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Why Tampa helped Alabama’s Steve Sarkisian get back to college football’s top tier

“I believe I’ll be a head coach again,” Sarkisian said four years ago in Tampa. Now he is, while leading one of the best offenses ever.
Alabama coach Steve Sarkisian was elevated from analyst to offensive coordinator just before the January 2017 national title game in Tampa.
Alabama coach Steve Sarkisian was elevated from analyst to offensive coordinator just before the January 2017 national title game in Tampa. [ Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Jan. 11

When Monday’s national championship game kicks off at Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium, few people will be as important as Steve Sarkisian.

As the outgoing offensive coordinator at Alabama, he’s the caretaker of one of the most prolific offenses the game has ever seen — an embarrassment of riches that includes the sport’s top running back, top receiver, top center, top lineman and, arguably, top quarterback.

As the incoming head coach at Texas, Sarkisian is also the leader of one of the few programs capable of building a powerhouse that can compete with ‘Bama and Ohio State and break up the monotony of the College Football Playoff.

Related: College football has a problem. Blame Florida.

His remarkable responsibilities are the reward of a remarkable journey through ruin and rehabilitation. It’s a rocky path that first started to come into view four years ago in Tampa.

Steve Sarkisian was named Alabama's offensive coordinator (the first time) just before the title game in Tampa in January 2017.
Steve Sarkisian was named Alabama's offensive coordinator (the first time) just before the title game in Tampa in January 2017. [ Tampa Bay Times ]

When Sarkisian was fired as USC’s head coach during the 2015 season, there was no guarantee he would ever coach again. His alcoholism had led to public incidents that humiliated himself and his program. His reputation was shot.

Sarkisian sought professional substance-abuse help and planned to spend the 2016 season doing TV work until Nick Saban called. Would Sarkisian want to join his staff as an off-field analyst?

That opportunity turned into another after Lane Kiffin failed to juggle his jobs as Crimson Tide assistant and new Florida Atlantic head coach.

A week before the national title game against Clemson at Raymond James Stadium, Kiffin was out. Sarkisian was the Tide’s new play caller.

“It was a tremendous experience,” Sarkisian said.

Related: From 2017: Steve Sarkisian appreciates second chance with Alabama

It did not, however, work out as Sarkisian planned. ‘Bama lost 35-31.

Jalen Hurts' fourth-quarter touchdown was almost the game-winning score for Alabama.
Jalen Hurts' fourth-quarter touchdown was almost the game-winning score for Alabama. [ VRAGOVIC, WILL | Tampa Bay Times ]

But Sarkisian put almost 400 yards of offense against a good Clemson defense. He called an impressive touchdown drive in the final five minutes that would have won the title, had Tigers superstar Deshaun Watson not answered with his own last-minute heroics.

Sarkisian’s performance and personal comeback were enough to get him a job as the Falcons’ offensive coordinator that offseason.

After two years in Atlanta, he returned to Alabama and starred. Before only scoring 31 in the Rose Bowl semifinal win over Notre Dame, the Crimson Tide had scored at least 35 points in each of his games. That 24-game streak was the longest in major college football history and earned him the Broyles Award last month as the nation’s top assistant.

When Saban was sidelined because of a positive coronavirus test, Sarkisian led ‘Bama to a 42-13 Iron Bowl win over Auburn.

“Sark has done a marvelous job here,” Saban said. “He’s very well organized. He works very well with all the people in the organization, players and coaches alike.

“He’s been a real asset to our organization, and I think he’ll be very successful as a head coach.”

And being a head coach has been Sarkisian’s goal throughout his comeback, even as a just-promoted assistant before the title game in Tampa.

“In the coaching world, I’m still very young,” a then-42-year-old Sarkisian said during media day at Amalie Arena. “I believe I’ll be a head coach again.”

Steve Sarkisian believed he was ready for the big stage during media day before the January 2017 national title game in Tampa.
Steve Sarkisian believed he was ready for the big stage during media day before the January 2017 national title game in Tampa. [ Tampa Bay Times ]

Now he is, back at one of the biggest bluebloods in the sport.

Sarkisian hasn’t ignored that responsibility; he spends his rare spare time working on recruiting and staffing issues at Texas.

But he has focused almost all of his attention on completing his unfinished business at ‘Bama by trying to lead a historic offense on its historic quest to top the Buckeyes for another national championship.

Sarkisian came within a second of one in Tampa four years ago. He doesn’t want to miss out again.