What did Steve Sarkisian learn from how Lane Kiffin’s tenure ended at Alabama?
Lane Kiffin no longer is Nick Saban’s most famous reclamation project.
The former FAU coach who now is looking to make Ole Miss relevant in the SEC, rehabilitated his coaching career at Alabama under Saban after he was fired twice (Oakland Raiders, USC) and abruptly left Tennessee after one year. And he was just 38.
Saban and Kiffin got everything each needed out of the marriage, even with the messy ending.
Now, the Saban Halfway House for Wayward Coaches is sending another head coach out into the real world, and this one could be a greater success story than Kiffin’s.
Steve Sarkisian has parlayed his last two years as the Alabama offensive coordinator into a head coaching job at Texas, a job he accepted Sunday seemingly minutes after Tom Herman was fired. Sark continued the offensive renaissance at Alabama with the Tide second in the country in scoring entering Monday’s championship game against Ohio State at Hard Rock Stadium.
Sarkisian, 46, says this arrangement only works if the coach looking for a lifeline understands his role under Saban.
“It’s a two-way street,” he said Wednesday. “Coach Saban offers guys like myself an opportunity to come into his program, learn, develop as coaches.
“You need to come in understanding what your role is. This is the greatest college football coach of all time. Recognize the space you’re in, regardless of the fact if you’d been head coach ... there’s been a variety of us who have come and gone through here.”
This has been quite a bounce back for a coach who had to overcome personal demons.
Sarkisian was humbled and looking to regain his reputation after being fired during his second season at USC, allegedly for arriving on the job while intoxicated. Sarkisian, according to reports, appeared to be intoxicated at a meeting, was drunk during a game and had alcohol-related incidents while at Washington.
Pat Haden, the USC AD at the time, said when he fired Sarkisian in October 2015 the coach was headed to a rehab facility.
Saban hired Sarkisian as an analyst less than a year later, then promoted him to offensive coordinator after Kiffin’s stunning (only because of the timing) departure.
Kiffin was fired (do not believe it was a mutual parting) three weeks after taking the FAU job, and one week before Alabama was set to play Clemson in the January 2017 championship game.
Saban believed Kiffin was spending too much time worrying about recruiting and putting together a staff at FAU. He also had seen enough during the Tide’s 24-7 victory over Washington in the semifinal game, the offense scoring just 17 points and passing for 57 yards.
Sarkisian, who then called the plays for Alabama’s 35-31 loss to Clemson in the title game, had a front-row seat for that soap opera.
“The experience was a unique one,” said Sarkisian, who left Alabama after that one game to head the Falcons offense but returned in 2019 after being fired by Atlanta. “Lane is a tremendous offensive coordinator. We worked well in 2016. … I took some things away from that that I think helped my career and will continue to.”
Foremost is learning how to multitask without ticking off the boss.
Sarkisian answered the Texas question before it was asked during his Zoom call Wednesday, saying he’s “excited” about the opportunity and is “looking forward” to getting started in Austin. Later he was asked about dividing his time.
“My week for me would be a normal game week as if I hadn’t taken the Texas job,” he said. “My focus is on the game. Any spare time that I do have, that’s getting my attention for the job at Texas, whether that’s staffing or recruiting.”
Saban was asked this week what he has learned from the distractions of coaches leaving (i.e. the Kiffin situation). He gave a long answer that started with him taking the Michigan State job late in 1994 while on Bill Belichick’s Cleveland Browns staff and staying on through two playoff games.
“I think you just have to separate yourself and focus on … you kind of owe it to the players to give your best, to do your best to help them get prepared for the game so they can play well in the game. That's how I always felt. I think that's how Sark feels.
“Most of the guys in the past have been able to do that and been effective, and it's not been a distraction for us.”
Sark deserves credit and should be applauded for turning around his life. Whatever he has accomplished in Tuscaloosa on the field is secondary. Both aspects of his life needed to come into focus for an opportunity like Texas to come his way.
On the field, he has made Alabama the most feared offensive team in the country. Alabama! It is likely eight Crimson Tide offensive players will be taken in the first round of the 2020 and 2021 NFL Drafts, including Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, the fifth overall pick last year.
Tua was one of four selected in the top 15 picks in 2020. Four are projected to be taken in the first round this year, led by the Heisman Trophy winner, receiver DeVonta Smith.
Kiffin has thrived since leaving Alabama, winning two conference titles in his three seasons at FAU and leading Ole Miss to its first .500 season since 2017. He has energized the fan base in Oxford.
But the ceiling is much higher for Sarkisian at Texas.
“He's got a great tradition of a lot of success on the offensive side of the ball,” said Ohio State’s Ryan Day, who will try to slow down Sark’s offense Monday. “He's been around some unbelievable offenses, and he's got a great feel.”
Alabama vs. Ohio State, Hard Rock Stadium, 8 p.m., ESPN