AUSTIN, Texas — Steve Sarkisian hasn’t forgotten, and he won’t.
There’s no way he could, especially not this week with Nick Saban and the No. 1 Crimson Tide coming to town.
To most in the college football world, Saban is the guy who led Alabama to an amazing six national championships, the guy who transcended college football in a myriad of different ways and the guy who built a dynasty the likes of which the sport may not. see you soon
But for Sarkisian, Saban is, simply, the guy who “saved my career.”
As big a game as it will be for Texas when Alabama visits DKR-Texas Memorial Stadium on Saturday — and as big a game as it is for Sarkisian to show the Longhorns are on the right trajectory after suffering through a losing season in theirs. first year at the helm — he says he’ll be forever indebted to his old boss.
“I’ve said this many times, but I wouldn’t be the head coach at Texas if it wasn’t for Nick Saban,” Sarkisian told ESPN. “He gave me a chance when I was having a hard time getting an interview, never mind a job. There were days when I thought, ‘Man, I’ll never be a head coach again. I’ll never be. an offensive coordinator again. I’ll never get another job.’
“But Coach Saban took a chance on me when I needed someone to believe in me again.”
Sarkisian’s problems with alcohol were well-chronicled and led to his firing at USC five games into the 2015 season when then-athletic director Pat Haden said Sarkisian’s behavior “did not meet USC’s standards” and that Sarkisian was “not healthy .” Sarkisian has spoken openly about his alcoholism and says he didn’t hold anything back from his players at Texas.
“I’m really transparent with my players. I’m really open. I’m really honest,” Sarkisian said. “I’m sharing my story of where I was in my career at 33 or 34 as the head coach at the University of Washington, then being fired publicly on national television at USC and then going to rehab for 30 days.”
Sarkisian needed a chance to rebuild his career, and there was no better place to do it than at Alabama under Saban, who helped revive more than a few coaches’ prospects.
“Sark is the one who did the work,” Saban told ESPN. “We supported him and made sure there were the right resources and people to help him, as we did with many others. But, listen, he saved his own career by doing a great job for us and rehabilitating himself professionally, and me. I not only talks about personally, but professionally in a really, really positive way that has had a huge impact on our program and helped us be successful here.”
Saban actually took two chances on Sarkisian, whose Longhorns opened the season with a 52-10 win over Louisiana-Monroe. The first came when Saban hired Sarkisian as an offensive analyst just before the start of the 2016 season, which was a complete surprise to Sarkisian. In fact, he had already decided to be part of the Fox broadcast team that season and had no plans (or opportunities) to train.
He was on Alabama’s campus that summer as part of his own mini-tour where he spent time with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons on the NFL side and Florida and Alabama on the college side.
Tuscaloosa just happened to be his final stop.
“I spent three to five days at each location, just trying to catch up with where my friends were training and trying to stay connected to the game,” Sarkisian said. “I never had an August where I wasn’t in training camp.” One of the main reasons he went to Alabama at all was to reconnect with old friend Lane Kiffin, the Tide’s offensive coordinator. They were together at USC as co-offensive coordinators under Pete Carroll and remained close.
During Sarkisian’s visit to Alabama, Saban had Sarkisian watching tape and drawing plays on the whiteboard.
“Every day, it was like, ‘Look at this, look at that and tell me what you think about what you think about that,'” Sarkisian recounted. “Coach Saban doesn’t miss anything. He always picks your brain.”
Ultimately, Sarkisian said it was Kiffin who was “kind of the champion behind a lot of it” and dismissed the idea of joining Alabama’s staff as an analyst. Sure enough, Saban offered him a position, but Sarkisian wasn’t sure if he wanted to take it.
“I went back and forth and back and forth and agreed to take the job at Alabama, and it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” Sarkisian said.
Little did he know that he would be calling plays in the national championship game later that season after Saban parted ways with Kiffin following a 24-7 win over Washington in the College Football Playoff semifinals. Kiffin planned to stay for the championship game after agreeing to take the Florida Atlantic main job, but Saban had other ideas after seeing the Tide struggle on offense in the victory over the Huskies.
