Even during a strange season, the world of college football often centers on Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Such was the case when the top-ranked Crimson Tide hosted the Auburn Tigers in both teams’ biggest rivalry game, the Iron Bowl. There would have been storylines to spare in any year — the Tide eager to fortify their status as College Football Playoff participants, the Tigers to retain a hold on a top-25 ranking—but 2020 threw in an added wrinkle.

On the Wednesday before the game, Alabama head coach Nick Saban tested positive for COVID-19. Enter Steve Sarkisian. Once in danger of falling out of football altogether, the Tide’s offensive coordinator and onetime BYU quarterback stepped into the college coaching world’s biggest shoes.

The result: Alabama 42 , Auburn 13.

Sarkisian’s offense, as has often been the case this season, was at its best. Running back Najee Harris pounded into the edges of the Auburn defense for hard-earned gains; quarterback Mac Jones found a bevy of receivers on crossing routes and downfield sideline shots. Alabama tends to operate at a talent advantage, but what was most striking about that evening’s game was the tangible effect of Sarkisian’s design, which produced three early touchdowns to stake the Tide to a 21-3 lead. Just when the Tigers adjusted to one manner of point-piling onslaught, poof, something else replaced it.

“Sark did a nice job of managing things and I sat here and felt a little hopeless,” Saban said, speaking to the media after the game. Set next to Saban’s willingness to tab Sarkisian as his replacement in the first place, the words signaled a ringing endorsement from a coach disinclined to offer overt praise.

They also added to one of the most surprising stories of redemption in the sport’s recent history. A few short years ago, Sarkisian was deemed unfit to lead a football program, his struggles with alcoholism overshadowing his exceptionally regarded strategic mind. Saturday, he will lead the Tide offense in an SEC title game matchup with the Florida Gators, with a College Football Playoff berth in sight.

Sarkisian climbed his way back to the pinnacle of the sport — and into the highest-profile cameo role college football has to offer — by applying one of his central coaching tenets to himself.

He’s always loved the little things that make up the game; he just had to remember.

BYU quarterback Steve Sarkisian looks to the referee as the ball is placed over the goal line on a fourth-and-goal situation against Tulsa. Sarkisian played for the Cougars in 1995 and 1996. | Deseret News Archives

The natural

Sarkisian is 46 years old, but he retains the quick, roving eyes and well-shaped build that suggest he’d have no trouble hitting a 20-yard out route. Over the past quarter-century, he has lived about as well-traveled a football life as is possible. It has taken him from tiny El Camino Junior College in Torrance, California — where he joined the team only after coaches witnessed him messing around throwing passes — to the Canadian Football League, to the then-Pac-10, the NFL, and, most recently, the premier college football program of the 21st century.

But it began, in earnest, when he left El Camino for BYU. Sarkisian jumped at the chance to play for LaVell Edwards and Norm Chow, the team’s forward-thinking offensive coordinator, and to immerse himself in the all-business football culture.

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Chad Lewis, a tight end with the Cougars, can’t forget the first pass he caught from “Sark,” on a seam route in practice — a dangerous pattern that can sometimes lead to the receiver taking a big hit from a waiting defender.

“Instead of bringing me into the middle of the field and getting the ambulance shot from the safety, he threw the ball that kept me on the seam. It was a difficult throw,” Lewis said. “But the second he did that, I knew that he understood defenses, and he understood the game in a different way. I ran back to the huddle and told him, ‘Bro, I will go anywhere to catch your football.’”

“I think almost every great quarterback has great vision, and he had that feel — he knew where to put the ball, where it needed to be,” Gene Engle, Sarkisian’s offensive coordinator at El Camino, said. Engle also teaches at the junior college (a class on sports psychology) and considers Sarkisian a prime example of a phenomenon his classes study.

“It’s called time transformation; it’s literally like time slows down.” It was this characteristic, as much as Sarkisian’s natural athleticism, that caught the eye of El Camino coaches, who convinced the then-baseball player to join the team.

Sarkisian’s natural ability to see the field, find his targets, and lead a locker room made him an easy and wildly successful fit in Provo. “He’s fun, he’s upbeat,” Lewis said of his former quarterback. “Just the cadence of his voice — it’s something you want to be around.” Sarkisian’s love of every element of the sport, from deciphering coverages to building camaraderie, was that of someone who has found his life’s purpose.

“When he talks about it, he just comes alive,” Lewis says. “His eyes twinkle. He just loves it.”

