TAMPA, Fla.—Steve Sarkisian did his very best to make Saturday seem like just another day.
He tried, but failed.
“Life is good, life is good,” he said in the first minutes of a mandatory, hour-long interview in which he would deflect attention from himself. “I’m at this point…today.”
Saturday, in fact, was an extraordinary day, in an extraordinary week for an Alabama football program that situationally-substituted one former USC head coach, Lane Kiffin, for another.
Nothing about Sarkisian taking questions at media day in advance of Monday night’s title game against Clemson was business-as-usual.
Sarkisian drew more media attention at his podium than Alabama Coach Nick Saban.
You imagined the paint still being wet on the giant placard above his station, “STEVE SARKISIAN.”
He’s Alabama’s new offensive coordinator, replacing Kiffin, who was run off campus by Saban just relative hours before one of THE biggest games in school history.
Just another day? Hardly. Nothing like this has happened before and, if it was anyone but Alabama, you’d think the program had lost its football bearings.
Oh yeah, one more thing, Sarkisian is (we hope and pray) a recovering alcoholic, hired by Saban as an offensive analyst this season with the idea he would succeed Kiffin after he was hired away after the season.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]
Make no mistake: this was going to be Kiffin’s last year after three reform-school years under Saban’s watch. He had rehabilitated his career after his dawn's-early-light firing at USC, but no way Saban and Kiffin were going to co-exist much longer.
Then Kiffin got the life-line gig at Florida Atlantic and, in a normal world, he would stick around to call plays as Alabama chased history Monday night.
But nothing about this story is normal…nothing. Not the way Kiffin got fired at USC and ended up at Alabama, or the way Sarkisian got fired at USC and ended up at Alabama.
Kiffin had to go because he and Saban were done as a team, like Martin and Lewis, and there was evidence to suggest Kiffin’s play-calling was distracted in last week’s semi-final win over Washington.
The code on this was Kiffin was too tied up with FAU and didn't call enough plays early for tailback Bo Scarborough, who eventually ran Washington’s defense back to Seattle.
So, in steps Sarkisian, the OC waiting in the wings, hired by Saban mid-season after a late-summer visit.
Sark thought he was headed for a television career after his return from his alcohol abyss but, truth is, he couldn’t get football out of his blood.
“This is where I need to be,” Sark said, “This is where I want to be.”
Sark did not want to talk about the dark times that led to his USC firing, five games into the 2015 season. He also has a lawsuit pending against his former employer.
“This isn’t about me,” Sark said, “As much as it can be.”
What Sark meant was this can’t be about him RIGHT NOW.
He was thrown into the unprecedented position of having to call plays for one Alabama game this season.
This is, truly, quite extraordinary.
I had thought Sark’s last stint as a play caller was his final game at USC, a Thursday night home defeat against Washington. It was a devastating October loss that dropped the Trojans to 3-2 and sent Sark on the weekend bender that led to his termination the following Monday.
Sark reminded me, though, that he had handed play-calling over that season to assistant coach Clay Helton.
Oh, yeah. In August of that year, Sark had to be dragged off stage at a “Salute to Troy” event in which he was visibly intoxicated. One of the provisions of his return was handing over play-calling to Helton as Sark concentrated on a broader, CEO role.
So his last day as a play caller was Dec. 27, 2014, in the Holiday Bowl.
He did a good job, as USC outscored Nebraska, 45-42, but that still seems like a million years ago.
Saturday was not the time to plow deeply into Sarkisian’s throw-away line of how he got from despair to Tampa.
“I knew I’d coach again, it was just a matter of when and where,” the 42-year-old Sark said.
Really? Some of us thought he'd blown it all and thrown his career away.
It took a coach as strong and secure as Saban to take the same chance on Sark as he did on Kiffin. They are similar in ways, co-castoffs from Pete Carroll’s glory-day staff at USC.
In a way, though, hiring Sark was more of a risk. Kiffin’s flaws are rooted in his petulance and immaturity. Sark, who is more mature, has a disease.
Last year, at national championship media day in advance of Clemson, Saban ordered the bus to leave without a lingering, bleary-eyed Kiffin.
Sark, it was confirmed, made Saturday’s bus with no complications.
If you know Saban, you know he has a tight leash on Sark’s situation and is making sure he staying on sobriety's course.
“We would never add anybody to our organization that we didn’t think would create value,” Saban said. “…it just becomes a matter of can we manage that issue?”
Yet, if pressure was part of Sark’s drinking problem, this is some come back, throwing him face-first into a title game with millions of people watching.
Sarkisian and Kiffin run similar offenses, dating back to their USC days, yet there are nuances Sark has had to transpose.
He reminded reporters that he has been on staff at Alabama for four months. He said learning Kiffin’s terminology was like foreign-language immersion.
“Sooner or later,” Sark joked. “You’ve got to start speaking French.”
Monday night is the final: parlez-vous Clemson?
Sark doesn't have time, now, to discuss any demons beyond those lining up on Clemson's defense.
He'll take over, next year, as Alabama's full time offensive coordinator. Maybe then he'll have more time to ruminate.
Sark's immediate mandate is to help win Alabama's fifth national title since 2008 and breath a few more passing yards into freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts.
Sark said he is more excited than nervous.
"It's not going to be perfect," he said of Monday. "No game ever is."
Nor, is anyone's life.
"I'm a good person," Sark offered. "Not perfect, like none of us are."[/membership]