The red, white and blue confetti rained down from the Georgia Dome on New Year’s Eve. Down below, lost in the latest chapter of Alabama’s College Football Playoff triumph, a once-broken man celebrated with a smile that never wavered.
There Steve Sarkisian stood, smack-dab in the center of his second chance. He wore team colors he never thought he’d wear. He processed an appearance in a national championship game he never thought he’d be in.
As the players migrated toward the trophy presentation, Sarkisian didn’t budge. He stood pat, 50 or so feet from the stage. Still hugging. Still beaming. Still smiling.
Although Sarkisian has spent the past four months out of sight in a role that rarely, by design, gives him airtime, that was not the case last Saturday. On a night that was supposed to be purely about football, Sarkisian stood for something more.
To the many who have been impacted by addiction, he was the symbol of what can take place after rock bottom has been reached.
“I think that there are a lot of folks out there who have made mistakes in their life before,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said of Sarkisian before the Peach Bowl. “When they work hard to try to take advantage of any future opportunities, I think that should be recognized.”
What Sarkisian might not have known in those moments following Alabama’s suffocating 24-7 victory over Washington in the Peach Bowl was that he would lead Alabama’s offense against Clemson in the national championship game nine days later.
When former offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin‘s departure from the program to become the head coach at Florida Atlantic was expedited, the plan was altered.
Sarkisian, a little more than a year removed from his very public, very troubling departure from football for the most personal reasons imaginable, was handed the keys to the offense of the No. 1 team in the country.
“We appreciate all that Lane has done for our football program,” Saban said in a release. He ended his quote with a sentence that will play out Monday in Tampa, Florida, against Clemson. “We have full confidence that Sark will step in right away and make this a smooth transition.”
But first, the fall. Let’s go back to the summer of 2015.
Sarkisian had reached the pinnacle of his craft. He was USC’s head coach and heading into his second season, an opportunity that coaches wait their whole lives for.
He was tasked with revitalizing the program that had just been freed of NCAA sanctions. A disciple of former USC head coach Pete Carroll, Sarkisian’s plan was to reignite one of the most successful runs in the history of the sport.
But in October 2015, after taking a leave of absence, Sarkisian was fired following a series of deeply concerning incidents stemming from an addiction to alcohol.
The headlines began in August 2015 at a USC banquet, when a reportedly intoxicated Sarkisian made a slurred speech that included an expletive. Sarkisian apologized shortly after, though he offered nothing beyond an assurance that it would not be an issue again.
Two months later, Sarkisian took a leave of absence from USC, which quickly evolved into his termination.
“Through all of this,” then-USC athletic director Pat Haden told reporters, “we remain concerned for Steve and hope that it will give him the opportunity to focus on his personal well-being.”
As the situation evolved from a bad night in August to something far worse, the rumblings around Sarkisian grew louder. Issues related to alcohol in his time at Washington, his previous employer, surfaced in a Los Angeles Times report.
For USC, a blue blood trudging through mediocrity, it was another blow. For Sarkisian, it became apparent that this wasn’t a bad night or a bad week or a bad month. This was something much deeper.
Football became a secondary concern. Not long after, SB Nation reported Sarkisian had entered rehab (h/t ESPN).
He vanished from the public eye to take care of himself, surfacing in the summer of 2016. The original plan was to serve as a TV analyst for Fox Sports for the 2016 season. Given what he had been through over the previous 10 months, it seemed like a natural way to ease back into the game.
“I love coaching. I love the game of football,” Sarkisian told TMZ when asked about coaching again. “Fox gave me an opportunity to be around it, and we’ll see where it goes from there.”
Now, the rise.
Not long after, Alabama announced Sarkisian had joined its staff as an offensive analyst. In this role, he was permitted to watch game film, help strategize offensive game plans and serve as a valuable influence away from the field.
It wasn’t an official “coaching” title, per se. But it was a start.
And with Kiffin destined to leave Tuscaloosa at some point in the not-too-distant future, the writing was on the wall: Sarkisian would be groomed by his head coach, immersed in the process and eventually take over the offense once Kiffin left.
It was perfect for Sarkisian because it was an opportunity. It was a chance to start over in a place that has allowed coaches to settle in and find themselves, to move past whatever led them there.
Kiffin got to Alabama this way, in need of a career makeover. Sarkisian, after dealing with far more troubling issues, saw this as an ideal fit.
