How Texas coach Steve Sarkisian finally found the answers he sought at Alabama under Nick Saban

It was in an RV somewhere on the set of “College GameDay” in 2009. A mobile home qualified as a green room for two of the hottest coaches in the game waiting for their segments on ESPN’s Saturday pregame show. Steve Sarkisian remembers that much from meeting Nick Saban for the first time 12 years ago.

“We just started talking,” Sarkisian told CBS Sports. “At that time, he was one of the best who’d ever done it. I thought, ‘If I can get a nugget here or a nugget there, I’ll see if I can get it out of this conversation.'”

The details get a little fuzzy from there. Sarkisian was in his first season as a rookie head coach at Washington. Saban was on the way to his first national championship at Alabama. The two stayed in touch.

The important thing is that a relationship had been formed.

That chance meeting made another championship possible for Alabama in 2020 — among other things. Big picture, it eventually would completely remake Sarkisian as a football coach.

Graphic by Mike Meredith

Five years after a public meltdown and subsequent firing at USC, Sark came all the way back in 2020.

His migration to Texas makes Sarkisian the most accomplished out of a stable of analysts Saban has hired, groomed and sent out back out into the real world. Since 2013, Sark is the fifth former Alabama assistant to become a head coach again. He’s one of three from that group to have started as a lowly analyst Alabama.

Having gone through Nick Saban’s Coaching Rehab, Sark now inherits if not a top-10 program, one of richest programs in the country. Talk about a comeback.

Now let’s see what he does with it.

“I didn’t want to let him down,” Sarkisian said.

“Him,” of course, is referring to Saban, the coach who saw something in Sarkisian when few others did.

Sarkisian provided CBS Sports with the most in-depth look yet at his time as a member of the Crimson Tide. Saban doesn’t let his assistants speak to the media aside from in group settings before the regular season and during the College Football Playoff.

That’s a hard ask for Sarkisian, a laidback Californian who played quarterback for LaVell Edwards and coached for Pete Carroll. He just happens to be one of the most personable coaches in the game.

His adaptability is part of what has allowed Sark to be an offensive assistant for two Heisman Trophy winners (Reggie Bush at USC, Devonta Smith at Alabama). It’s what allowed him to rehabilitate himself and his image when Saban threw him a lifeline.

In the end, it made Sarkisian the best play caller in college football in 2020 and one of the best in the game’s history. He was named Broyles Award winner as the nation’s best assistant coach.

In reviewing film for the 2020 Iron Bowl, former Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele spotted more than 240 shifts and motions by Alabama during the season. That’s a snapshot was why Sarkisian had been named acting coach at Alabama after Saban was sidelined with COVID-19.

By that time, there was little doubt who would take over. At that moment, Sarkisian felt like he’d come all the way back.

For the first time in 1,878 days, he walked the sidelines as a head coach, even if it was temporary. Alabama won 42-13.

“What I learned for myself was to get the trust and stamp of approval from him was almost like the last piece of the puzzle for me,” Sark said of Saban. “He entrusted me to call the game very aggressively. He entrusted me to put our players in a place to be successful. Ultimately, he entrusted [the team] to me when he couldn’t be there. I could be the head football coach for a game.”

Five weeks later, Sarkisian was named the head coach at Texas. Eight days after that, Sark had won his first national championship as an assistant coach. He hasn’t been this hot since he and Kiffin were part of a coaching brat pack at USC in the mid-2000s.

It was not a bad send off from the program that allowed him to get his life back.

The summer after his USC firing, Sarkisian decided to take a road trip. It felt strange not to be at a training camp, so he made a few calls to make sure he was welcome. The Atlanta Falcons said yes. So did Will Muschamp at Florida. So did Alabama.

“Three, four, five days at a time,” Sarkisian said of his stops.

At Alabama, he hooked up with his old USC buddy. Lane Kiffin was in his third year as offensive coordinator and suggested Sarkisian start his comeback as analyst at Bama. Good idea, except Sarkisian had already committed to be a different kind of analyst for Fox. The kind that broke down games on the air each week. 

“I was really a little bit of a fly on the wall. I was there as a guest,” Sarkisian said of that week-long stop at Alabama. “I liked the organization. I liked the mentality of the players. I met with Coach Saban at the end. It was like, ‘Would you stay?’ “

Eventually, an agreement was reached. Sark would join Alabama but only after the season opener against USC in Arlington, Texas. The optics would have been bad with him facing the team that fired him, even if Sark was only an off-field analyst making $29,000 who was prohibited from coaching.

