AUSTIN, Texas — Steve Sarkisian hasn’t forgotten, and he won’t forget.
There’s no way he could, especially not this week with Nick Saban and the No. 1 Crimson Tide coming to town.
To most in the college football world, Saban is the guy who has led Alabama to a staggering six national championships, the guy who has transcended college football in myriad different ways and the guy who has built a dynasty the likes of which the sport may not see again any time soon.
But for Sarkisian, Saban is, simply, the guy who “saved my career.”
As big a game as it will be for Texas when Alabama visits DKR-Texas Memorial Stadium on Saturday — and as big a game as it is for Sarkisian to show that the Longhorns are on the right trajectory after suffering through a losing season in his first year at the helm — he says he will forever be indebted to his old boss.
“I’ve said this numerous times, but I would not be the head coach at Texas if it weren’t for Nick Saban,” Sarkisian told ESPN. “He gave me a chance when I had a hard time getting an interview, never mind a job. There were days that I thought, ‘Man, I’m never going to be a head coach again. I’m never going to be an offensive coordinator again. I’m never going to get another job.’
“But Coach Saban took a chance on me when I needed somebody to believe in me again.”
Sarkisian’s issues with alcohol have been well chronicled and led to his firing at USC five games into the 2015 season when then-athletic director Pat Haden said Sarkisian’s “conduct did not meet USC’s standards” and that Sarkisian was “not healthy.” Sarkisian has talked openly about his alcoholism and says he hasn’t held anything back from his players at Texas.
“I’m really transparent with my players. I’m really open. I’m really honest,” Sarkisian said. “I share my story about where I was in my career at 33 or 34 years old as head coach at the University of Washington, then being fired publicly on national television at USC and then going to a treatment facility for 30 days.”
Sarkisian needed a chance to rebuild his career, and there was no better place to do that than at Alabama under Saban, who has helped to resurrect more than a few coaches’ prospects.
“Sark is the one who did the work,” Saban told ESPN. “We supported him and made sure there were the right resources and people in place to help him, as we have with many others. But, listen, he saved his own career by doing a great job for us and rehabbing himself professionally, and I’m not just talking about personally, but professionally in a really, really positive way that impacted our program greatly and helped us be successful here.”
Saban actually took two chances on Sarkisian, whose Longhorns opened the season with a 52-10 victory over Louisiana-Monroe. The first came when Saban hired Sarkisian as an offensive analyst just before the start of the 2016 season, which was a complete surprise to Sarkisian. In fact, he had already committed to being a part of Fox’s broadcast team that season and had no plans (or opportunities) to coach.
He was on Alabama’s campus that summer as part of his own mini-tour where he spent time with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons on the NFL side and Florida and Alabama on the college side.
Tuscaloosa just happened to be his final stop.
“I was spending three to five days at every spot, just trying to tap into where my friends were coaching and try to stay connected to the game,” Sarkisian said. “I’d never had an August where I wasn’t in training camp.” One of the main reasons he went to Alabama at all was to reconnect with old pal Lane Kiffin, the Tide’s offensive coordinator. They were together at USC as co-offensive coordinators under Pete Carroll and have remained close.
During Sarkisian’s visit to Alabama, Saban had Sarkisian watching tape and drawing up plays on the whiteboard.
“Every day, it was like, ‘Watch this, watch that and tell me what you think of this, what you think of that,'” Sarkisian recounted. “Coach Saban doesn’t miss anything. He’s always picking your brain.”
Ultimately, Sarkisian said it was Kiffin who was “kind of the champion behind a lot of it” and tossed out the idea of joining Alabama’s staff as an analyst. Sure enough, Saban offered him a position, but Sarkisian was unsure if he wanted to take it.
“I went back and forth and back and forth and agreed to take the job at Alabama, and it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” Sarkisian said.