Sarkisian’s first year in Provo had its struggles; the team went 7-4 and didn’t receive a bowl-game invitation for the first time in 18 years. But in Sarkisian’s senior year, his talents manifested in one of the greatest seasons in Cougars history. During the 1996 season, Sarkisian passed for more than 4,000 yards, throwing 33 touchdowns, and led BYU to a 14-1 record, still the most wins in school history. In a Cotton Bowl matchup with Kansas State on New Year’s Day, Sarkisian led the Cougars on a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown drives to secure a come-from-behind 19-14 victory. The last score of the day, and of Sarkisian’s brief but magical BYU career, came when he lofted an inch-perfect throw to K.O. Kealaluhi in the far corner of the end zone for a 28-yard touchdown.

Lessons learned from 1996 season still ring true for former BYU football players 20 years later

At that moment, fans and teammates could have drawn a straight line from Sarkisian’s success as a player to a bright future. Maybe he wouldn’t have been a long-term pro — at just 6 feet tall, he lacked the size NFL teams look for in passers — but he seemed a safe bet to climb the coaching ranks, teaching his methods of thinking the game to other quarterbacks.

But some obstacles are harder to read than defensive coverage, and life tends to unfold less cleanly than a touchdown drive.

Fast success and faster failure

Less that 20 years later, Sarkisian seemed to have fulfilled his football destiny. After a short stint in the CFL and an even shorter stint selling educational supplies, he’d gotten a start in coaching, ticking off increasingly impressive boxes: quarterbacks coach at El Camino, then at the University of Southern California, then with the NFL’s Oakland Raiders.

In 2005, he took an assistant coaching position back at USC; in 2008, the head coaching job at the University of Washington. The Huskies didn’t amass particularly impressive records — a string of just-above-.500 finishes earned Sarkisian the derisive nickname “Seven Win Steve” — but Sarkisian’s reputation for developing passers endured. In 2013, he was hired on in one of the sport’s most sought-after roles: head coach of the USC Trojans.

Unbeknownst to many outside of his immediate circle, Sarkisian’s private life was falling apart. His marriage of more than a decade and a half had begun to strain; it would end in divorce in 2016. The pressures of the USC job, which layered administrative, fundraising, and public relations demands atop the already arduous work of teaching high-level football, took their toll.

Sarkisian had started to drink to the degree that it sometimes interfered with his work. His first season at USC, in 2014, showed promise, with the Trojans winning nine games and finishing the year ranked 20th nationally. But the good feelings wouldn’t last.

At a fundraising event prior to the 2015 season, Sarkisian stepped to a podium to address an assembly of boosters and supporters. He was visibly inebriated, losing his balance at times and slurring his words. He added an expletive to the school’s rallying cry of “Fight on!”

“I’d like to apologize for my behavior Saturday night,” Sarkisian said days later. “The way I acted was irresponsible. It is something I obviously don’t condone.” He attributed his behavior to an accidental mixture of alcohol and prescription medication. When asked whether he had a drinking problem, Sarkisian replied, “I don’t believe so.”

Even during his roughest periods, Sarkisian retained his sharp eye for the game, but he seemed to lose some of the joy that football had previous brought him.

“He was tough,” Max Browne, a backup quarterback, said of his former head coach. “Tough on our quarterback room in terms of pushing us and wanting it to be at a high standard.” Browne paused. “I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that I got Sark during a very unique time.”

Midway through a season that saw the Trojans drop from a preseason top-10 ranking to out of the top 25, the school fired Sarkisian, noting that his conduct did not meet the institution’s standards. The comments of officials, at the time of the firing, reflected not animus or even disappointment but concern. “I feel a great deal of compassion for Steve Sarkisian,” USC athletic director Pat Haden said.

The firing allowed Sarkisian to focus on his health, but at the time, there was no sense of a silver lining.

“That was his dream job,” Lewis said. “He didn’t want to leave; he didn’t want to lose that opportunity. He wanted to win multiple national championships.”

Southern California football head coach Steve Sarkisian speaks to members of the media before practice on the campus in Los Angeles on Aug. 25, 2015. USC fired Sarkisian one day after the troubled coach was put on leave. Athletic director Pat Haden announced his decision Monday, Oct. 12, 2015, in a brief statement. | Nick Ut, Associated Press

A student of the game

For almost a year, Sarkisian dropped out of the public eye, a drastic shift from being the head man at an iconic college football program. He completed his rehab program; he finalized his divorce. His former teammates at BYU rallied around him.

“We were wounded, as he was wounded, and we were all pulling for him,” Lewis said. “We love him. He’s our quarterback, he’s our leader, and he’s our friend.”

When Sarkisian returned to the world of football, it was in a drastically diminished role. Saban hired him as an offensive analyst — not even an official coach — at Alabama. His salary, which had been $2.6 million at USC, was slashed to $35,000 a year. But the position offered a reintroduction, a chance to prove himself, and, most importantly, an opportunity to rediscover his pure love for the game.

For the first time since his initial head coaching job at Washington, Sarkisian could spend as much time learning as he spent teaching.

