As Steve Sarkisian’s past and future intersect at the Peach Bowl, sightings of the man himself are rare.
It is a vanishing act by design, his way of bridging a gap that once looked to be a chasm that would swallow up both man and coach. By spending time in Nick Saban’s shadow, he has reclaimed the bright future he had all but squandered after a messy firing at USC brought on by alcohol abuse.
“I was really excited for him,” said Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, who convinced his friend to come to Alabama this fall and will pass his head phones on to him when the season ends and he leaves for Florida Atlantic.
“He’s had a rough road here.”
Kiffin and Sarkisian were the brightest stars on Pete Carroll’s staff at USC, where they helped lead the Trojans to the national title in 2003. While Kiffin’s career nosedived after failed head coaching stints with the Oakland Raiders and USC, Sarkisian’s made a steady rise.
He revived a moribund Washington program that had won all of 12 games in the five years before he’d arrived, going 8-4 in his fifth season. When USC dumped Kiffin during the 2013 season, Sarkisian was the logical choice to replace him.
“I think we were surprised at first,” said Washington senior offensive lineman Jake Eldrenkamp. “But I don’t think anyone was surprised he wanted to get back to USC.”
Though he was successful on the field, winning nine games his first season back in Los Angeles, Sarkisian’s life was unraveling off of it. His wife filed for divorce. He appeared inebriated at a booster event before the 2015 season, slurring his words and using an expletive.
By mid-October of last year, he’d been asked to take a leave of absence amid reports he had showed up intoxicated for team meetings. He was fired the next day, receiving the email dismissing him while he was on his way to rehab.
“People can say what they want about him, but I don’t think people really know him,” said Washington receiver John Ross, who still raves about the coach he used to battle in dominoes. “He’s a really good dude, and it’s just good to see him back on his feet.”
Though Sarkisian was sober, young — he’ll be 43 in March — and considered one of the finest offensive coaches around, the offers did not exactly roll in. The split with USC had been messy, with Sarkisian suing the school for wrongful termination and discrimination, and athletic directors have an aversion to drama.
But one person who did reach out was Saban, whose five national titles have earned him carte blanche of sorts to take risks and give second chances. He didn’t have any openings for assistants on his staff but, sure, Sarkisian could come work with the defending national champions as an “analyst.”
“There’s a lot of folks out there that have made mistakes in their life before,” Saban said Thursday during media day at the Peach Bowl. “When they work hard to try to take advantage of any future opportunities, I think that should be recognized.”
Saban might seem an unlikely sort to be a savior, dour in personality and exacting in his standards. Yet his compassionate streak is equally fierce.
Alabama has become college football’s version of a halfway house under him, a haven for once-promising coaches who have torpedoed their careers. Kiffin, current assistants Mario Cristobal and Tosh Lupoi, fellow analyst Mike Locksley and, now, Sarkisian — all have picked themselves up with a helping hand from Saban.
“I think sometimes we like to condemn people for a mistake or something that’s happened in their past,” Saban said. “I sort of would rather take the approach that, Is this something I feel can be a positive for us and is not going to be an issue for us? If it’s not going to be an issue for us, then I’m willing to have those people be a part of our organization.”
Sarkisian’s job description is nebulous, and clarity is impossible since Saban’s assistants are rarely allowed to talk to the media. This week is an exception, with media sessions mandated by playoff organizers.
But Sarkisian remains exempt because he’s not considered a full-time staffer; though he was named the offensive coordinator Dec. 16, he does not take over until Kiffin leaves for Florida Atlantic. Until then, he is only seen at practices, and it is left to others to expound on his redemption.
“I’ve known Sark for a long time. Always had a tremendous amount of respect for him,” Saban said. “Having him with us for three or four months this season certainly taught me a lot about the kind of person that he was and how he is managing and battling the issues that he’s had in the past.”
There’s nothing Sarkisian can do about that past, but it no longer has to dictate his future. He gets to decide where life takes him from here.
By Nancy Armour
This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.