When Greg Byrne disconnects with Kirby Smart, he should dial Steve Sarkisian. That conversation should last longer. It should end with Sarkisian thinking hard about trading Bevo for Big Al.
Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne must replace the greatest college football coach in our time, so he has to call Kirby Smart first. Smart is the closest thing to Saban going. He also has it as well at Georgia as Saban had it at Bama, so he isn’t leaving Athens.
When Byrne disconnects with Smart, he should dial Steve Sarkisian. That conversation should last longer.
It should end with Sarkisian thinking hard about trading Bevo for Big Al.
Sark has it pretty good at Texas, and not just because the Longhorns just made their first College Football Playoff after winning their first Big 12 championship in 14 years.
He has all the resources a coach desires, from an innovative athletic director in Chris Del Conte to a $2.4 million recruiting budget to a donor base with more cash than it can ever spend.
He has those donors at his beck and call, a gift a coach earns by returning the donors’ program to its so-called rightful place among college football’s elite.
Sarkisian would have to earn Alabama donors’ trust, but he should feel confident about doing that. He knows what backs to slap having been in Tuscaloosa twice before.
He knows Byrne, who signed off on Sarkisian’s hiring as Alabama offensive coordinator in 2019, three years after Sark’s one-season cameo as an offensive analyst. Sark stayed behind the scenes in 2016, trying to rehabilitate from a messy firing at USC involving alcohol abuse, until bursting forward as Saban’s interim play-caller during the ‘16 Playoff.
Saban went on about Sarkisian’s play-calling, quarterback development and organizational skills when he promoted him to replace Lane Kiffin in December of ‘16, and also said: “I wouldn’t have anybody in this organization that I didn’t have total faith, trust and confidence in… This guy is part of our family now. We’re gonna support and help him be successful in any way we can.”
That should resonate seven years later, as should Sarkisian’s 2019-20 stint as Alabama offensive coordinator culminating in DeVonta Smith’s Heisman Trophy and the Tide’s national championship dismantling of Ohio State.
As should Texas’ 34-24 humbling of Bama in Tuscaloosa last Sept. 9. Sarkisian referred to Saban as a mentor that game week. Then he went out and beat him.
If there were doubts about Sarkisian’s head coaching stability given his USC disaster, or his 5-7 opening season at Texas in 2021, that game plus the season that followed mitigated them.
Sarkisian took advantage of his bottomless resources, sure, but he also developed future NFL players. Both would play well at Alabama, home of a $2.3 million recruiting budget and also 44 first-round draft picks over Saban’s 17 seasons.
That “44” will be as intimidating to potential successors as the “6” from Saban’s national title count. “Greatest coach of ‘em all” will be most intimidating. Sarkisian, having emerged from Texas’ chew-em-up-and-spit-em-out machinery with last season’s accomplishments, should be among the least intimidated should Byrne call.
That doesn’t mean he’d say “You got me.”
Del Conte isn’t likely to lose a bidding war, even as Sarkisian’s 2023 salary was reportedly half of Saban’s. Sark is going to get much richer wherever he coaches next fall.
Why make that Texas for a fourth season? Quinn Ewers for one. The Longhorns might be losing their best running back, receivers, defensive linemen and linebacker, but not their starting quarterback and early 2024 Heisman favorite. Ewers’ return offsets a lot of that loss.
Alabama quarterback Jalen Milroe is another Heisman frontrunner. He’s returning. Sarkisian could make that work, it just wouldn’t be as comfortable.
Less comfortable for Sarkisian or anybody else: moving into Saban’s office. It isn’t the resources or expectations outside that office that are so daunting here, but rather the legend who sat at the desk.
I’m not sure it would be wise for anyone to take that on.
“As far as Coach Saban, it’s pretty remarkable what he has done when you think about the offensive coordinators, the defensive coordinators, the special teams coordinators, not to mention the position coaches…” Sarkisian raved the week of his Alabama victory. “As a head coach, you think man if I could ever have the longevity he had, I sure would love to have that style of consistency.”
Sarkisian did call Saban and Pete Carroll “mentors” during that press conference. He did say: “I grew at my time at Alabama. I became a better coach, I became a better leader, I became a better communicator, I became a better organizer, That is a tribute to Coach Saban.”
Sark has Saban to thank for things far more important than his coaching reboot.
It’s just he’s doing very well in the aftermath of Tom Herman. Everything else being equal, that feels so much less intense than the aftermath of Nick Saban.
It’s a big enough deal that if Byrne calls, Sarkisian should give it a lot more thought than Smart might before answering the same.