Engel cites Sarkisian’s inquisitiveness as a hallmark of his coaching approach, going back to his days tutoring quarterbacks on the El Camino staff.

“He did it with a humility,” Engel said. “It was never like, ‘Hey, I was a college quarterback, I had all the success, you should listen to me.’ There was none of that, ever. It was a humble confidence.”

At Alabama, Sarkisian joined up with offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, with whom he had worked during his days as an assistant at USC. But the two shifted their onetime approach to fit a dual-threat quarterback, Jalen Hurts, who displayed a far different skill set than those of the old-school pocket passers Sarkisian had gotten used to with the Trojans.

“He’s always tried to stay innovative,” Browne said of his former coach, “and not be living in an old-school football mentality. He makes sure he’s staying up with the times, which is always impressive.”

With Sarkisian’s help, Alabama rolled through the regular season with a 12-0 record before beating Florida, 54-16, in the SEC championship game. But before the College Football Playoff, Kiffin accepted a head coaching job at Florida Atlantic, throwing the Tide’s coaching staff into disarray. To observers’ surprise, Saban promoted Sarkisian to fill the role. “We are pleased to be able to hire an offensive coordinator with the pedigree and experience of Steve Sarkisian,” Saban said. “He has a tremendous offensive mind.”

The playoff opened with a dash of full-circle fate; Alabama beat Washington, Sarkisian’s former school, by a score of 24-7. The Tide then lost a classic to Clemson in the national championship, but the defeat didn’t diminish Sarkisian’s accomplishment, moving from a new ancillary hire to the offensive play-caller in the space of a season. More importantly, the loss didn’t snuff his rekindled appreciation to be working at his calling.

“That was powerful to me, as a friend, to see that,” Lewis said. “Not everyone comes through difficulties so well.”

The difficulties that came next paled in comparison. In February 2017, Sarkisian took the offensive coordinator job with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons, inheriting a team that had made it to the Super Bowl the season before.

The offense struggled under Sarkisian’s guidance, dropping from a league-leading scoring rate to the middle of the pack. After the 2018 season, Atlanta fired Sarkisian, and he quickly returned to Tuscaloosa, where Saban again handed him the reins of the offense.

In his first full-time season in the job, Sarkisian led the the Tide to historic offensive productivity.; they never once scored fewer than 35 points in a game. But an injury to star quarterback Tua Tagovailoa hurt them down the stretch, and they missed the playoff.

To another coach, the challenges this season presented might have seemed arduous. Alabama had to replace Tagovailoa, who had gone to the NFL draft, and Jerry Jeudy, a wide receiver who had won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s best. In an October game against Tennessee, Jaylen Waddle, the team’s top downfield threat, suffered an ankle injury that has kept him sidelined since. Alabama fans tend not to accept excuses, though, no matter how valid the excuses may be; a championship remained the expectation.

Sarkisian had an opportunity to sidestep the challenge and get back some of his former prestige; reports surfaced that the University of Colorado had offered him its head job before the season. But if he had once been heartbroken to lose the head coaching title, Sarkisian now had new perspective. “I’m with a really good mentor,” he told ESPN of working with Saban.

The $2.5 million salary that he now earns with the Tide, a sum that rivals some head coaching salaries, surely makes apprenticing a bit easier. But so too does a job description that is heavy on teaching and experimenting, and light on duties that take away from pure football. The shakeup to offensive personnel, in fact, is right in Sarkisian’s wheelhouse.

“He has this ability to mold his quarterback,” Browne said. “To his credit, he’s always been able to go with whoever, whatever he has.”

The results bear it out. Jones, a relative unknown at the time he took over for Tagovailoa last year, is now among the favorites to win the Heisman Trophy. The undefeated and top-ranked Tide are averaging a scoreboard-spinning 49.5 points per game. Jones credits his coordinator’s talents at not only building his own skill level but adapting to the demands of every particular opponent.

“Coach Sark does a really good job game-planning each week and coming up with the best ways to attack defenses, so big credit to him,” Jones said earlier this year.

Saturday’s showdown with Florida is the next step toward making good on perennial championship hopes, in a year in which football is even more of a needed escape than ever. A loss might not mean exclusion from the playoff — Alabama’s resume is solid enough by now — but it would signal rare concern for a team that hasn’t yet had cause for it.

The man who will have as much to do with the outcome as anyone, though, has experienced higher stakes than these. He has achieved his dream, squandered it, and realized that life goes on. He has learned that setback is not the same as defeat. Fundamentally, he understands how lucky he is that his good fortune does not depend on which way the ball bounces on Saturday.

“He lives with an optimism you can feel when you talk to him, when you see him coach. Football can be a grinding job; there’s a ton of pressure. But you don’t feel it from him,” Lewis said. “He loves what he’s doing. He loves his job. And that’s a gift.”