“Definitely one of the more unique experiences of my career,” Sarkisian said of the 35-31 national championship game loss to Clemson.
Sarkisian had already been hired as Kiffin’s successor, but his first stint as Alabama’s offensive coordinator lasted less than two months. He left on February 7 to be the offensive coordinator of the Falcons, replacing Kyle Shanahan, who was named the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. But after two years with Atlanta, Sarkisian was fired as part of a restructuring on the staff of the Falcons.
Saban certainly wasn’t happy that Sarkisian bolted so quickly, but took a second chance on him after Mike Locksley left to take the Maryland head coaching job after the 2018 season and then Dan Enos left suddenly to be Miami’s offensive coordinator. Sarkisian was all set to stay in the NFL and take a job as the Arizona Cardinals’ offensive coordinator when Saban came calling again.
“In my mind, I stayed in the NFL, but had to take a step back and look at myself and say, ‘You know what? Here’s a man who offered me a job when no one even wanted to interview me,'” Sarkisian said. “‘Here’s a man who trusted me to call a national championship when I was an analyst all year. Here’s a man who hired me as offensive coordinator and I left a few months later … and he’s still calling me to come back?’
“I felt that at that time I owed him. He extended an olive branch to me, and I don’t know how much I really appreciated that and how much I acknowledged that.”
Under Sarkisian’s tutelage, Alabama’s offense put up record numbers. The Tide averaged 47.2 points per game in 2019, second only to national champion LSU.
After that season, Sarkisian turned down head coaching opportunities at Colorado and Mississippi State to stay at Alabama.
“I thought to myself, ‘You know, I think there’s a better job out there for me, and I have unfinished business,'” Sarkisian said. “We didn’t win a national championship. We were good enough. We were talented enough. I didn’t do a good enough job. It was the right thing for me, for the program and for Coach Saban to stay another year.”
Sarkisian became an even hotter commodity in 2020 when the Crimson Tide went through the season undefeated en route to a national championship, and did so while playing an all-SEC schedule during the regular season affected by COVID-19. The Tide again finished second nationally in scoring offense (48.5 points per game) with a first-year full-time quarterback Mac Jones playing his way to being an NFL first round draft pick and receiver DeVonta Smith winning the Heisman Trophy. They have scored more than 40 points in 10 straight games.
As the College Football Playoff approached, Sarkisian turned down an opportunity to interview for the Auburn head coaching job.
“There were some opportunities, but they weren’t the right ones for me,” Sarkisian said. “But then Texas came…very late.”
And very quickly.
Texas announced Sarkisian’s hiring on January 2, 2021, about five hours after announcing that Tom Herman was gone as coach.
“So, it felt right,” Sarkisian said. “We were going to play for a national title, and I felt like I fulfilled what I owed coach Saban. Besides, it was Texas.”
Saban’s Alabama program was something of a haven for coaches looking for second chances, whether they had been fired at their previous stops for not winning enough or for other reasons. Saban said those who were given second chances all had one thing in common.
They were committed to helping themselves.
“I gave several people opportunities, and they all did really, really well, whether it was Lane, who had a lot of baggage, or Mike Locksley, who had a negative past, and then Sark,” Saban said. “I think people learn a lot sometimes when things go wrong, and it makes them realize that there are some changes that need to be made.
“It wasn’t because I told them. They did it themselves, did a great job here and earned their opportunities.”
Texas will have to earn its way back to national relevance after 12 straight years without so much as a conference championship. The Longhorns have had almost as many head coaches (four) as they have had winning seasons (six) over the last decade. Sarkisian knows what the pinnacle of college football looks like. He saw it up close.
“It’s been Alabama for the last decade and a half,” Sarkisian said. “And at the end of the day, we should also be one of those teams at the top, and that’s what we strive to do.”