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College Football Playoff: Steve Sarkisian appreciates second chance with Alabama

 
Steve Sarkisian, saying he is doing well in his substance-abuse recovery, becomes offensive coordinator a bit sooner than planned.
Steve Sarkisian, saying he is doing well in his substance-abuse recovery, becomes offensive coordinator a bit sooner than planned.
Published Jan. 8, 2017

TAMPA — Looking back from the other side of disgrace, Steve Sarkisian knows he took it all for granted.

The spectacle of game days. The struggles through practice. Even the sweaty youth camps.

"Sometimes when you get in the midst of it as a head coach," Sarkisian said, "you can get lost in all of that."

Not anymore.

Not after a rapid rise and an even faster fall played out publicly on ESPN and TMZ. Not after he entered the Division I-A head coaching ranks at 34 and exited at 41. Not after ruin, rehab and a road to redemption that leads to Raymond James Stadium, where he will call plays for Alabama in Monday's College Football Playoff national title game.

"Life is good," Sarkisian said during Saturday's media day at Amalie Arena. "Life is good."

It was then, too.

He was a member of USC's last dynasty as a quarterback and assistant. He took over Washington in December 2008 and the Trojans five years later.

And then it fell apart. He blamed a mix of alcohol and prescription drugs for an embarrassing showing at a preseason fan event in 2015. Other alcohol-related incidents popped up, too, eventually leading to his dismissal in October 2015.

Sarkisian politely declined to talk about his substance-abuse problems or recovery Saturday, except to say he's doing well, thanks for asking.

Instead, he wanted to talk about his second chance and the powerhouse that gave it to him.

Sarkisian didn't know what to do during a summer without training camp, so he tiptoed back to football. He watched film with former Bucs coach Jon Gruden and visited the Crimson Tide, the Gators, and the NFL's Bucs and Falcons to observe how other programs operate. He wanted to see what he could learn for his next head coaching job, whenever and wherever that might be.

He was working for Fox Sports when Nick Saban called about becoming a different kind of analyst, helping the Tide's offense.

The job was a major downgrade from running a perennial power such as USC, but it was something, after 11 months away. Sarkisian, 42, could be a voice in meetings, but he wouldn't make the final calls; that job fell to his old USC colleague, Lane Kiffin.

NCAA rules kept him from getting too hands-on. As the Tide's coaches worked with players during practice, Sarkisian could only watch and take notes.

"It is frustrating as an analyst when you go out to practice and you're not coaching," Sarkisian said. "I mean, that's what you love to do."

Then came the other half of Sarkisian's second chance.

Kiffin couldn't balance his roles as Alabama's offensive coordinator and Florida Atlantic's head coach. Kiffin and 'Bama split Monday in what was called a mutual decision. Sarkisian — already designated as the team's next offensive coordinator — took over immediately.

"I feel like I was almost like a bottled-up ball of energy, where I could get back on the field and do what I love to do," Sarkisian said.

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What that means for Monday's outcome is one of the biggest unknowns.

Players say that he's stricter than Kiffin and that drills have been crisper and more game-like. Sarkisian knows the personnel, but how well does he know their personalities?

Sarkisian said he isn't nervous about calling plays for the first time since the 2014 Holiday Bowls. He's excited. He's ready to take it all in and enjoy what he missed, or took for granted the last time around.

For Steve Sarkisian, life is good.

Again.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.