TAMPA, Fla. — Steve Sarkisian has been cramming for a final exam he didn’t know he’d have to take.
The newly elevated Alabama offensive coordinator had all of a week after his earlier-than-expected promotion to prepare and implement the game plan for Monday night’s national championship game with No. 3 Clemson. Not to mention getting better acquainted with players, most notably quarterback Jalen Hurts, and adapting to a very different job description.
“I’m embracing this more than anything,” Sarkisian said Saturday. “I would be remiss if I didn’t exhaust myself in the preparation standpoint to put our players in the best position to go do the best job they can do Monday night because they’ve earned this.”
Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban told Sarkisian he was getting the early bump in responsibilities last Sunday, the day after the Peach Bowl semifinal game. A day later, Saban announced that Lane Kiffin would head to his new job leading the Florida Atlantic program instead of sticking around through the playoffs as initially planned.
Sarkisian, 42, had already been promoted and started formulating ideas for spring practices and for the offense and he said that made the transition easier.
He amiably faced dozens of reporters and cameras, and a spotlight he’d been able to avoid since his firing as Southern California’s head coach in October 2015, and subsequent entry into an inpatient rehab facility for alcoholism.
He mostly said questions about his battle were “for another time,” but did touch on what he’d learned about himself during that time.
“I think the biggest thing I discovered about me is, I’m a good person,” Sarkisian said. “Not perfect, like none of us are. But the reality of it is I also learned that I love this game and I love coaching football. I love being around these players. I love being around the coaches. I love all of college football. I love game day, when you get to go to that stadium. I really like to try to take it in. I think it’s important that we don’t just gloss over that kind of stuff, and enjoy the moment.”
That was much easier to do as an offensive analyst than a head coach, or coordinator for that matter. Asked how he was doing personally, Sarkisian said succinctly: “Life is good.” He also believes he’ll be a head coach again.
Sarkisian said he has spoken to Kiffin this week and praised his performance over the last three years, which included three Southeastern Conference titles and a shot at a second national championship.
He was expecting to spend the season working as a television analyst, but then started visiting different teams. His first practice observing the Atlanta Falcons drove home how much he wanted to get right back into coaching.
Those stops included the University of Florida, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and a week in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, with Saban and Kiffin, a former colleague at USC.
“Before he left, he said he was supposed to do some TV work or something, but he would really like to get involved in a program someplace, and if there was any opportunity for him to do it here . . . ” Saban said. “And I liked him in the week that he spent with us.”
They delayed his starting the job until after the opener against USC — to avoid looking like Alabama was seeking an advantage in the game.
Sarkisian had already learned the offense but his behind-the-scenes role didn’t allow him to develop close relationships with most of the players, including Hurts. Hurts says he’d only had three or four casual conversations with Sarkisian before this week.
“Nothing’s changed, it’s just a different guy calling plays,” Hurts said. He did check out some of Sarkisian’s coaching highlights online, and said his postgame celebration was “pretty cool.”
“Lane is moreso a laid-back guy,” Hurts said. “Coach Sark is an enthusiastic guy. He’s kind of electric. He brings a different feel to practice. It’s different for all of us.”
Sarkisian said the two have “a really good relationship” and he’s clearly been able to watch and learn about the freshman throughout the season even if the reverse isn’t necessarily true.
“He’s a kid who loves football,” Sarkisian said. “He’s a gym rat. He works at the game. Those are the kind of guys I like to be around. They make my job easier. I think it’s a good [relationship]. I think we’ve worked well together this week and ultimately, I think we’ll work well together Monday night.”
Sarkisian was constantly in motion during the media viewing period at practices in Tuscaloosa, including rushing at the quarterbacks with arms upraised to simulate a blitz.
He might have to be ready to get yelled at on the sideline. Kiffin absorbed more than a few chewing-outs from Saban during games.
Sarkisian says he hasn’t experienced that from a head coach since the 2009 Rose Bowl when USC was playing Penn State (and won, 52-49). Sarkisian had already accepted the head coaching job at Washington.
“I was thinking to myself, ‘I’m a head coach, too,’ ” he said, smiling. “But not in that game I wasn’t.”