Steve Sarkisian was back in prime-time college football in Monday’s national championship game between Alabama and Clemson.
It has been a painful, embarrassing comeback for the former BYU quarterback and prominent member of the late LaVell Edwards coaching tree. Nick Saban elevated Sarkisian to offensive coordinator less than two weeks ago, replacing Lane Kiffin. Sarkisian had been helping Saban as kind of a behind-the-scenes consultant.
Sarkisian had been the head coach of the Washington Huskies before accepting the head coaching job at USC, a post he lost after erratic behavior involving drinking and medication before speaking at a Trojan rally. It cost him the most coveted job of his life.
Sarkisian went from a guy no college athletic director would give a break to in a head job search to being a key actor on the biggest stage of the college game.
I remember the first day I spoke to Sarkisian, the day he committed to sign with BYU out of El Camino Junior College, a short jaunt from his home in Torrance, California. The first day I interviewed him in person was outside BYU's Smith Fieldhouse. He was extremely friendly, kind and smart. He was anxious to step in as a JC transfer where his friend, John Walsh, had left early in hopes of an NFL career.
Sarkisian’s father is Armenian and came to America when he was 18 from Tehran, Iran, where he was born and raised. His mother was American-Irish and Steve was the youngest of seven children. Dewayne Walker recruited Sarkisian to BYU.
Sarkisian spoke of his background as a baseball player. He talked about his lifelong desire to play football at USC, but no doors had opened for him. As a junior college All-American who’d set a record for accuracy at El Camino, he had the credentials to make a difference at BYU.
Sarkisian and Walsh were from the same area in California and had discussed playing for BYU because of its history of developing quarterbacks who’d become All-Americans and Davey O’Brien and Maxwell award winners. The transition was supposed to be seamless for then-offensive coordinator Norm Chow.
This was a time when Chow had frequently used talent evaluations of Southern California QB guru Steve Clarkson, who knew Walsh and Sarkisian and would later introduce Chow to future BYU quarterback Kevin Feterik, from nearby Los Alamitos, California.
In 1995, his first year at BYU, Sarkisian made the adjustment from junior college to Division I. He threw for 3,437 yards and 20 touchdowns. I remember Sarkisian delivering a remarkable performance in his final conference game that year at Fresno State.
That night he completed 31 of 34 passes for 399 yards and three touchdowns, and the Cougars beat Fresno State 45-28. He set an NCAA record for completion percentage in a game (91.2 percent) and it would set him up in the school’s QB Club as one of the greats. That record stood for 18 years until 2013 when it was broken by Troy’s Corey Robinson.
The next year Sarkisian helped deliver one of the most storied seasons in BYU history that ended with a Cotton Bowl win over Kansas State. It was a season with one blemish, a loss at Washington, and then 14 wins including a dramatic overtime WAC championship victory over Wyoming in Las Vegas. Sarkisian’s offense included two NFL tight ends, Chad Lewis and Itula Mili, and he made the most of it.
Since his glory days at BYU, Sarkisian has ridden the highs and been part of some very personal lows, including a divorce and the humiliation of being fired from USC.
Yogi Roth, a former USC assistant who is now with the Pac-12 Network, told Fox Sports in 2015 when trouble hit: “I’ve known Sark since I was 19. I didn’t know where his (issues) were until last year (2015). I was worried for him as a friend. He gave me my Ph.D. in football. We were connected via a headset or a whiteboard for four years. I knew he wasn’t right. You knew he was trying to hold it together because that was his dream job.”
One thing I do know about sports and about most every fan in America is that when our giants fall, make mistakes and try to get up, we generally applaud them and forgive them their failings and misgivings.
We are great at giving mulligans to those who are sincere and publicly share their rocky journeys. Tiger Woods is going through this right now, as are many others.
On Monday night, Sarkisian found himself in a very challenging situation. He’d been away from the game. He joined the Crimson Tide when it was marching toward this amazing season. When Saban let Kiffin go two weeks ago and put Sarkisian in charge, it became a very big deal, a weighty job, even with Alabama’s talent.
For Sarkisian, Monday night was all about second chances, redemption and a new open door.
That’s all anyone could ask for.