Former Roughriders QB Sarkisian looking to leave Crimson Tide program on winning note

·5 min read

He's the new head coach at the University of Texas, but former CFL quarterback Steve Sarkisian has a little unfinished business to take care of before heading to the Lone Star State.

Sarkisian will complete his tenure as Alabama's offensive co-ordinator Monday when the top-ranked Tide (12-0) face No. 3 Ohio State (7-0) in U.S. college football's championship game. Afterwards, he'll shift his attention full-time to a Longhorns program that capped a 7-3 season downing Colorado 55-23 in the Alamo Bowl.

Sarkisian could become become the first assistant coach to beat Alabama head man Nick Saban. He's 23-0 versus former assistants and chasing a sixth NCAA title with the Tide.

"Clearly I'm excited about the opportunity at Texas," Sarkisian told reporters this week during a videoconference. "I'm looking forward to getting started there but the commitment I made to coach Saban two years ago is the same commitment I've made to these players and that's focusing on this game, giving (it) the attention it deserves so our players have an opportunity to go out and play to the best of their abilities.

"That's what we've always preached here . . . and this week has been no different."

Alabama has been dominant this season, in large part due to Sarkisian's offence. DeVonta Smith (105 catches, 1,641 yards, 20 TDs) became the first receiver since '91 to win the Heisman Trophy as U.S. college football's top player while Tide quarterback Mac Jones (4,036 passing yards, 36 TDs, four interceptions) was also a finalist.

The unit also features running back Najee Harris (1,387 yards, 24 TDs) and sophomore John Metchie III, who grew up in Brampton, Ont., and was the team's second-leading receiver (47 catches, 835 yards, six TDs). And on Monday night, it might be bolstered by the return of Jaylen Waddle.

The speedy Waddle has been out since suffering an ankle injury Oct, 24 versus Tennessee. He still finished third on the team in receiving (25 catches, 557 yards, four TDs) and has resumed practising although Sarkisian was non-committal about Waddle playing Monday night.

Waddle might get more prep time as Monday's game could be postponed until Jan. 18 due to COVID-19 cases. Despite the abundance of firepower, Sarkisian said it's not hard to keep everyone in his offence happy.

"I think we've got a very selfless team on offence," Sarkisian said. "They recognize when the run game looks good, they recognize when the pass game should look good.

"I think when you can get a team that's mature like ours on offence right now that can think at that level and understand a game-plan at that level, you really don't deal with (feeling) like you have to get somebody the ball. It happens naturally in our system."

Sarkisian, a 46-year-old Californian, entered the coaching ranks in 2000 following three seasons as a quarterback with the CFL's Saskatchewan Roughriders (1997-99). He was the team's starter in 1999, completing 175-of-290 passes (60.3 per cent) for 2,290 yards with 16 TDs and 21 interceptions before returning to El Camino College — where he played from 1993-94 — as a quarterback coach.

Sarkisian is in his second stint with Saban. He served as Alabama's offensive co-ordinator for the '17 national championship game after spending the 2016 season as an analyst prior to being promoted.

He rejoined Saban's staff in January 2019 after two seasons as the Atlanta Falcons' offensive co-ordinator.

"Coach Saban offers guys like myself an opportunity to come into his program, learn, develop as coaches, but I think it's a two-way street," Sarkisian said. "I think you need to come in — I don't want to call it necessarily humble — but I do think there's a piece of humility that has to come into this.

"But he's a tremendous mentor and if you allow yourself to be mentored, I think you gain even more out of this experience. That's all I tried to do in my time here . . . one, coach the kids and do the best job I could coaching the kids, but, two, really try to be a sponge with him and why he goes about what he does, some of the decisions he makes so if you ever get the opportunity like I'm getting now hopefully you can take some of these things with you to be a better coach down the road."

Jones has nothing but praise for the job Sarkisian has done at Alabama.

"(To) future quarterbacks, I just say, 'Enjoy coach Sarkisian, he's a great guy,'" Jones said. "You'll learn a lot about being a great person and also applying things to your game.

"Learn how to think like coach Sark because he sees everything a defence does and he's going to put you in the best position to succeed as a quarterback and offence."

And although he's currently holding down two jobs, Sarkisian says this week is like any other.

"Quite honestly, my week for me would be a normal game week as if I hadn't taken the Texas job," he said. "My focus is on the game ... any of the spare time I do have, that's getting my attention for the job at Texas, whether that's staffing or recruiting, things of that nature.

"But I would say my week has been as normal as it could be, and has been, of game planning and prepping for the ballgame."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 7, 2021.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press