The career trajectory of Steve Sarkisian is like that of no other coach.
The announcement last month of Sarkisian as the Atlanta Falcons‘ Offensive Coordinator came as a big surprise to some. The Falcons were keenly aware that they would have a big hole to fill with Kyle Shanahan’s expected defection to helm the San Francisco 49ers. But the fact that Sark had coached just one year in the NFL – and a decade ago at that – made this a very curious hire. Also, the fact that Atlanta announced this move a mere one day after Shanahan’s departure makes it even stranger.
Steve Sarkisian is certainly a capable football coach, and he is very adept at play calling. He was introduced to Falcons’ Head Coach Dan Quinn a few years ago, when they both coached in the Seattle area. What is fascinating here is that despite Sark’s highly checkered history, he has managed to not merely land on his feet after a disastrous stint at USC; he actually took a major step up. Sarkisian has shown an extraordinary ability to be in the right place at the right time. It is a gift which has sent his career soaring in ways that many coaches can only dream. And in many ways, others can only shake their heads in befuddlement.
To understand Sark’s good fortune, you have to go way back in time to his formative years in Torrance, California. While he was a successful high school quarterback, his relatively small size of 6’0 and 165 lbs did not attract any big-name football programs. But after earning JC All-American honors at El Camino College, Sark wrangled a scholarship offer from BYU, a school that was, at the time, considered a Mecca for aspiring QBs. In the two decades before he arrived, BYU’s quarterbacks included Heisman trophy winner Ty Detmer, a pair of future Super Bowl winners, Jim McMahon and Steve Young, as well as outstanding QBs such as Marc Wilson and Gifford Nielsen. What made BYU especially appealing was the opportunity to be coached by the legendary quarterback whisperer, Norm Chow.
There aren’t many assistant coaches who hold a doctorate degree, but Norm Chow is one of them. Possessing a keen mind and a calming presence, Chow took kids with good talent and helped make them very good, and in some cases extraordinary. Steve Sarkisian was one of these. Sark was bright. He picked up the offense quickly, and he led the Cougars to a 14-1 record in 1996. But his career stalled out after BYU. Not everyone can successfully make the jump from college football to the pros. The game is just played at a faster level. Sark spent three unremarkable years in the Canadian Football League, before hanging up his cleats.
In most instances of this sort, football players whose careers have ended simply get on with their lives. Many who earned their college degrees enter other fields, becoming teachers, lawyers, business professionals, whatever. A few stick around the football world and become assistant coaches. Sark was one of those guys.
But Sark’s career trajectory was very different from most that enter coaching. There’s the apprenticeship as a graduate assistant, administrative work, and then becoming a position coach at a small university before moving up the coaching ranks to bigger and better things. Not Sark. He did start off by spending a year coaching QBs at his old Junior College, El Camino. But the following year, Norm Chow received a call from Pete Carroll, who had just been named USC‘s head coach in 2001. Pete wanted Chow to come to L.A. and run the Trojan offense, the type of high profile assignment that does not come along often. After Chow accepted and began building his coaching staff, he obviously needed someone to coach the quarterbacks. And after spending just one year coaching at El Camino, Sark’s career rocketed forward, when, at the ripe old age of 27, Steve Sarkisian landed as USC’s new QB coach.
To understand just how insanely lucky Sark was is to understand the USC situation. Always loaded with an abundance of football talent, the Trojans had been under-performing over the previous decade, as new head coaches were brought in and then quickly booted out. Pete Carroll knew he had to win right away. And following a so-so first year under Carroll and Chow, USC exploded into one of the most dominant college football programs of the decade. They won two consecutive national championships and came a mere 19 seconds from winning a third. Only an incredible performance by Texas’s Vince Young denied USC that accomplishment. The Trojans were an offensive juggernaut, and Steve Sarkisian was smack dab in the middle of it.
