Really, now. Steve Sarkisian, as half the head coaches in an Iron Bowl? Apparently it’s true, and it became true when Nick Saban, that immovable topographical formation on the Alabama sideline, tested positive for the coronavirus and left in charge his offensive coordinator, Sarkisian. That meant that by Saturday night, Sarkisian’s CV would have a little bit of everything, when already it had a little bit of everything.
It has those atypical Iron Bowl beginnings in Torrance in the South Bay near Los Angeles. It has the quirky fact he started off in college at USC — in baseball. It has two Pac-12 head coaching jobs, two treks through the NFL. It has four treks through USC — as a baseball player, an assistant coach, an assistant coach a second time and a head coach.
It has a human downfall, a firing for alcohol abuse on that fourth USC trek in 2015, and it has that element of a human rebound, which is nothing less than one of the foremost reasons people bother with following sports. It has a preposterous lawsuit he cast and lost against USC, a reminder that a good American story often can contain a preposterous lawsuit, and it has an open-heart surgery (and full recovery) of this past summer, which came on his second trek in Alabama alone.
By now, this guy does seem … human.
He remains only 46, and now, five states, one Canadian province, four time zones and at least 10 relocations since he finished high school in Torrance, he’s going to helm one side in an Iron Bowl, that paragon of American neighborly resentment.
“Sark’s been a head coach for many years and very successful at it,” Saban said on the SEC teleconference, even if people do bring up his 34-29 record at Washington and his 12-6 at USC as a path to quibbling. “He’ll still continue to call the plays, and we won’t really change anything other than the fact that some of the administrative, game-day decisions he’ll have to be involved with.”
So place another improbable billboard upon this winding road. No wonder people might forget Sarkisian played for the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the CFL (1997-99) or that he capped off BYU’s comeback win in the 1997 Cotton Bowl by picking up one of the funnier unsportsmanlike-conduct penalties out there. It’s a CV of torrents.
In 1995, LaVell Edwards, one of the foremost professors of quarterbacking in American history, welcomed a new quarterback. John Walsh had left early for the NFL draft, in which the Cincinnati Bengals would select him 213th. The replacement, Sarkisian, became Edwards’s first transfer quarterback from junior college since 1973 and Gary Sheide, the guy who took the snaps back when much of the country discovered BYU. Sarkisian came from El Camino College in Torrance, where he piled up 7,274 yards of passing after one of those eternal coaches certain places have, John Featherstone, taught health to Sarkisian and convinced him to rediscover football.
Nobody had craved Sarkisian out of Torrance West High, and as Frank Luksa of the Dallas Morning News later wrote at that 1997 Cotton Bowl, “Compared to the physical outlines of the classic quarterback, this guy looks like a plumber.”
Early signals at BYU did hint at a future coach.
It turned up tucked in those preseason stories sprinkled around the region of the old WAC. Running back Hema Heimuli told reporters, “The coaches would quiz him on why he made certain reads, and they realized he was not just guessing.” Edwards told reporters: “This spring we had some mismatches in the line and he was under siege. But he was always looking upfield, even when he was under siege.” Sarkisian told reporters: “At this level, [defensive backs] break on the ball a little better and play better together as a unit. If you’re a half-second late on an off-route in junior college, you might be able to get away with it. But not here. Guys are just too fast.”
As Sarkisian made his way to No. 1 in the whole vast land in passing efficiency in 1996-97, those fast guys wound up including Kansas State all-American and future NFL player Chris Canty, who apparently trash-talked BYU through the first three quarters of that 1997 Cotton Bowl, after which Kansas State led 15-5, but spent the fourth quarter sidelined with dehydration cramps. When BYU went ahead 19-15, Sarkisian paid Canty a retaliatory verbal visit, later saying to reporters: “I want to make it clear I was talking to only one guy. . . . When a guy is supposedly that great and it’s down to crunchtime and his defense needs him and he’s not on the field, I don’t think he has any room to be talking. And that’s what I told him.”
At BYU, Sarkisian studied with another of history’s all-time professors of quarterbacking, Norm Chow, so when Pete Carroll brought Chow to USC in 2001, Chow plucked Sarkisian from the El Camino staff as an offensive assistant, before Sarkisian went to the Oakland Raiders (2004), back to USC (2005-08), Washington (2009-13), back to USC (2014-15), Alabama (2016), the Atlanta Falcons (2017-18) and back to Alabama (2019-present). The fact he left Alabama incredibly soon after becoming offensive coordinator in winter 2016-17, then Saban brought him back in 2019, reveals how Saban is a busy and focused individual whose schedule does not allow time for pettiness.
“We had a whole list of people we went through to hire,” Saban said after Michael Locksley left for Maryland, “and I feel like we were really, really fortunate to get a guy who was offered the Arizona Cardinals’ offensive coordinator job and chose to come to Alabama.” In yards per play, Atlanta offenses placed third in the NFL in 2017, fifth in 2018.
Now it’s long enough since USC that Sarkisian has declined nibbles from elsewhere about head coaching, proclaimed Alabama a special place and even given one of the better coronavirus public-service announcements, last August. Alabama assistants don’t speak much in the Saban reign, so it can be almost jarring when they do, especially when they’re friendly and effusive and open to whatever the question.
After outlining his heart situation and how Alabama’s doctors had discovered it, he said of the coronavirus: “You know, there’s some pretty simple rules, I think if we all just buy into, and that’s all I’ve been trying to do, life really isn’t that difficult: Wear a mask, wash your hands, and watch your distance from the next person. At that point, if we can do all those things, like, my life is pretty comfortable.”
Now he will mask up as an acting head coach in an Iron Bowl. If anyone saw that coming 20 blurry years ago, they failed to mention it.