AUSTIN, Texas — Steve Sarkisian has not forgotten, and he will not forget.
There’s no way he could, especially not this week when Nick Saban and the No. 1 Crimson Tide come 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 surpassed college football in countless different ways, and the guy who built a dynasty, that sport may not have to see again at any time.
But for Sarkisian, Saban is just the guy who “saved my career.”
A game as big as for Texas when Alabama visits DKR-Texas Memorial Stadium on Saturday — and a game as big as for Sarkisian to show the Longhorns are on track after suffering a loss during his season first year at the helm – he says he will forever be indebted to his old boss.
“I’ve said this many times, but I wouldn’t be the head coach of Texas if it wasn’t for Nick Saban,” Sarkisian told ESPN. “He gave me a chance when I was struggling to get an interview, let alone a job. There were days when I was like, ‘Man, I’m never going to be a head coach again. I will never be an offensive coordinator again. I’ll never get a job again.’
“But Coach Saban gave me a chance when I needed someone to believe in me again.”
Sarkisian’s drinking problems were well-documented and led to him firing five games during the 2015 season at USC, when then-athlete director Pat Haden said Sarkisian’s “behaviour did not meet USC standards” and that Sarkisian was “not healthy.” Sarkisian has been open about his alcoholism and says he hasn’t withheld anything from his players in Texas.
“I’m really transparent with my players. I’m really open. I’m really honest,” said Sarkisian. “I share my story of how, at age 33 or 34, I got on in my career as a head coach at the University of Washington, then got publicly fired from USC national television, and then went into a treatment facility for 30 days.”
Sarkisian needed a chance to rebuild his career, and there was no better place to do that than in Alabama under Saban, who has helped restore more than a few coaches to careers.
“Sark is the one who did the work,” Saban told ESPN. “We have supported him and made sure there are the right resources and people to help him as we have done with many others. But listen, he saved his own career by doing great work for us and rehabilitating himself professionally, and I’m not only speaking out personally, but professionally in a really, really positive way that’s heavily impacting our program and us helped to be successful here.”
Saban actually took two chances against 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 came as a complete surprise to Sarkisian. In fact, he’d already committed to being part of the Fox broadcast team this season and had no plans (or opportunities) to become a coach.
He was on the Alabama campus this summer as part of his own mini-tour, spending time with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons on the NFL side and Florida and Alabama on the college side.
Tuscaloosa happened to be his last stop.
“I spent three to five days at each location just trying to find out where my friends are training and trying to stay connected to the game,” Sarkisian said. “I’ve never had an August that I haven’t been to training camp.” One of the main reasons he went to Alabama in the first place was to reconnect with his old pal Lane Kiffin, the Tide’s offensive coordinator. They were at USC together as offensive coordinators under Pete Carroll and have remained close.
During Sarkisian’s visit to Alabama, Saban had Sarkisian watch tapes and create plays on the board.
“Every day it was like, ‘Look at this, look at this and tell me what you think about it, what you think about it,'” Sarkisian said. “Coach Saban misses nothing.
Ultimately, Sarkisian said it was Kiffin who was “kind of a champion behind it” and dismissed the idea of joining Alabama’s staff as an analyst. In fact, 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 in Alabama and it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” Sarkisian said.
Little did he know he would play in the national championship game later that season after Saban parted ways with Kiffin after a 24-7 win over Washington in the college football playoff semifinals. Kiffin had planned to stay on for the championship game after agreeing to take over as Florida Atlantic boss, but Saban had other ideas after watching the Tide struggle on offense in the win over the Huskies.
“Definitely one of the most unique experiences of my career,” said Sarkisian of the 35-31 loss in the national championship game to Clemson.
Sarkisian had already been signed as Kiffin’s replacement, but his first tenure as Alabama’s offensive coordinator lasted less than two months. He left the team on February 7 to become the Falcons’ offensive coordinator, replacing Kyle Shanahan, who was named head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. But after two years at Atlanta, Sarkisian was fired as part of a Falcons staff reshuffle.
Saban admittedly wasn’t pleased that Sarkisian bailed out so quickly, but jumped at a second chance after Mike Locksley took over as head coach at Maryland after the 2018 season and Dan Enos then abruptly left to become Miami’s offensive coordinator. Sarkisian was ready to stay in the NFL and take a job as the Arizona Cardinals offensive coordinator when Saban called again.
“In my mind, I stayed in the NFL but had to step back and look at myself and be like, ‘You know what? Here’s a man who offered me a job when no one would interview me.’” Sarkisian said. “‘Here’s a man who trusted me to name a national championship game when I was an analyst all year. Here’s a man who hired me as an offensive coordinator and I left a few months later … and he’s still calling me to come in the back?’
“I felt at the time that I owed him something. He handed me an olive branch and I don’t know how much I really appreciated that and how much I acknowledged that.”
Under Sarkisian’s tutelage, Alabama’s offensive lined up record-breaking numbers. The Tide averaged 47.2 points per game in 2019, bested only by national champions LSU.
After that season, Sarkisian turned down head coaching opportunities in Colorado and Mississippi State to remain in Alabama.
“I was like, ‘You know, I think there’s a better job out there for me and I have work to do,'” Sarkisian said. “We didn’t win a national championship. We were good enough. We were talented enough. I didn’t work well enough. Staying another year was the right thing for me, for the program and for coach Saban.” “
Sarkisian became an even hotter commodity in 2020 as the Crimson Tide rolled unbeaten through the season on their way to a national championship, and did so during the COVID-hit regular season while playing an SEC-only schedule. The Tide finished second on offense nationally (48.5 points per game), with full-time first-year quarterback Mac Jones earning his way as the NFL’s first-round draft pick and receiver DeVonta Smith winning the Heisman Trophy . They scored more than 40 points in 10 straight games.
As the college football playoffs approached, Sarkisian turned down an interview for the job as Auburn’s head coach.
“There were a few opportunities but they weren’t the right ones for me,” said Sarkisian. “But then Texas came… very late.”
And very fast.
Texas announced Sarkisian’s hiring on January 2, 2021, about five hours after announcing that Tom Herman would be absent as coach.
“Then it felt right,” Sarkisian said. “We wanted 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 were fired from their previous stints for not winning enough or for other reasons. Saban said those who were given a second chance all have one thing in common.
They were determined to help themselves.
“I gave several people a chance and they all did really, really well, whether it was Lane, who had a lot of baggage, or Mike Locksley, who had a negative history, and then Sark,” Saban said. “I think people sometimes learn a lot when things are going badly and it makes them aware that some changes need to be made.
“Not because I told them. They did it themselves, did a great job here and deserved their chances.”
Texas must earn its way back to national importance after going 12 straight years without so much as a conference championship. The Longhorns have had nearly as many head coaches (four) as they have won seasons (six) over the past decade. Sarkisian knows what the pinnacle of college football looks like. He saw it up close.
“For the last decade and a half, it’s been Alabama,” 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’re aiming for.”
https://www.espn.com/college-football/story/_/id/34523868/texas-longhorns-coach-steve-sarkisian-says-alabama-nick-saban-saved-my-career Texas Longhorns coach Steve Sarkisian says Alabama’s Nick Saban ‘saved my career’