TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — After helping with the professional reclamation of one former USC head coach—to the massive benefit of Alabama’s offense—Nick Saban hopes he’ll get similar results from another former Trojans coach. Three days after current Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin was introduced as Florida Atlantic’s new head coach, Saban promoted Steve Sarkisian from offensive analyst to offensive coordinator. So Sarkisian, who was hired in 2013 to be replace Kiffin at USC, will replace Kiffin again after the Crimson Tide finish this postseason.
The difference between Kiffin and Sarkisian is the circumstances of their departure from USC. Kiffin was fired in 2013 for losing too many games. Sarkisian was fired in October 2015 for abusing alcohol on the job*. Should Saban have hired Sarkisian so soon after Sarkisian’s dismissal from USC? Saban probably would know better than anyone else whether Sarkisian is ready to face such a high-pressure job again while coping with his recovery from alcoholism. After all, Sarkisian has worked alongside the Bama staff since September as a $35,000-a-year offensive analyst. He came to Tuscaloosa knowing he wouldn’t get many other chances if he screwed up. Had he slipped as an analyst, Bama easily could have jettisoned him and replaced him with any of the dozens of coaches who would love a chance to learn the inner workings of a program that has won four of the past seven national titles. “I wouldn’t have anybody in our organization that I didn’t have total faith, trust and confidence in that they would do a good job with our players,” Saban said Friday. “This guy is a part our family now. We’re going to help support him be successful every way we can. That’s in his life as well as [being] a coach.”
*After his firing, Sarkisian filed a lawsuit alleging that USC discriminated against him because of his disability (alcoholism). Sarkisian agreed to binding arbitration in the case in March.
Sarkisian, whose advice helped his friend Kiffin craft the offense at Alabama the past three seasons, has been learning the finer points of that offense for three months. What does an analyst do at Alabama? Whatever Saban wants that person to do. The Tide have what amounts to a second coaching staff working behind the scenes to help the position coaches and coordinators work more efficiently. Some of those analysts are young coaches trying to break into the business. Others, such as Sarkisian and former New Mexico head coach and Maryland offensive coordinator Mike Locksley, are trying to re-launch their careers after getting fired. This is yet another example of why Saban has lapped so many of his peers. Most coaches would have had to launch a national search. Saban had multiple coaches to choose from who already knew the offense, already knew the players and—most important—already know exactly how the head coach wants things done.
As Alabama players warmed up for practice Friday, Sarkisian smiled and laughed with Locksley and Kiffin. In 2011, all three were FBS head coaches—Kiffin at USC, Sarkisian at Washington and Locksley at New Mexico. As the season went on and it became more clear Kiffin wasn’t coming back to Alabama, Sarkisian and Locksley found themselves in competition for the job with Billy Napier, a former Clemson offensive coordinator who joined Alabama’s staff as an analyst in 2011. He followed former Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain to Colorado State in 2012 but returned to Tuscaloosa to coach receivers in 2013. Sarkisian, Locksley and Napier have auditioned for the job for months, and Saban’s choice Friday tells exactly who he believes won that competition.
Saban borrowed the idea of keeping a deep bench from former boss Bill Belichick. “Bill’s philosophy was get the right young guys and try to grow them in the organization,” Saban told SI in 2013. Belichick has continued to develop excellent coaches after hiring them as low-paid tape grinders. Saban copied that model. A prime example is Jeremy Pruitt, who was the defensive coordinator at Hoover (Ala.) High when Saban hired him in 2007 as Alabama’s director of player personnel. Pruitt worked his way up to defensive backs coach, but he wasn’t going to supplant Kirby Smart as the defensive coordinator. So Pruitt left in 2013 to become Florida State’s defensive coordinator. He helped the Seminoles win a national title that year and then held the same job for two years at Georgia. When Smart was hired last December to be the head coach in Athens, Pruitt was an obvious choice at Alabama’s defensive coordinator.
The wrinkle Saban has added to Belichick’s system is to hire recently fired head coaches and coordinators as analysts. Most don’t mind the low pay because they’re living that buyout life, and they get a low-pressure introduction to the most dominant organization in the sport. Meanwhile, Saban gets a pool of future assistants. And when he promotes an analyst to an on-field role, Saban doesn’t have to spend months teaching him the ins and outs of the job. The new assistant already knows, and that allows the Crimson Tide to continue operating efficiently. “It makes the transition easier,” Saban said Friday. “It makes it a lot easier for the players because it’s a lot less change for the players. The players have a comfort zone with people they already know.”
Saban reiterated that Sarkisian would have whatever support he needed on and off the field. The structure of Saban’s program could help Sarkisian manage his recovery. Someone trying to live one day at a time might thrive under an employer who expects his employees to focus only on the task at hand and nothing else. Ultimately, that will be up to Sarkisian. Alcoholism cost him one of the best jobs in college football, but the next step in rebuilding his career will begin next month. He knows the offense. He knows the players. If he wants to, he can make the transition nearly seamless.
That’s exactly what Saban and the Tide expect. Alabama players learned of the move Friday afternoon. What did they do?
“We went to practice,” left tackle Cam Robinson said.
And the machine kept humming along.