“I didn’t know enough of the ‘whys,'” Sarkisian said. “I knew what Coach Saban was doing. I knew how he did it. I didn’t know why he did what he did. I just said, ‘I have a chance to go back to Alabama to get the finishing touches on my career, which is to be a head coach again.’

“I went back.”

There’s certainly no denying the issue of Sarkisian’s past substance abuse. He blamed a preseason outburst at a USC fan outing on a combination of alcohol and medication. Reports surfaced that he had showed up to practice intoxicated.

The man who was coaching Matt Leinart at the age 27, coached on an NFL staff (Oakland Raiders) at age 30 and served as head coach of Washington at age 34 checked himself into rehab for substance abuse at age 42.

“A lot of people look at issues that people had like they’re behavioral issues,” Saban said. “I think they’re more medical issues. You manage them just like a medical issue. Nobody is perfect.”

No wonder Sarkisian has a deep sense of gratitude. Certainly, he would have eventually gotten back into the game on some level, but he was more than fortunate to get back in at the highest level. He was being nurtured.

“I got to know him beyond the straw hat, beyond the polo on the sidelines, beyond the press conferences,” Sarkisian said. “He’s an amazing man. He’s probably one of the more compassionate human beings I’ve ever been associated with. This is not something most people describe him as.”

Saban gave his young(er) prodigy a chance. Now, Sark and the Longhorns are the perfect fit. Texas has as much unrealized potential as any program in the country. It hasn’t won the Big 12 since 2009. It has cycled through scores of quarterbacks since then. The man who may be the ultimate quarterback maker is coming off his best season.

The Horns’ new coach has been humbled himself. Mostly, that fly on the wall watched and listened.

“I really enjoyed his Friday talk to the team,” Sarkisian said of Saban. “He would come in at 3 o’clock on a Friday already in a suit and tie telling us how we were going to play and what the game meant and how we were going to win the game. It wasn’t so much a rah-rah speech; it was tactical.”

Kiffin had installed the spread at Alabama in 2014. Two years later, suddenly three of the better offensive minds were huddling each week. Sark and Mike Locksley were offensive analysts working with Kiffin. Together at that point, they had been head coaches for a combined 171 games.

By the end of that 2016 season, Kiffin was out having talked his way into an early exit to FAU. Sark took over as offensive coordinator for the first time in the College Football Playoff National Championship. Alabama lost to Clemson with a second to go. The Atlanta Falcons snatched him up for two seasons but fired him. Sarkisian was ready to take a job with the Arizona Cardinals when Saban called.

“What kind of hit me was, I didn’t feel like I had all the answers to the test, if that makes sense, for my career,” Sarkisian said.

So he returned to Alabama in 2019 figuring he owed himself and Saban. Perhaps only an injury to quarterback Tua Tagovailoa kept the Tide from winning another title. Mac Jones threw 14 touchdowns (against only three interceptions) in a backup role. That season featured four future first rounders at wide receiver: Smith, Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III and Jaylen Waddle.

Last season, Sark was able to draw on the talents of the Heisman winner (Smith), the Unitas Award winner (Jones), the Doak Walker Award winner (Najee Harris) and the Outland Trophy winner (Alex Leatherwood), who was part of the Joe Moore Award-winning best offensive line in the country.

For the third year in a row, Alabama set a school scoring record. Its football culture shifted. Saban said it himself. The Tide had to outscore teams to win. It was wonderful to watch.

“One of the best offenses in the history of football,” Kiffin said.

There was no need to play “fastball” — snapping the ball every 20 seconds. The tactic was developed in part to wear out superior defenses. At Alabama, there were no mismatches to hide on offense.

“I used to say to Sark, ‘If you ever did that, you might win every game by 60,'” Kiffin added.

It might never be this good again for Sarkisian.

Nothing is assured Texas, which has been wandering in the wilderness too long. In seven seasons as a head coach, Sark was won nine games once. There isn’t a superstar collection of receivers at Texas upon his arrival, and No. 2 career passing leader Sam Ehlinger has just departed.

But Sark and Texas really had no choice. His was the best name left on the board. He had done all he could at Alabama.

Finally, Sarkisian believes he has all the answers to the test.

This is the second of a three-part series taking a look inside Nick Saban’s Coaching Rehab. Start with our extended feature on how Saban is resurrecting careers at Alabama, one sullied coach at a time.