With Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian about to head off to a prime opportunity at Texas, the Crimson Tide coaching staff will have one last hurrah together when the team faces Ohio State in the CFP National Championship Game next Monday.
Alabama head coach Nick Saban expects nothing less than supreme focus from his entire staff with so much on the line. After all, this is not the first time he has entered a key game with an assistant coach about to head off for a plum opportunity.
“I think you just have to separate yourself and focus on (the task at hand),” Saban said. “… You kind of owe it to the players to give your best, to do your best to help them get prepared for the game so they can play well in the game. That’s how I always felt. I think that’s how Sark feels.”
Having one of his assistants leaving the program is not the only experience Saban has in this arena. He was that departing assistant in 1994 when he was the defensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns under Bill Belichick and was about to take the head coaching job at Michigan State.
The Browns made the playoffs in Saban’s final season at Cleveland, defeating the New England Patriots 20-13 in the wild-card round, before falling 29-9 to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the divisional round.
“We had like five or six games left to play in the season and had a chance to get in the playoffs, which we did,” Saban said of his timetable after landing the Michigan State job. “… Look, if it wasn’t for the players, if it wasn’t for the players at the Cleveland Browns being the best defense, I probably would have never got the Michigan State job.”
In other words, a solid gameplan in the title game is Sarkisian’s best way to show his appreciation for his upcoming opportunity.
From Michigan State, Saban went to LSU, returned to the NFL with the Miami Dolphins and landed at Alabama in 2007. Five of his six national championships have come with the Crimson Tide.
He knows what makes a championship team and in order to do it again, he must get through an Ohio State team that proved it was worthy of a title shot with a 49-28 CFP semifinal victory over Clemson in the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day.
Saban had nothing but praise for his opponent one week before the championship game.
“They’ve got a lot of good athletes on defense,” Saban said of the Buckeyes. “They’re physical, they’re athletic, they can run, they play well together. This is just a very talented group.”
And his compliments weren’t just reserved for the Ohio State defense.
“The speed that they have, the way they can stretch the field with the playmakers they have, a quarterback that can run or pass and can make all the throws, it’s just a good all-around team and they have great balance,” Saban said. “I think that’s what makes them very difficult to defend.”
Alabama has more than its share of talent on offense as well, and as the coordinator, Sarkisian will get one more chance to see what he can get out of the group as his second stint with the Crimson Tide comes to a close. He was an assistant in 2016, became the Atlanta Falcons’ offensive coordinator for two seasons and returned to Saban’s staff in 2019.
“Sark has done a marvelous job here,” Saban said. “He’s very well organized. He works very well with all the people in the organization, players and coaches alike. He’s a good play caller on game day. He does a really good job of preparing the players game plan wise for each and every game, and he’s just done a great job.”