When lion cubs come of age, they are chased off by their father in order to maintain dominance in the pride. The only way for the cub to survive is by returning to the pride and challenging the head of the pack in their own den to become the new dominant male. Steve Sarkisian will have to do just that this weekend as he returns to Tuscaloosa to face his former mentor — and the man who resurrected his career — on his own turf.
It’s a statement game for Sarkisian and the Texas Longhorns against Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide. If Sarkisian is going to bring Texas back into the national championship conversation, overthrowing Saban, the current leader of the pride, would be a huge statement to the college football world. The pressure is remarkable, but more importantly, Sarkisian is the head coach at Texas because of how his time at Alabama shaped him.
“I grew from my time in Alabama. I became a better coach, I became a better leader, I became a better communicator, I became a better organizer,” Sarkisian said on Monday. “That is a real tribute to Coach Saban, directly and indirectly. Some of which were real conversations that we were able to have. Other of it was just me watching, and me trying to be a sponge of my time there of how he went about his business allowed me to grow individually.”
The circumstances of the relationship between Sarkisian and Saban hold significant weight, even with Saban’s lengthy track record of using Alabama to rehabilitate coaching careers with his analyst-to-coordinator-to-head coach pipeline.
Sarkisian began his coaching career in 2001 as the quarterbacks coach under Pete Carroll and the USC, before embarking on what looked to be an extremely promising head coaching career after tutoring talents such as Matt Leinart, Carson Palmer, and Mark Sanchez while posting a 23-3 record as the Trojans offensive coordinator, which landed Sarkisian his first head coaching job with the Washington Huskies.
Taking over a team that did not win a single game the year before, Sarkisian led the Huskies to three consecutive seven-win seasons from 2010 to 2012, enough forward momentum at the previously moribund program to return to USC, where his duty was to replace Hall of Famer and national championship-winning head coach Pete Carroll, who left the team to coach the Seattle Seahawks.
Sarkisian’s career trajectory was pointing upwards, as he’d climbed the football ladder to become the head coach for one of the most prestigious college football programs in the nation. But that ascent came to a screeching halt after only two seasons.
“Sarkisian was fired in October 2015, two months after he slurred his words and swore during USC’s annual ‘Salute to Troy’ preseason pep rally, Nobody would touch him. Sarkisian was labeled a drunk, ostracized from the top of the mountain that he had worked so hard to climb. The once promising football career came crashing down. Nobody would touch him, nobody but Nick Saban,” USA TODAY wrote in 2018.
Saban brought Sarkisian in as an offensive analyst in 2016 with Sarkisian eventually taking over for former offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin towards the end of that season after Kiffin had left to accept the head coaching job at Florida Atlantic University.
“I’ve said this numerous times, but I would not be the head coach at Texas if it weren’t for Nick Saban,” Sarkisian told ESPN. “He gave me a chance when I had a hard time getting an interview, never mind a job. There were days that I thought, ‘Man, I’m never going to be a head coach again. I’m never going to be an offensive coordinator again. I’m never going to get another job.’”
The Tide finished the season 14-1 and SEC Champions before losing to Deshaun Watson and the Clemson Tigers in the National Championship. After Sarkisian’s fall from grace, he was back in the game, parlaying his time in Tuscaloosa into a job as the offensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons for two years until head coach Dan Quinn was fired.
“I enjoyed my experience in Atlanta with Dan Quinn and the Falcons and at the time, I thought that’s what I was destined to do was to was to be in the NFL,” Sarkisian said last year. “I enjoyed it. We had a great experience — Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and all those guys we had there — but when Coach Saban called, I kind of took a step back and I really started to think about, he was the man that gave me an opportunity when I couldn’t get an interview anywhere else, never mind in a job, and then he entrusted in me to make me the offensive coordinator for a national championship game after being an analyst all season.
“Obviously, he had a lot of faith in me and so when he called I just really thought long and hard about it, and I felt like I owed him. I felt like I owed Coach Saban, I owed that organization, that school. They were the ones that had extended an olive branch to me when there weren’t a lot of them out there for me. And so I went back and it’s easy to say now it’s the best decision I’ve ever made in my coaching career, but I really felt that at that time.”
So despite having other opportunities to remain in the NFL, Sarkisian opted to return to Tuscaloosa as Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator in 2019 out of that sense of loyalty to the man who resurrected his coaching career. With Sarkisian leading Saban’s offense, the two had a combined record of 17-2 over the next two seasons, including a national championship in 2020 during which Sarkisian’s offense averaged over 540 yards and 48.5 points per game.
The incredible turnaround for the once-struggling Sarkisian led him to the head coaching position at the University of Texas in 2021 and a part in the fortuitous home-and-home series against his former mentor originally announced in early 2018, months after Chris Del Conte took over as the athletics director for the Longhorns.
But the storyline isn’t just about how Saban rescued Sarkisian in the darkest hours of his coaching career — it’s about how former assistants have found it virtually impossible to beat Saban.
“He’s undefeated versus almost everybody,” Lane Kiffin said in 2021 before Ole Miss played in Tuscaloosa. “There’s a reason he’s the best in the history of college football — even when people know how his place works, he’s still undefeated, which is amazing.”
In fact, Saban currently holds a remarkable record of 28-2 against former assistant coaches, although this week the Alabama head coach tried to dispel any talk of heavy advantages held against his former employees.
“What the question would be is, does somebody else know more about what we know than what they know? Yeah, is it an advantage to the other guy that he knows what we do? But we also know what they do, so I don’t know how you put that on a scale and say that it’s more advantageous to one person than the other,” said Saban on Wednesday.
“We always try to focus on what we gotta do with our players to try and get them to play good and not really worry too much about the other guys. But there could be some terminology things that if you don’t change it up, they might be able to take advantage and I think we’re aware of those things, trying to make sure that we don’t give them any advantages, but I think it kind of goes both ways.”
From Kiffin to Mark Dantonio to Will Muschamp to Derek Dooley — many have tried, and almost all have failed. In fact, Saban held an undefeated record against his former assistants until 2021 when Jimbo Fisher and the unranked Aggies upset the Tide, 41-38.
Saban’s legendary record against former assistants nearly suffered another, rare blemish in Week 2 last year when the Crimson Tide left Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium with a narrow 20-19 victory over Sarkisian and the Longhorns thanks to a late field goal, a game that many speculate Texas could have won if then-freshman quarterback Quinn Ewers was not forced to leave due to an injury, the Longhorns could have won.
“Well, what’s his record against everyone else? Pretty damn good,” Sarkisian joked Sunday night on ABC’s Dish Halftime Report with Booger McFarland and Kevin Negandhi. Joking or not, Sarkisian is right — with seven national championships, 10 conference championships, and 12 national coach of the year honors, Saban holds an .884 career winning percentage against all coaches.
Regardless, after three years, the cub returns to the pride looking to accomplish in Saban’s den what he could not in Austin. Bryant-Denny Stadium. Primetime. College GameDay and the entire nation watching. Can Sarkisian overthrow the man who saved his career, and become the new king of the savannah?