Alabama football: Steve Sarkisian should be the Tide's succession plan
As on-the-job interviews go, Steve Sarkisian nailed this one.
Heading into Saturday’s Iron Bowl, Sarkisian was faced with the unenviable task of taking over the greatest college football program of all time — at the absolute peak of its power — from the greatest college football coach of all time — at the absolute peak of his power.
And he absolutely crushed it.
With Nick Saban watching virtually from his Tuscaloosa home, Sarkisian deftly handled both the head coaching duties and the Crimson Tide’s offense en route to a 41-13 destruction of Auburn in the annual grudge match. Neither Alabama’s offense, nor the Crimson Tide’s defense — which is kinda Saban’s thing — missed a beat in beating down Little Brother.
And that’s credit to Sarkisian — who deserves more than just a healthy raise as Alabama’s offensive coordinator.
It’s time to crown Sark as the Tide’s coach-in-waiting.
Heck, for all we know, Saban has already completed a similar kind of succession planning. The pint-sized lord of the Alabama Death Star could have well lent his imprimatur to Sark being the guy when he decides to hang it up — with no one knowing the details outside the Mal M. Moore Athletic Facility.
But if the deal hasn’t been nod-winked on yet, Saturday could have well sealed it.
Sarkisian looked every bit the polished, poised head coach Alabama would want whenever Saban decides to retire to the lake and yell at the ducks crapping in his yard. From the time he led the Tide down the Walk of Champions in a swank pastel sportcoat and salmon tie to the moment he shook Gus Malzahn’s hand at midfield with “Rammer Jammer” echoing through Bryant-Denny Stadium, Sark appeared ready for the biggest stage in college football.
And unlike some other possible successors who have come and gone, or are operating elsewhere, Sarkisian did nothing Saturday to draw outsized attention to himself. Sark didn’t snark on his Twitter account in the days leading up to the Iron Bowl (we still love you, Lane Kiffin, so don’t ever change), and he didn’t engage in a week-long, pants-dropping out-fest like Clemson’s Dabo Swinney did after the Tigers had a game against FSU canceled due to COVID-19.
All Sark did Saturday was lead. And while he didn’t exactly find himself having to make a ton of make-or-break decisions, Sark also deftly managed the Crimson Tide sideline to the point that his presence under the main headset — and Saban’s lack of presence — was hardly noticed.
That last element is the most critical part of succession, no matter what line of work. You want consistency when replacing someone in that manner, not to blow up what has been successful and go a completely different direction. Had Alabama come out in the Wing-T on Saturday against Auburn, or conversely asked Heisman Trophy candidate Mac Jones to throw it 65 times, you likely could have heard Saban screaming about it from across the Black Warrior River.
Instead, Alabama’s offense did as Alabama’s offense does — take what the defense gives them and bludgeon said defense to death with it. Had Auburn stacked the box and forced Jones to throw all game long, Sark would have unleashed Jones and his all-star group of receivers to the tune of 8 passing TDs instead of the 5 Jones finished with. Conversely, had Auburn sat back in dime all day long, Sark would have shoved Najee Harris down the Tigers’ throat to the tune of 250 rushing yards and 4 TDs.
Auburn settled on something largely in the middle, which meant Alabama was able to adapt from play to play with aplomb. Jones finished with 302 passing yards, and Harris went for 96 yards on 11 carries with a TD.
Look, part of what made Julia Child a great cook is that she used the right food. Ingredients make the dish as much as the person holding the ladle, alas. And Alabama has more quality foodstuffs on both sides of the ball than any other team in the country with which to concoct a five-course experience. But putting the proverbial ladle in the wrong hands — even for a day, and especially on Iron Bowl day — could have resulted in disaster.
There were no disasters Saturday with Saban on the shelf due to COVID-19. Instead, it was business as usual. It was a former head coach at Washington and Southern Cal before falling virtually out of the game due to personal demons running the show. It was a coach that failed as the Falcons’ offensive coordinator and was brought back in a head-scratching move that directed Round 8 of Alabama’s Joyless Murderball to perfection.
Saturday showed the Alabama Nation that there will be life after Nick Saban, and said life could be just as good. No one outside Tuscaloosa County wants Saban going anywhere, but everyone who held their breath with Saban missing his first game in 47 years can now breathe easy that his successor could already be wearing the script A on Saturday afternoons.
Steve Sarkisian is capable of being The Man, Part II at Alabama. Can the Crimson Tide keep him there, now, is anyone’s guess.