CFP Media Day Notebook: New OC Steve Sarkisian draws biggest crowd
TAMPA — New Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, to the surprise of absolutely no one, drew the biggest crowd Saturday at Media Day.
When the Crimson Tide finally clash with Clemson on Monday in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game, he’ll have been on the job exactly a week. Lane Kiffin’s sudden exit cleared the path for Sarkisian’s promotion.
While it was announced after the SEC Championship Game that Kiffin had accepted the head-coaching position at FAU, the original plan was for him to stick with ‘Bama throughout its title run. However, a (cough, cough) “mutual decision” to part ways with coach Nick Saban opened the door for Sarkisian to take over the offense.
As recently as August, Sarkisian was unemployed and perhaps unhirable after drinking his way to a pink slip at USC midway through the 2015 campaign.
“You know, I don’t think I could have foreseen four months ago when I was contemplating doing TV to get into this situation,” he told reporters at Amalie Arena,” but very grateful and humbled and honored that Coach Saban and the entire Alabama Crimson Tide family entrusted in me to do the job.”
Saban threw Sarkisian a life-preserver, albeit as an “offensive analyst” and not a traditional part of the staff. While he was involved with game-planning to some degree, NCAA rules prohibited him from actually “coaching” players.
He hasn’t served in a pure offensive-coordinator capacity since 2008, when he had that position at Southern Cal — his second of three tours of duty with the Trojans. Sarkisian only has a handful of practices to get on the same page with freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts and Co., which is easier said than done.
So much for Sarkisian easing his way back into the spotlight. By kickoff, he may have more pressure on him than anyone at Raymond James Stadium.
“I wouldn’t go with nervous,” he said. “I’m excited. This is what I love to do. I’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve been fortunate to have coached in some big games in my career. Obviously, this is another big one. These guys have earned the right to be in this game. My mindset is just putting them in the best position to be successful.”
Like Kiffin, who needed to rebuild his image after failed stops at USC, Tennessee and with the Oakland Raiders, Sarkisian expects to be a head coach again. Under no circumstances is he resigned to the life of a career coordinator.
Kiffin had maturity issues every step of the way. Sarkisian’s demons, on the other hand, are much more sinister. His battle with the bottle in Los Angeles included him allegedly being drunk on the sideline — during a game, mind you — against Arizona State. That pales in comparison to Kiffin running out on Rocky Top.
Nobody’s fault but own, Sarkisian had the game of football taken away from him. Now having it back, he’s had time to reflect on his misdeeds.
“I think the biggest thing I discovered in me is I’m a good person,” he said. “Not perfect, like none of us are. But the reality of it is, I also learned that I love this game. I love coaching football. I love being around these players. I love being around the coaches. I love all of college football. I love game day. When you get to go to that stadium, I really like to try to take it in. I think it’s important that we just don’t gloss over that kind of stuff. Enjoy the moment.”
“Is it like riding a bike?” one reporter asked.
Sarkisian (below) answered with a laugh, “We’ll find out Monday night.”
NOT PRUITT’S FIRST TIGER RODEO
Even if Alabama beat Clemson in last year’s national title game, the Tigers unexpectedly put up 40 points on the Crimson Tide defense.
Longtime coordinator Kirby Smart left to take the head-coaching job at Georgia, so Jeremy Pruitt is now in charge defensively. ‘Bama has been equally dominant all season long, despite a new wizard behind the curtain.
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson is a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist and carved up the Tide to the tune of 405 yards passing a year ago, but to suggest that Pruitt doesn’t know what’s coming as a first-year guy is inaccurate. Previously, he served as DC at Florida State and Georgia. At each stop, he faced this Tigers offense.
“Going back when I was at Florida State, we played them,” he said. “When I was at Georgia, we played them. Getting here last year during the playoffs or during this game last year, so I guess you take ’13, ’14, ’15, this will be the fourth year in a row that I’ve kind of been involved with them. So I have some familiarity there. The guys on the staff there, a lot of them were coaches at Alabama when I was a player. I feel like there’s a lot of familiarity there for me and for them.”
In terms of both total defense and scoring defense, Alabama is statistically better than the 2015 championship squad. Watson should be warned, not Pruitt.
- Saban found another loophole in the rules and brought some of his ex-players back to Tuscaloosa to serve on the scout team this season, including the likes of former NFL running back Trent Richardson. Said safety Ronnie Harrison, “It’s weird. But when they get out there, I just want to hit them.”
- Tailback Joshua Jacobs, an unheralded three-star recruit who has unexpectedly run for 551 yards as a freshman, credits a lot of his success to his work in the weight room: “They were doing things I’ve never done before, like lifts I never did before. It was just a lot. It was just stuff I felt like I missed out on in high school.”
- If the sudden switch from Kiffin to Sarkisian calling plays is giving linebacker Reuben Foster a case of the nerves, then he’s doing a tremendous job of keeping them well hidden: “We have no worries. What they do, they do. That’s the offensive side of the ball. We worry about the defensive side of the ball.”
- Receiver Gehrig Dieter, a graduate transfer who previously played for both SMU and Bowling Green, wasted no time doing things the Alabama way: “I bought in immediately. It took some time for me to get used to the way things are done. But when Coach Saban is your coach, you’ve got to know that it works.”
- Linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton, who will unfortunately miss this contest due to a knee injury, was in good spirits throughout Media Day. He plans to play in another national title game a year from now as a senior: “If you always hold yourself accountable and you hold the man next to you accountable, the sky’s the limit.”
- Don’t tell Hurts that this game comes down to the quarterback matchup, especially since Clemson clearly has the edge there: “It ain’t Jalen Hurts versus Deshaun Watson. It’s Alabama versus Clemson. It’ll be a great game, a lot of talented guys playing against each other, so I think as a team we’re looking forward to it.”