When Sark came on board at USC in 2001, their starting quarterback was Carson Palmer, a redshirt junior with a cannon for an arm. Waiting in the wings was Matt Leinart, who took over when Carson graduated. Both won Heisman trophies. Both had also been blessed with the likes of incredible weapons in the names of Reggie Bush, LenDale White, Mike Williams, Steve Smith and Dwayne Jarrett. Their O-lines were extraordinary. It was hard for this team to not score 40 points a game. All a coach had to do was avoid messing it up. And Sark did not mess it up.
When Chow was gently nudged aside in 2005, Sark and his buddy Lane Kiffin took over as co-Offensive Coordinators. Both were Pete Carroll favorites: young, capable, rising assistants. They recruited well and USC continued its pillaging of college football. From 2002 to 2008, the Trojans never lost more than two games in a single season. While they failed to make it back to a national championship game, the Trojans were always in the hunt. Sark did take a year away from USC to join the Oakland Raiders as an assistant coach in 2004, but quickly migrated back to the Trojans after one season. The NFL is not for everyone, and the Raiders were not a well-run operation back then.
Sark’s charmed life in football continued into 2009, when he was offered the head coaching reins at the University of Washington. Not at all unusual, coordinators at successful college programs are often sought out for head coaching slots. Again, Sark’s good luck was with him, as he took over a moribund Washington team that had gone 0-12 the previous year. Anything would have been an improvement, and Sark’s 5-7 record in his first year was just that. He could not have failed.
The longer term results at Washington were mixed, however. No longer under the tutelage of Chow or Carroll, Sark was now the face of the program. He would install his offense and things would be done his way. Sark did post some modest success in his five years leading the Huskies, but he was never able to re-kindle that USC magic in the Pacific Northwest. Even in his best season, 2013, the Huskies performance was uneven and uninspiring. His critics bestowed the nickname Seven-Win Sark on him. It was not a compliment. Sarkisian was proving to be an ordinary head coach. Capable, yes. Special, no.
To some Washington fans, it seemed as if the Huskies had picked the wrong guy, and alums were getting impatient at the lack of progress. For the Huskies, good things should have been right around the corner, and it turns out they were. The Dawgs would leap forward in 2016 and become one of four elite college football teams to secure a place in the national playoffs. But by that time, Washington’s coach was Chris Peterson. Two years before, Sarkisian had jumped ship for what seemed like greener pastures as head coach at USC. It seemed like it would be another good move for Sark. It was not.
The reunion of Sarkisian and USC was not met with joyous cheers; in fact, it was a controversial hire. The Trojans had parted ways with Lane Kiffin earlier that year. Hiring Kiffin seemed like a no-brainer, with Lane having been an integral part of the Pete Carroll glory days. Then-A.D. Mike Garrett had hoped to re-ignite the success of the past decade. But just as Kiffin was getting started in 2010, the Trojans were hit with sanctions over various Reggie-Bush era infractions, and the Trojans saw their football scholarships slashed. Kiffin managed to post an 11-2 record in 2011, but hampered by the sanctions, as well as his own issues, USC’s performance was unable to thrive. In 2013, Kiffin was fired on an airport tarmac in mid-season, following a horrendous 62-41 loss to Arizona State.
Kiffin was replaced by the gruff-talking but lovable Ed Orgeron, who, as interim head coach led the Trojans to a 6-2 record under his watch. Orgeron openly campaigned to have the interim tag removed. Sadly, and despite Orgeron’s obvious success and popularity with both players and fans, USC’s two losses came at the hands of their rivals, UCLA and Notre Dame. At USC, there is no greater sin then to lose to these programs. So then-A.D. Pat Haden, just one day after the UCLA loss, announced the next head coach at USC would be none other than Steve Sarkisian.
There are many who lump Sarkisian and Kiffin together, and more than a few alums at USC refer to the pair as “Sarkiffin”. They came to USC at the same time, they coached the offense together, drove to work together, they both lived in Manhattan Beach, and they became co-Offensive Coordinators for the Trojans in that near-magical year of 2005. The 2005 season showcased some of the greatest offensive fireworks in the history of college football. The Trojans opened the season putting up 63 points against Hawaii and closed the regular season by pouring 66 points on hapless UCLA. They went 12-1 and came oh-so-close to winning a national championship that year. The pair of young coaches seemed to many to be interchangeable. Even a decade later, when Alabama head coach Nick Saban parted company with Kiffin as his Offensive Coordinator and play-caller for the National Championship game, Saban made what seemed like a very logical decision. He slipped Steve Sarkisian into the OC slot, and the transition for the Tide was relatively seamless.
