TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The press release was distributed shortly after the players were told, when the University of Alabama football team was holding its first practice in preparation for the College Football Playoff.
“Alabama Hires Steve Sarkisian as Offensive Coordinator and Quarterbacks Coach,” it said at exactly 5 p.m. local time Friday, the hour at which a lot of controversial announcements are made in sports in an effort to be a part of the smallest news cycle possible.
In this case it was exceedingly so. While the college football world was weighing in on the Minnesota scandal, with a teamwide boycott that might keep the Gophers from playing in the Holiday Bowl, along with the released video of Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon brutally punching a woman in the face, it was also the Friday of the week before Christmas.
Only Alabama wasn’t ducking anything, as Saban was due to meet with reporters immediately after practice. He tried to emphasize the upcoming Peach Bowl game, and said all the right things about the looming national semifinal with Washington, calling the Huskies “the best team we’ve played this year, by far. Hands down.”
But regardless, promoting Sarkisian to be Lane Kiffin‘s replacement overshadowed everything.
“I wouldn’t have anybody in this organization that I didn’t have total faith, trust and confidence in that they would do a good job with our players,” Saban said. “This guy is part of our family now and we’re going to help him be successful every way we can. That’s in his life as well as a coach.”
For those who don’t remember, Sarkisian was fired as Southern California’s head coach in October 2015, following an embarrassing string of alcohol-related issues.
They included appearing drunk at the “Salute to Troy” booster event in which he was pulled off stage during a speech. He later sued the school for the remainder of his contract and damages, and the lawsuit went to arbitration in March.
Approximately six months later Saban hired him to be an analyst for the Crimson Tide, to sort of begin the coaching part of his rehabilitation. Some were critical of the move, but even then the head coach was thinking about who might potentially replace Kiffin, who was in the final year of his contract.
Not incidentally, every other coach on the Crimson Tide staff was already signed through 2017. The only surprise about Kiffin’s departure was becoming the next head coach at Florida Atlantic.
If Sarkisian works out as offensive coordinator, it’s a brilliant move by Saban to stay ahead of the curve, although with alcohol addiction, there’s no guarantee. It’s a day-to-day struggle, and no one should be speculating on his ability to stay on the straight and narrow.
But Saban really has nothing to lose here. The worst-case scenario is that Sarkisian doesn’t work out—for whatever reason—and one of the other talented coaches on the staff takes over as offensive coordinator.
The best case, and obvious goal, is that the Crimson Tide’s offense doesn’t skip a beat and continues to build on what Kiffin started.
Under Kiffin, Alabama became the first major college team since the modern era (post-World War II) to win three consecutive conference championships with three different first-year starting quarterbacks (Blake Sims, 2014; Jake Coker, 2015; Jalen Hurts, 2015).
Remember, Kiffin himself was considered a risky and controversial hire in 2014, and over the years, Saban’s developed a reputation for giving second chances.
“I think a lot of us have had issues somewhere in our life or in our family, and we want to be very supportive,” Saban said. “[Sarkisian] has been very diligent about what he’s trying to do to do the right things in terms of his life.
“He did a good job for us for a long time here, and that’s what made me feel confident that the guy was ready to do this.”
This will be the third time in his career that Sarkisian has followed Kiffin, and there were a lot of people who thought he was the better of the two as Southern California’s offensive coordinator.
By already being a part of the Alabama support staff, he knows how Saban wants things done, the Crimson Tide’s terminology and personnel, as well as the pro-style, spread offensive mix that Saban envisions with quarterback Jalen Hurts and beyond.
“Maybe we weren’t right there this year because of Jalen’s skill set and his development as a freshman, but we certainly want him to get there,” Saban said. “We think he has the capability of doing that. I think it makes the transition easier.”
Here’s how smoothly it will go: When asked about the team’s reaction to the news, junior left tackle Cam Robinson shrugged and said, “We went to practice.”
“That’s next year,” sophomore running back Damien Harris confirmed.
Alabama is used to this. As defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt demonstrated this season after returning to take over for longtime Saban assistant Kirby Smart, staff changes don’t correspond to different ways of playing or any alterations of how everybody is expected to go about things.
This will be no different. In fact, there were plenty of warning signs that Sarkisian’s promotion was likely imminent.
One was when prize quarterback prospect Tua Tagovailoa, the winner of last year’s Elite 11 showcase and Scout.com‘s No. 4 QB prospect in the nation (some consider him the top dual-threat QB in the class of 2017), announced Thursday that his recruitment process was over and he had signed his financial aid papers with Alabama.
Chances are he wouldn’t have done so without being confident about his next position coach.
Friday evening, Tagovailoa also told Chris Kirschner of SEC Country he thought it was “awesome” that Sarkisian would be the OC.
A number of schools including Florida, LSU and Oregon had made a late run at the Hawaiian standout, who will play in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in early January and then head straight to Tuscaloosa.
He could arrive in time to help the scout team prepare for the national championship game, much like Hurts did last year for Deshaun Watson and Clemson, assuming Alabama is successful in the Peach Bowl. With reserves Cooper Bateman and David Cornwell set to transfer and Blake Barnett long gone, Tagovailoa figures to get a lot of hands-on attention immediately.
Regardless, Kiffin has one or two games to go as Alabama’s offensive coordinator, and Sarkisian has the same as an analyst—providing information about some of the players he recruited as Washington’s head coach (2009-13). But his promotion should lead to fewer headaches and concerns later on, especially in recruiting as the Crimson Tide finishes piecing together another stellar class.
“I am humbled and honored to have the opportunity to join Coach Saban’s staff, and I can’t thank The University of Alabama enough,” Sarkisian said in a release.
The third and ninth words in that statement are the key: “humbled” and “opportunity.” Here’s hoping Sarkisian makes the most of it, for his sake.
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.
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