TAMPA, FL – JANUARY 09: Head coach Nick Saban (L) and offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian of the Alabama Crimson Tide stand on the sideline during the second half of the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship Game against the Clemson Tigers at Raymond James Stadium on January 9, 2017 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
No matter how ugly things get on Saturday, the folks who care about the Texas Longhorns should remember what that head coach on the visiting sideline did for them.
Alabama’s Nick Saban is why Texas is on a fast track back to greatness. Longhorns coach Steve Sarkisian was exposed to Saban’s genius—the recruiting magic, organizational skills, messaging—for two stints covering three seasons.
Sarkisian arrived in Tuscaloosa as a broken man, professionally and possibly personally, after his alcoholism got him fired at USC in 2015. Saban rescued him.
He did not do this simply because he wanted to help a down-and-out peer, although he did that. This week, Sarkisian said of Saban: He “saved my career.”
“Coach Saban took a chance on me when I needed somebody to believe in me again,” Sarkisian told ESPN this week. “I’ve said this numerous times, but I would not be the head coach at Texas if it weren’t for Nick Saban.
“He gave me a chance when I had a hard time getting an interview, never mind a job. There were days that I thought, `Man, I’m never going to be a head coach again. I’m never going to be an offensive coordinator again. I’m never going to get another job.’”
Saban told ESPN: “Sark is the one who did the work. We supported him and made sure there were the right resources and people in place to help him, as we have with many others. But, listen, he saved his own career by doing a great job for us and rehabbing himself professionally, and I’m not just talking about personally, but professionally in a really, really positive way that impacted our program greatly and helped us be successful here.”
Saban also knew Sarkisian was a tremendous offensive mind and that there are few better coaches at developing quarterbacks. Saban soaked all he could out of Sarkisian.
In return, Sarkisian was the offensive architect when the Crimson Tide won the most recent of Saban’s six national championships at Alabama.
In return, Sarkisian watched and listened and soaked in so much of what has made Alabama great. This is why Texas athletics director Chris Del Conte took a chance on a head coach with a mediocre 46-35 record at Washington and USC.
For years, Texas boosters had wanted to hire the master. Almost every time the Longhorns struggled—and that has happened for most of the last dozen seasons—there’d be rumors that Saban was house hunting in Austin, that this time he finally was ready to apply his genius to a program that has finished higher than 19th in the Associated Press poll once since 2010.
Del Conte surely poked around enough to see if Saban would consider Texas when he began his search for a new coach two years ago. Instead, he got someone Saban could hardly have recommended more highly. If anyone could apply the Saban treatment to Texas, it would be Sarkisian.
In his terrific new book, The Leadership Secrets of Nick Saban, Wall Street Journal reporter John Talty details the layers of Saban’s methodical building of a six-time national champion at Alabama.
On his first full day on the job, Saban described himself to an Alabama official this way: “You may have hired a horse spit football coach, but you just got the greatest recruiter in history.”
That first afternoon, he summoned every Alabama football employee to meeting.
“Everything we do here is about recruiting,” he said.
He went down the list of every job of the people in the room: maintenance people had to have the building “show ready” every single day.
Secretaries had to understand they were the first contact lots of people would have with Alabama football.
As for the coaches, Saban had voluminous notes accumulated over the years: He wanted certain things from each position, including specifications on height, wingspan, speed, all of it.
He never took an assistant coach’s word on recruits. He had to see every single one of them on film, and only after he was convinced that their personalities would be a good fit at Alabama and that there was a very specific role for them on the team, would the kid be offered a scholarship.
The thing, Talty saw firsthand is that Saban never wavered in what he expected from himself or those around him. As one of his former assistants once told me: “The worst job in this country is to go into Coach Saban’s office and tell him you lost a recruit.”
Talty had this anecdote: Saban hosted a recruiting weekend in which he invited players and their families to come to campus, be shown around, meet the staff, etc.
One of his assistants dutifully rented buses to squire the folks around and escorted them into receptions complete with appetizers, drinks, etc. Afterwards, on the following Monday, Saban summoned the organizer to his office and asked: “What the bleep was that?”
Saban said recruits should not have herded onto buses. They should each be chauffeured into an SUV, and Saban said, “I’ll drive the No. 1 guy myself.”
His point was this: We only recruit a certain kind of player. At times, we take less talented people in order to get the right kind of people. We never stray from our guidelines.
(He famously ignored his own guidelines in the recruiting of wide receiver DeVonta Smith, who was the 2020 Heisman Trophy winner, according to Talty.)
During wide receiver Jaylen Waddle’s junior and senior season at Houston Episcopal High School, coaches lined up to promise playing time, fame and who knows what else.
What Episcopal head coach Steve Leisz recalled is that Saban promised nothing except a chance. He remembers Saban saying:
“You’re a four-star, but all our guys are four or five starts. All I can guarantee you is a chance to compete.”
What impressed Waddle even more, according to Leisz, was the culture he witnessed on his visit to Alabama. He saw a program in which players, especially quarterback Jalen Hurts—and not coaches so much—held one another accountable. Waddle was sold.
This week, Saban and Sarkisian have both talked about their three seasons together. Sarkisian joked that while he got the brunt of Saban’s anger at times, Lane Kiffin, now the Ole Miss coach, had it worse. In the end, though, Sarkisian knows whatever he’s able to make of football at Texas will be shaped by those three seasons with the greatest coach in history.
In the ESPN interview, he recalled skull sessions in which Saban would quiz Sarkisian after video and whiteboard sessions.
“Every day, it was like, `Watch this, watch that and tell me what you think of this, what you think of that.’ Coach Saban doesn’t miss anything. He’s always picking your brain.”
Alabama is a 20-point favorite at Royal-Memorial Stadium this week. Saban refers to that huge point spread as “rat poison” and has not been in the best of moods this week.
That’s how he reacts when he’s worried that his players will not take an opponent as seriously as they should. In other words, Texas isn’t yet Georgia or Texas A&M in the hearts and minds of his players.
But this was the right hire at the right time for Texas. Saban showed Sarkisian how to build a champion. Given the advantages Texas has in terms of facilities, recruiting, attendance and donors, there’s zero reason to think he can’t do at Texas what his old boss has done at Alabama.