“It’s what being human is all about,” Alabama offensive line coach Mario Cristobal said of Sark. “Coach [Saban] says it all the time, and I hope people take to it. Anytime somebody does something wrong, people want to annihilate them until it’s their son or someone that it hits home hard. As long as there is a legitimate, genuine desire to fix things and get better and go forward, what can be better than that?”
It was a natural fit for Alabama, too. Sarkisian and Kiffin shared sidelines in the past, not to mention similar offensive styles. Over the years, they’ve learned to understand how the other operates.
“The best way I would describe it without details is that [Sarkisian’s] personality will work a little bit better than mine with Coach [Saban],” Kiffin said prior to the Peach Bowl, in a sound bite that carries new meaning. “I’m not saying it’s a bad thing at all. I would say that Sark just manages people better than I do at times.”
In terms of his offensive brilliance, there are few football minds better equipped to call plays than Sarkisian’s.
And for $35,000—Sarkisian’s reported analyst salary this season, according to AL.com—this was a gamble worth taking.
“I know he has a great track record,” true freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts said of Sarkisian. “I am anxious to see what he does with somebody that has my skill set.”
“Great impact. He’s a great coordinator,” added tight end O.J. Howard, who will head to the NFL after this game. “He knows how to draw plays, and I think he’ll come in and do a great job.”
“The same,” wideout Calvin Ridley said when asked about how the offense will look. “Maybe better. I don’t know. I’ve heard he’s a pretty good offensive coordinator. I can’t wait for him to get started.”
All three players spoke of Sarkisian prior to the Peach Bowl, all under the assumption that spring would serve as the meet and greet.
This was about football life after the playoff—the future of Alabama, rather than the present. But now, due to unique circumstances, the 42-year-old coordinator, still in the infancy of his coaching career, will coach the most important game of his life.
The football intrigue is endless. What will Alabama’s offense look like under new guidance? How will Sarkisian prepare a true freshman quarterback who is coming off a 57-yard passing performance? How will Sarkisian conquer a Clemson defense that allowed zero points and only nine first downs in last weekend’s semifinal shutout against Ohio State?
How will all of this come together in such short order?
The answers to such questions may decide a national championship. By late Monday night, one way or another, Sarkisian’s football resume will be forever changed.
For many in this profession, it ends right there. But for Sarkisian, it cannot and will not.
Because Alabama essentially blocks its assistants from doing interviews throughout the year, Sarkisian’s voice regarding his own return is notably absent. In that regard, Alabama was an ideal fit for him, beyond the obvious football reasons.
Over the past four months, he’s been tucked away in Tuscaloosa, doing his work in private.
Little is known about what the past 14 months have looked like, particularly from a personal standpoint for Sarkisian. Alabama is supposed to make its offensive coordinator available to the media prior to the national championship game, so given the sudden promotion, he might have to answer hard questions in the coming days. Or he may avoid them. But the questions, regardless of when they come, will be more than game-plan related.
This is more than a story about a brilliant offensive mind. This is a man still grappling with something that so many others have dealt with in some capacity. It’s someone who was on the verge of losing a life’s work, only to find hope in an unexpected place.
Alabama, by nature, rarely gives off the impression of being vulnerable. There are never any obvious flaws.
The head coach is never openly satisfied with his team’s performance. The players, superior athletes from a young age, are bigger, faster, stronger and more equipped to play a violent game than the majority of their opponents.
The Tide are a machine. They win and win and win. And occasionally when they lose, they bounce back stronger than before.
It’s these traits that have made Alabama one of the most polarizing brands in all of sports. It’s why the Tide are loved by those who have dedicated a large portion of their lives to their greatness. It’s why they are hated by so many more who have grown tired of their robotic winning ways.
But there is nothing robotic about a man whose fall played out in plain sight, with the whole world tuned in.
This is a direct clash with what the perception of Alabama might be as a football power. That was real and relatable. These demons—his demons—are oh so familiar to so many.
Sarkisian’s success in Monday’s game, albeit an important one for himself, the legacy of his boss and the program, is indeed a story. But his return represents something that is far more significant than the sport itself.
That much was evident as the confetti washed over him in Atlanta, before his life changed again. This time, for the better. On the sideline once more, during one of the most stressful, unusual weeks of his life, one can only wonder if he’s stopped smiling.
Adam Kramer covers college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @KegsnEggs.
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