Lane Kiffin is making all sorts of news after he was fired by Nick Saban even though he quit first. But let’s face it, he’s gone (to Florida Atlantic) and is old news by now. Instead, let’s focus on who’s more important at hand – his successor.
No one has ever faced the unique kind of pressure for Monday night’s College Football Playoff championship game that awaits Steve Sarkisian, immediately installed as Alabama’s offensive coordinator after Kiffin was summarily dismissed on last Monday. Sark will have less than a week to coach up the Tide’s anemic offense to keep up with Clemson’s.
So just who is Steve Sarkisian?
That almost seems like a dumb question. He’s been the head coach at USC and Washington. He was the offensive coordinator during the Trojans’ dynasty run in the 2000s under Pete Carroll. He played quarterback under the legendary LaVell Edwards at BYU. Sark is not exactly an unknown quantity in college football circles.
The problem is that in some ways he’s too much like Kiffin, still one of his best pals. He and Kiffin ran the USC offense together under Carroll after Norm Chow’s departure. He succeeded Kiffin as the Trojans’ head coach. Heck, Al Davis even offered him the Raiders’ job first before he turned it down, leading to Kiffin’s disastrous 20-game stint in Oakland.
And then he followed Kiffin to Alabama after Sarkisian was unceremoniously dumped by USC midseason in 2015 (just like Kiffin was in 2013) as a result of his drinking problem coming to a head. He was widely seen as Kiffin’s eventual successor when he was scooped up by Saban in 2016, and he became just that.
But this is where Sark is different from Kiffin. He’s a more sober (pardon the pun) playcaller than his buddy Lane – at least he will be for Monday night’s game. It’s something even Kiffin readily acknowledged.
“The best way I would describe it without details is that Sark’s personality will work a little bit better than mine with Coach (Saban),” Kiffin said before the Peach Bowl and being prematurely dumped by Saban. “I’m not saying it’s a bad thing at all. I would say that Sark just manages people better than I do at times.”
This doesn’t mean Sarkisian isn’t the same offensive coaching mind as Kiffin. It’s just that he’s more likely to comply with Saban’s wishes to be more conservative offensively, more risk-adverse, especially with a freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts who has a severely limited repertoire.
Sarkisian is highly unlikely to do anything razzle dazzle against a Clemson defense that shut out of Ohio State in its semifinal game at the Fiesta Bowl. More likely, he’ll hand the ball repeatedly to sophomore running back Bo Scarbrough and use Alabama’s stout offensive line as a bludgeon until the Tigers crack.
If the Tide offense simply can’t keep up with Deshaun Watson and a Clemson attack that hung 40 points on them in last year’s championship game, Sarkisian will get some blame – but most of the blowback will fall on Saban for making a drastic switch less than a week before the title game rematch. If Alabama comes away with a victory in any fashion, however, Sarkisian will get his due, given the circumstances.
That’ll go a long way toward his rehabilitation, professionally at least, if not personally. Like Kiffin, he had reached the mountaintop of his craft as the head coach at USC only to see everything crumble to pieces with an uncertain way back. But again like Kiffin, having been picked up by Saban as a reclamation project, he may be on course for redemption.
Make no mistake, Saban didn’t hire Kiffin and Sarkisian as pure charity cases. He knew his offense needs an upgrade and he was able to hire two talented minds back-to-back. Kiffin helped Alabama to three consecutive SEC titles by grooming a new starting quarterback each year. And Sarkisian was paid a mere $35,000 this season as an “analyst” before being summoned to take over for Kiffin.
Thus, Sark has a great opportunity to rebuild his reputation with all eyes on him Monday night. He should thank Saban, but especially his good friend Kiffin, for this unexpected fortune.