While Sark and Kiffin are certainly different people, they do share a similar trait. Without a strong head coaching presence to guide them, they often struggle. They are not natural leaders, or perhaps they just have not given themselves enough time and seasoning to emerge. At least not in the ways that Pete Carroll and Nick Saban have emerged as great head coaches. The head coaching records of Kiffin and Sarkisian have largely been disappointing. And Sark’s stint at USC was no exception. In fact, it turned out to be far, far worse.
Sarkisian’s first year at USC resulted in a respectable, yet unremarkable 9-4 season,. Good, but hardly what impatient Trojan alumni and fans were expecting. The Seven-Win Sark moniker stuck, and Sarkisian was unable to match the enthusiasm that Ed Orgeron had generated. And there were hints of immaturity as well, with Sark texting Pat Haden in the middle of a game at Stanford, asking his A.D. to leave the stands and come down to the field. Apparently Sark was so upset at the officiating, he felt he needed a guiding, older hand to smooth the waters with the referees. USC beat Stanford that day, so the incident was largely forgotten, but the simple idea that a head coach at a major university needing a fatherly presence to lead him out during an in-game situation was jarring. It is hard to imagine the likes of Urban Meyer or Jim Harbaugh even considering such a bizarre move.
The wheels came off the bus for Sarkisian in 2015. The first incident was jaw-dropping, as an obviously intoxicated Sark stepped to the microphone during USC’s annual Salute To Troy night to start the season. In front of hundreds of alumni and children, Sark gave a speech where his words were slurred, and a number of outrageous profanities sprung from his mouth. He needed to be walked from the podium by A.D. Haden, who told him he had a problem and needed to fix it right away. Excessive drinking is an issue on many college campuses. It should not be an issue for a high-profile coach, one who has key responsibilities, including the recruitment and guidance of young, talented athletes out of high school. If anything, a head coach needs to reassure concerned parents, and make them feel that he will be a mature presence, helping their kids navigate successfully into adulthood. He should not make them feel skittish.
There were quiet whispers about Sark in the weeks that followed. In a game against Arizona State, Sark looked wildly animated on the sideline. Coaches are sometimes excitable, and coming out of a Pete Carroll environment, it is not surprising to see a coach get overly jubilant during the game. But this was different. Something appeared out of place. And the following week, on the morning after the Trojans’ loss to his former team, the Washington Huskies, it was reported that Sark had arrived on the USC campus intoxicated. Several players and coaches were said to have smelled alcohol on Sark’s breath. On a Sunday morning.
It was quickly announced that Sark was “not healthy,” and he would be ordered to take an immediate leave of absence from the Trojans, with long time assistant Clay Helton taking over as interim coach. The plan at the time was for Sark to get help, something he obviously needed. It was reported that he had quickly left L.A. to enter a rehab facility. But just one day later, in classic USC form, Sarkisian was fired as head coach of the USC Trojans, with Haden informing Sark of his departure by way of a text. The next act of this play was obvious, a wrongful termination lawsuit filed by Sark against USC, an action for which an arbitration hearing has been scheduled for July. What was not so obvious, however, was Steve Sarkisian’s re-emergence in the football world, less than one year after crashing and burning in a very public and very humiliating way.
A few months later, USC, perhaps recognizing the ill-conceived move of not hiring Ed Orgeron in 2013, took the interim tag off of Clay Helton and made him the official head coach at USC. Lane Kiffin had gone on to be hired as Offensive Coordinator for Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide. And in a freakish turn of events, USC and Alabama opened the 2016 college football season by playing each other. It was not a good day for USC, as Alabama won big, Lane Kiffin demonstrated his skills as a play caller, and Clay Helton struggled in the spotlight. But what happened next was a head scratcher. On the day after the Alabama-USC game, Nick Saban announced he was hiring Steve Sarkisian as a football analyst for the Crimson Tide. “Sarkiffin” had returned.
