head coaches come through Tuscaloosa to learn at the feet of Saban. If you’re looking to become a head coach again, being an analyst who makes five figures at Alabama can be more valuable long-term than earning seven figures as a coordinator elsewhere. Kiffin calls it getting the “Saban Stamp.”
“I don’t think Sark was there for Sark necessarily,” Vlachos said. “You get two different kind of mindsets in those roles, and I’ve been in most of them. Some people are there just for them. But, dude, I think Sark was there to help us. This guy was grinding on tape. This guy was there early as heck in the morning watching this, going over that, drawing this up, drawing that up.”
When Kiffin left a week before the national championship game to start his duties as head coach at Florida Atlantic, Saban could have turned to any of his on-field assistants to take over as playcaller. He tabbed Sarkisian.
Alabama lost to Clemson 35-31, but looking back, it was a difficult situation, shifting gears that suddenly. Even so, Sarkisian managed to produce 473 yards and 31 points with a true freshman quarterback he hadn’t coached hands-on all season.
And isn’t Alabama supposed to win every game under those circumstances? Before Deshaun Watson did his thing, Alabama was 50-1 in games under Saban in which it had at least 30 points and 450 yards of offense.
“It’s hard to be prepared for something like that,” Vlachos said. “He did as good a job as you could have done from that spot.”
Saban thought enough of Sarkisian that he promoted him to offensive coordinator. When Sarkisian left to join the Atlanta Falcons and was then let go after two seasons, Saban brought him right back to Alabama, where he has been ever since.
Roth has become a fixture of the Pac-12 Network as an analyst, but given that there has been no Pac-12 football to watch this season, he has found himself tuning in to a lot of SEC games.
It has been more than a decade, but Alabama now is the closest thing Roth has seen to what they were able to accomplish at USC under Carroll. There are weapons everywhere on offense, he said. Instead of Dwayne Jarrett and Mike Williams, it’s DeVonta Smith and John Metchie III. Instead of Reggie Bush, it’s Najee Harris. Instead of Matt Leinart or Mark Sanchez, it’s Mac Jones.
“It’s like a video game: Which star receiver am I going to get the ball to?” Roth said.
Alabama is averaging 555.2 yards and an FBS-best 47.2 points per game. Jones, who entered the season with only four career starts, is the Heisman front-runner, with 2,196 yards, 16 touchdowns and two interceptions through six games. His 77.4 completion percentage is six points higher than Tagovailoa’s career high last season.
Roth said the only difference now is how Sarkisian is pulling the strings. Sark Nowadays is almost statuesque on the sideline. Sanchez insists that the juice is still there, but he’s not so in-your-face about it.
Some of that is the result of Sarkisian’s fitting in with the more buttoned-up style of Saban. There’s little doubt, though, that it’s also a function of growing older and evolving.
Whether you ask Sanchez or Booty or Roth or Kiffin, they share pride in the way Sarkisian went through a tough time at USC and has come out on the other side. He didn’t tell them what he was going to do or how he was going to change. He just put his head down and did it, Sanchez said.
The only question now is what will happen next. When Saban tested positive for COVID-19 the week of the Georgia game, he chose Sarkisian to handle all the head-coaching duties until he could return. There’s some talk that Sarkisian might be in line to replace Saban.
Although Kiffin might wish Sarkisian would leave Alabama for selfish reasons, he has no doubt that his friend is ready to be a head coach again. Remember, Kiffin said, Sarkisian was a good coach before all of this happened. He took over a winless Washington and beat No. 3 USC in his first year.
“I know he’ll be great,” Kiffin said, “and he’ll be even better from being with Coach [Saban] over these years. He’ll be one of the elite college coaches in America.”