Over the years, Alabama Coach Nick Saban has lost coaches to new jobs, notably coordinators leaving his staff to become a head coach elsewhere. Saban has personal experience on the other side of the equation. In late 1994 Saban was hired as Michigan State head coach while still having duties as defensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns. Saban stayed with the Browns through the end of their NFL playoff games before taking his new job.
Through the years, Saban has had his coordinators who took new jobs stay with his team until the end of the season.
In the last two years, that season has extended through the College Football Playoff national championship game. Last year Kirby Smart had been named the Georgia head coach, but stayed with the Crimson Tide as defensive coordinator through the 45-40 win over Clemson for the national title.
This year, Lane Kiffin was was hired as head coach at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) in early December, and his intention was to continue as Bama’s offensive coordinator and play-caller through the final game.
That is not happening. On Monday, Saban announced that Kiffin would assume his duties at FAU and that Steve Sarkisian, who has been on the Bama staff since September as an offensive analyst and who had been announced as offensive coordinator for the 2017 season, will take over for Alabama’s national championship game in a week.
Alabama (14-0), the nation’s No. 1 team, will meet No. 2 Clemson (13-1) for the College Football Playoff national championship in Tampa next Monday, Jan. 9.
In making the announcement, Saban said, “We appreciate all that Lane has done for our football program over the last three years. We sat down following the Washington game and talked about the time demands of managing both jobs, and we recognized that it is best for our players, and for Lane, that we allow him to turn his full attention to his new head coaching role at FAU.”
To be honest, the retention of Smart was not a complete success last year. Although Alabama defeated Clemson, 45-40, for the national championship, no one would suggest it was because of Bama’s defense.
Alabama opened the CFP with a semifinals game 24-7 win over Washington at the Peach Bowl in Atlanta Saturday.
The general consensus was that Kiffin did not call a great game.
Saban said, “This wasn’t an easy decision and we appreciate the way Lane handled this in terms of doing what is best for our team. At the end of the day, both of us wanted to put our players in the best position to be successful. Obviously, we are in a unique situation here where we have our next offensive coordinator already on staff. We have full confidence that Sark will step in right away and make this a smooth transition.”
Although that was taken by many to mean that Saban had fired Kiffin, it has never been Saban’s style to fire coaches – and that would seem particularly true for a coach who has already moved on, as had Kiffin.
It seems Kiffin was in agreement with the decision, admitting that trying to do what he needed to do for his new FAU job and to take on the demands of a national championship contender was more difficult than he expected.
Kiffin said, “After going through these last couple of weeks, trying to serve the best interests of two universities as an offensive coordinator and a head coach, it became apparent that both programs would be better served by me giving all my time and efforts to being the head coach at FAU. After meeting with Coach Saban during preparations last night and this morning, we mutually decided that it was in everyone’s best interests for the players and the program for Coach Sarkisian to take over all responsibilities as offensive coordinator for the championship game. This was a very difficult decision, but it’s a decision made in the best interests of the program. I look forward to helping Alabama win another championship, and would like to thank Coach Saban, the staff, and all the players and fans for the past three years at UA for an unforgettable time and championship run. Roll Tide!”
No matter the thoughts about Kiffin’s play-calling vs. Washington, no one could doubt the value Kiffin gave to the Crimson Tide program in his three years. Bama has put together a record of 40-3, including 14-0 this year, and Bama has reached the College Football Playoff all three years, including winning the national title in 2015. Moreover, he has changed the look of the Alabama offense, moving Bama from a true pro set to a zone read, hurry up attack.
Moreover, Kiffin gets high marks for having developed three first-year starting quarterbacks in those three years – Blake Sims, Jake Coker, and now Jalen Hurts.
Sims set Alabama records for offense, Coker led the Tide to the national title, and Hurts was this year’s Southeastern Conference Offensive Player of the Year.
There is a temptation to worry about the change in quarterbacks coach/offensive coordinator/play-caller for Hurts, a true freshman who is believed to have had an excellent relationship with Kiffin.
But Hurts does not seem like a freshman. He has shown poise throughout the season, even when struggling.
And he did struggle in the most recent game. Against Washington he completed only 7-14 passes for 57 yards and was sacked three times. He rushed 19 times for only 50 net yards. He was not involved in a touchdown play.
Although Sarkisian has not been an on-the-field coach and has limited contact with Hurts, he should be able to make Hurts comfortable since there is likely to be little change in the Alabama offense. Sarkisian certainly is familiar with everything in the Alabama playbook and with the abilities (and liabilities) of all Alabama players.
Sarkisian has an excellent football pedigree, and Washington media members in Atlanta for the Peach Bowl were extremely complimentary of him.
One of Sarkisian’s stops was as head coach at Washington, but before leaving there for the head coaching job at Southern Cal, he had great success as a quarterback and a coach.
He played at BYU under the late Lavell Edwards and his offensive coordinator was Norm Chow. As a senior in 1996, he opened the season against Texas A&M passing for 536 yards – read that again, 536 yards – and 6 – count ’em, 6 – touchdowns.
He later joined Chow at Southern Cal, where he was quarterbacks coach. Kiffin took over as offensive coordinator and Sarkisian was the quarterbacks coach for the Trojans. When Kiffin left USC to become head coach of the Oakland Raiders, Sardisian became USC offensive coordinator. Sarkisian had previously been a quarterbacks coach at Oakland.
Sarkisian then became head coach at USC in 2014 before being fired in early 2015 under the cloud of alcohol abuse.