There is no question Steve Sarkisian is very knowledgeable about football. He’s been immersed in the game for most of his adult life. But Sark is also a guy who somehow manages to slip on a banana peel and spring back, alarmingly, in better shape than he was before. His very public pratfall at USC has not derailed his career, it has only provided a brief detour. And when Nick Saban told Lane Kiffin to take a hike before the national title game against Clemson in January, Saban turned to the obvious choice to step in and call the offensive plays. Sark responded well as the Tide put up 31 points. He dialed up a terrific trick play in the 4th quarter and Alabama came within seconds of winning another national championship. Interestingly for Sark, this was familiar terrain. His 2005 Trojans came within seconds of defeating Texas for a national title. Both losses were crushing for their respective fan bases, but Sark was not crushed. Far from it.
Shortly after the Clemson game, Steve Sarkisian was officially named Offensive Coordinator for the University of Alabama. It was not unexpected this time, and it was again, a very logical move. Sark had spent a season with the Tide, he knew the players, he was a good recruiter, and he performed admirably in the biggest game of the year. Saban had been initially complimentary of Sark’s work, but there had been recent rumors that the relationship between the two was showing cracks. And to anyone who has followed the bizarre odyssey that is the career of Steve Sarkisian, what happened the day after the Super Bowl was far from a big surprise.
Few people in the football world expected Sark would bolt from Alabama just a few short weeks after being handed what is arguably the premier assistant coaching job in college football. Working under a legendary head coach at a legendary football program is a situation that would make many coaches salivate. Yes, Saban is known to be a thorny and demanding boss, challenging to work under. And let’s face it, a high profile job at an elite program like Bama comes with some downsides. It is intense and there is a lot of pressure. And not every coach is as generous and freewheeling as Pete Carroll.
In the world of Steve Sarkisian, it is wise to expect the unexpected. Everyone in America knew the Atlanta Falcons would soon have an opening as an Offensive Coordinator after the Super Bowl. Plenty of well qualified assistant coaches on the rise were eyeing this slot. It is a plum job, in part because the Falcons are absolutely loaded on offense, and Head Coach Dan Quinn is a defensive minded leader who will likely give his new Offensive Coordinator plenty of latitude. It is a dream job. It is the type of job that few will get to experience, because new coaches are often brought in to re-build a program, not to simply make sure it remains humming and unimpeded. It is the type of job that can be the crown jewel of someone’s career, and even a potential launching pad toward an eventual NFL head coaching gig. But in the strange saga that is the life of Steve Sarkisian, it is just one more odd chapter, in a career that is unlikely to ever be duplicated.
Careers in football coaching are tenuous, and there is a sense that these coaches know their shelf life with any given program will be limited. Their pilgrimage is an accepted reality, woven into the life they chose. Many coaches have been fired, landed in another role, and re-booted their careers. In some cases, they have gone on to bigger and better things. Ed Orgeron rebounded from his disappointing experience at USC to become the head coach of the LSU Tigers. Clay Helton came back from a 1-3 start at USC to launch a 9-game winning streak, culminating in a dramatic Rose Bowl win. Norm Chow became the first Asian-American football coach in NCAA history at the University of Hawaii. Even Lane Kiffin has been awarded a new head coaching assignment, albeit at a mid-major, Florida Atlantic University. But Sark’s trajectory just seems different.
And so despite a middling performance helming Washington, which led to a disastrous tenure helming USC, which led to an extraordinarily brief job calling plays for one game at Alabama, Steve Sarkisian ascends yet again, falling upward to a coveted position, coaching the second best team in professional football. As good as Alabama is, accepting the Atlanta Falcons OC job is not a lateral move; it is a step up. It is a big deal. Let’s hope Sark does well in his new role. But even if he doesn’t, it is almost certain that more good things will be on the horizon for him. The world has different rules for different people. And as strange a journey as Sarkisian is on, one can only marvel at where life has taken him. It has been a long, strange trip indeed.