Little did he know that he would be calling plays in the national championship game later that season after Saban parted ways with Kiffin following a 24-7 win over Washington in the College Football Playoff semifinals. Kiffin had planned to stay on for the championship game after agreeing to take the Florida Atlantic head job, but Saban had other ideas after seeing the Tide struggle on offense in the win over the Huskies.
“Definitely one of the more unique experiences of my career,” Sarkisian said of the 35-31 national championship game loss to Clemson.
Sarkisian had already been hired as Kiffin’s successor, but his first stint as Alabama’s offensive coordinator lasted less than two months. He left Feb. 7 to be the Falcons’ offensive coordinator, replacing Kyle Shanahan, who was named the San Francisco 49ers‘ head coach. But after two years with Atlanta, Sarkisian was fired as part of a shakeup on the Falcons’ staff.
Saban admittedly wasn’t pleased Sarkisian bolted so quickly, but took a second chance on him after Mike Locksley left to take the Maryland head-coaching job following the 2018 season and then Dan Enos left abruptly to be Miami‘s offensive coordinator. Sarkisian was all set to stay in the NFL and take a job as the Arizona Cardinals‘ offensive coordinator when Saban called again.
“In my mind, I was staying in the NFL, but had to take a step back and look at myself and say, ‘You know what? Here’s a man that offered me a job when no one even wanted to interview me,'” Sarkisian said. “‘Here’s a man that entrusted me to call a national championship game when I had been an analyst all year long. Here’s a man that hired me as offensive coordinator and I left a few months later … and he’s still calling me to come back?’
“I felt like at that time I owed him. He extended me an olive branch, and I don’t know how much I really appreciated that and how much I acknowledged that.”
Under Sarkisian’s tutelage, Alabama’s offense put up record-setting numbers. The Tide averaged 47.2 points per game in 2019, second only to national champion LSU.
“I thought to myself, ‘You know, I think there’s a better job out there for me, and I’ve got unfinished business,'” Sarkisian said. “We didn’t win a national championship. We were good enough. We were talented enough. I didn’t do a good enough job. It was the right thing for me, for the program and for Coach Saban to stay another year.”
Sarkisian became an even hotter commodity in 2020 as the Crimson Tide rolled through the season unbeaten on their way to a national championship, and did so while playing an all-SEC schedule during the COVID-impacted regular season. The Tide again finished second nationally in scoring offense (48.5 points per game) with first-year full-time quarterback Mac Jones playing his way into being an NFL first-round draft pick and receiver DeVonta Smith winning the Heisman Trophy. They scored more than 40 points in 10 straight games.
As the College Football Playoff approached, Sarkisian turned down an opportunity to interview for the Auburn head-coaching job.
“There were a couple of opportunities, but they weren’t the right ones for me,” Sarkisian said. “But then Texas came … very late.”
And very quickly.
Texas announced Sarkisian’s hiring Jan. 2, 2021, about five hours after announcing that Tom Herman was out as coach.
“Then, it felt right,” Sarkisian said. “We were going to play for a national title, and I felt like I fulfilled what I owed to Coach Saban. Plus, it was Texas.”
Saban’s Alabama program has been something of a haven for coaches looking for second chances, whether they were fired at their previous stops for not winning enough or for other reasons. Saban said the ones who have received second chances all had one thing in common.
They were committed to helping themselves.
“I’ve given several people chances, and they’ve all done really, really well, whether it was Lane, who had lots of baggage, or Mike Locksley, who had a negative past, and then Sark,” Saban said. “I think people learn a lot sometimes when things go badly, and it makes them aware that there are some changes that need to be made.
“It wasn’t because I told them. They did it themselves, did a great job here and earned their opportunities.”
Texas will have to earn its way back to national relevance after going 12 straight years without as much as a conference championship. The Longhorns have had almost as many head coaches (four) as they’ve had winning seasons (six) over the last decade. Sarkisian knows what the pinnacle of college football looks like. He’s seen it up close.
“It’s been Alabama for the last decade and a half,” Sarkisian said. “And at the end of day, we should also be one of those teams at the pinnacle, and that’s what we’re striving to do.”