Column: Steve Sarkisian’s new job with Alabama is the next step in his program

Steve Sarkisian listens to a question during a media session for the College Football Playoff championship game.
(Brian Blanco / Getty Images)

No-nonsense, rarely smiling, control-freak Nick Saban is a gambler. Who knew?

Three years after placing the Alabama offense in the hands of loose cannon Lane Kiffin, Saban has taken another chance, this one bolder and more dangerous.

He has made Steve Sarkisian his new offensive coordinator.

Never mind the part about Saban suddenly severing ties with Kiffin and replacing him with Sarkisian in the days leading up to Alabama’s national championship game against Clemson. Sarkisian has been an offensive analyst for the team the entire season. The former USC coach knows the system. He should be able to call the plays for one game.


This is about more than the game Monday night. This is about visits in the fall to college towns such as Starkville and Auburn. This is about lonely nights on or near the Alabama campus after 15-hour work days. This is about next year and perhaps the year after that.

Sarkisian is a recovering alcoholic. Monday is only a start. Every day is only a start. The threat of temptation will always be there. Any slip and Sarkisian is back to where he was more than a year ago, when a series of drinking-related incidents prompted USC to fire him.

“It’s a process,” Sarkisian said. “The reality of it is, I’m at this point today and I’m at this point today with a tremendous opportunity.”

Perhaps because of an arbitration hearing later this month to settle his wrongful-termination lawsuit against USC, Sarkisian declined to offer details about his recovery. However, Saban revealed that Sarkisian continues to receive treatment.

“I think that if you look at the track record of anybody we’ve brought to our organization, they’ve had a lot of success in what they’ve done in the past,” Saban said. “There may have been some issue or something that sidetracked them and then it just becomes a matter of, ‘Can we manage that issue?’”

Asked why he felt comfortable expanding Sarkisian’s responsibilities, Saban replied, “He was with us all season long. We didn’t see any problems or anything. And his contribution was very positive, his personality was very positive, his organizational skills are very positive, he’s a very good teacher. So there were a lot of positive things that he contributed over the course of the season that made us feel comfortable making him a part of the organization.”

Then again, Kiffin looked as if he was under control for the majority of his three years with the program. Kiffin modernized Alabama’s attack as instructed and his infamous mouth was kept in check by restrictions on media access placed by Saban. But after Kiffin was named the head coach at Florida Atlantic, he started making unflattering remarks about Saban’s program.

In other words, Kiffin went Kiffin, burned another bridge, and this is probably why Alabama installed a new offensive play caller when it did. Sarkisian can’t afford to relive the problems of his past, both for his sake and for Alabama’s. He will be responsible for the development of teenagers.

Based on what Sarkisian said at Saturday’s media day — or what he didn’t say — Saban can at least feel secure knowing his new coordinator won’t be making the kinds of headlines his previous one did.

Sarkisian’s reaction when learning of Kiffin’s departure?

“My reaction was, ‘It’s time to get to work,’” Sarkisian said.

He wasn’t surprised?

“You know, quite honestly, in this profession nothing really surprises me, especially my career and the way it’s all kind of gone down,” he said.

Sarkisian downplayed the change in his role, saying how he continued to call plays on offense as a head coach at USC and Washington. He also mentioned how he was familiar with Kiffin’s thinking, as he and Kiffin worked together as assistants on Pete Carroll’s staff at USC. If anything, he said he felt uncomfortable in his role as an analyst because he couldn’t speak directly to players during games or practices.

He congratulated USC for its Rose Bowl victory over Penn State, remarking, “What a great moment.”

If there was a point Sarkisian wanted to make, it was that he realized how much he loved football in the wake of his firing from USC. Before he was hired by Saban, Sarkisian was planning to work as a television commentator.

Sarkisian said the chance to work under Saban presented itself over the summer. Without any coaching obligations, Sarkisian visited several teams “to see how other people did things.” His stops included the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Atlanta Falcons and the University of Florida, as well as Alabama.

“Had a great visit with Lane and Coach Saban,” Sarkisian said. “The talks were in play after that.”

Sarkisian said he always knew he would return to coaching. He envisions becoming a head coach again.

“In the coaching world, I’m still very young,” he said.

He’s right. He has a long road ahead, only in his case, he will have to take each step as carefully as he took his last.

Follow Dylan Hernandez on Twitter @dylanohernandez