Alabama football: The Nick Saban Coaching Reclamation Project strikes oil
This was bound to happen.
And yet, it was impossible to see coming on Dec. 31, 2018.
Steve Sarkisian rang in 2019 finding himself unemployed, having just been fired from his offensive coordinator position with the Atlanta Falcons. His second stint on the bread line after a much-publicized departure from Southern Cal, Sarkisian was officially branded “damaged goods” and seemingly headed for football purgatory.
Enter Nick Saban.
The Alabama coach didn’t necessarily need Sarkisian in 2019, already holding the keys to a football Ferrari in the form of Tua Tagovailoa. The most vocal of Crimson Tide punditry didn’t think Sark belonged in Tuscaloosa, either, bemoaning his hire as offensive coordinator as Saban just trying to reclaim another cast-off coach.
Flash forward to Saturday, when Texas shockingly fired Tom Herman after 4 years and a 32-18 record in Austin — but a disappointing 7-3 stint in 2020. Observers firing up their “you don’t fire Herman without knowing who you’re going after” tweets barely got their thumbs going before news started breaking that Sarkisian was in line to become Texas’ 31st HBC.
The Nick Saban Coaching Reclamation Project had struck again, this time tapping an oil well’s worth of money and talent.
Unlike the turnaround job Saban performed with Lane Kiffin, the Sarkisian Scheme happened in 2 parts. Saban snapped Sark off the scrap heap in September 2016 — about a year after Sarkisian flamed out at USC in a pile of alcohol-related issues that dated to when he was at Washington. Saban welcomed Sark to join the small army of “analysts” in the Mal M. Moore Athletic Facility, honing his craft in the shadows behind Kiffin and alongside former Tennessee coach Butch Jones.
When Kiffin bolted to Florida Atlantic in the middle of Alabama’s quest to win 2016 College Football Playoff, Saban let Kiffin go a game early promoted Sark to dial up the offense against Clemson. The Tide fell just short that night, losing 35-31 in Miami, but Sarkisian performed well enough to get the Atlanta Falcons OC gig soon after.
That was seemingly the end of Sark and Alabama, as Saban hired Mike Locksley to coach the Tide offense in 2017 and Sarkisian got Matt Ryan and Julio Jones fresh off a run to the Super Bowl. Under Sark, though, the Falcons dropped from an NFL-best 33.8 points per game in 2016 to 22.1 points per game in 2017. While Atlanta improved to 25.9 points per game in 2018, Sarkisian was shown the door.
No one knows if Saban called Sark or Sark called Saban. But either way, it was time for Round 2 in Tuscaloosa. Even with the fan base grumbling and somehow doubting a coach who had already won a fistful of national title rings in a decade, Sarkisian embarked on a 2-year run under the Alabama headset that saw the Tide back at No. 1 for a goodly part of 2019 before Tagovailoa’s hip disintegrated in Starkville. The 2020 campaign has been even better, with Alabama racking up an astounding 48.2 points per game, producing two Heisman Trophy finalists in Mac Jones and DeVonta Smith (and a third, Najee Harris, who was 5th in the voting) and beating the ever-loving tar out of every team they faced.
Sarkisian, 46, even was the interim coach for the Iron Bowl when Saban was sidelined with COVID-19 — a game that went off exactly as scripted and ultimately was such a beating that Auburn fired its coach.
Sarkisian was a candidate for Gus Malzahn’s job on the Plains, before Auburn went with Extremely Great New Coaching Hire Bryan Harsin. And even though we publicly pined for Alabama to make Sark the Tide’s coach-in-waiting, it felt inevitable that he was bound for much greener pastures than the ones in Lee County.
That pasture took form as an oil field Saturday, when Texas threw Herman to the curb and went with Sarkisian to replace him.
Unlike Kiffin’s controversial departure, Sarkisian heading to Austin won’t cause nearly the same tidal wave of unsteadiness. First, the early football recruiting season came and went in December — so it isn’t like Sark will be on the phone 25 hours a day with Longhorn recruits while drawing up plays for Jones, Smith and Harris at the same time. Second, the shortened time period between the Tide’s 31-14 smackdown of Notre Dame and Alabama teeing it up against Ohio State in South Florida is just 10 days — and Sarkisian is expected to coach the Tide against the Buckeyes to get that ring for the road. Third, well, Sark is Sark and Kiffin is Joey Freshwater.
This is not a time for sadness or bitterness from Alabama fans, although Sarkisian certainly has the goods, clear head and an entire ESPN-based television network to build Texas into a national force that could contend with Saban and the Tide in the near future.
This is a time for thankfulness that Sarkisian graced the Alabama sideline for 2 wonderful, star-crossed seasons. That Saban once again saw it fit to pick from the scrap heap and turn his findings into gold. And that the Saban-Sarkisian combination has one more beautiful night in the sun still to come.