Steve Sarkisian has a drinking problem. We can say this because he has said it himself, and he made it the basis of a $30 million wrongful termination suit against USC, the team that fired him as head coach during the 2015 season.
If somebody wants to call somebody an alcoholic, that’s fine. But it’s only when the addict says, “I’m an alcoholic,” that it really matters. Because they’re the ones faced with the reality of the situation. They’re the ones who have to do the next right thing. They’re the ones who have to decide if they want to live, work and thrive in society. Or they die.
I write this first because the Falcons are convinced that Sarkisian, whose skills as a coach and mind for offensive football are not in question, is, in coach Dan Quinn’s words, “In a good place.”
Sarkisian returned to football in September after an 11-month period as Alabama’s “offensive analyst,” making $35,000. He sought treatment and time for self-reflection. He later replaced Lane Kiffin as offensive coordinator a little sooner than expected, the national championship game, but his tenure lasted one game. Quinn, after receiving strong endorsements from Nick Saban, Pete Carroll and others, hired Sarkisian as offensive coordinator Tuesday to replace Kyle Shanahan.
Sarkisian is being handed the keys to a Lamborghini (the fourth quarter against New England notwithstanding). He will call plays for an offense that led the NFL in scoring (34 points per game), features an MVP at quarterback (Matt Ryan), a cyborg at wide receiver (Julio Jones) and a relative 64-Crayola box of options on the depth chart.
The Falcons’ instructions to Sarkisian look like this: Don’t screw it up.
He won’t. Assuming he doesn’t screw himself up.
I’ve written about the pain of addiction in our family, but how wonderful the world is on the other side of the recovery rainbow. If the embarrassment and pain Sarkisian suffered on the way out at USC and certainly earlier in his career (and life) has brought him to a better place today, good for him.
When things are right in this man’s life, he can coach. He proved this to the late Oakland Raiders’ owner, Al Davis, in his lone season as the team’s quarterbacks coach in 2004. Sarkisian went on to become the offensive coordinator at USC. Davis offered him the Raiders’ head coaching job in 2007, but he turned it down, saying, “It didn’t feel like the right time.”
Sarkisian went on to become the head coach at Washington (where he developed a relationship with Quinn, who was with Seattle at the time) and the Huskies’ offense set several schools. Then USC lured him back as head coach in 2014. But Sarkisian hadn’t accepted his illness, stresses increased and his world collapsed. He reportedly showed up drunk at a booster function and for pre-practice meetings. He was fired Oct. 12, 2015, five games into the season.
This is the ugly side of addiction. It doesn’t make Sarkisian a bad person. It just makes him a sick one.
All indications are that he is working a recovery program. There’s a belief by Quinn, after interviewing him and speaking to Carroll and Saban, that Sarkisian is on solid footing today.
“We went through the process to make sure everything would align with our organization in terms of culture and values,” Quinn said. “He’s done a fantastic job. There was zero hesitation, zero limitations, heading into our approach. All players, all coaches, you want to make sure the background is correct. So we went through that process with him.”
So he’s in a good spot, doing what he needs to do?
Quinn strongly considered hiring former San Francisco and Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly as his offensive coordinator. Kelly assured Quinn he was willing to adapt to the Falcons’ system and style. The two have been friends since Quinn coached at Hofstra (1996-99) and Kelly was at New Hampshire. Quinn just liked Sarkisian more. But he had to make sure about his sobriety before he moved on him and he spoke to Saban on Monday.
Before going to Alabama, Sarkisian did a tour of NFL OTA minicamps and training camps. His first stop in the spring was Flowery Branch. He and Quinn connected. Quinn suspected Shanahan might get a head coaching offer after the 2016 season and, “I wanted to make sure I had contingency plans in place. … I didn’t want to put anything in his ear. I didn’t want to mess up the karma. In your mind, you have a checklist of people who would be interesting to you.”
Until Quinn phoned him Monday.
Sarkisian ran similar offenses at USC and Washington. He’s good with players. The football side of this should be a smooth transition.
At a media availability before the Alabama-Clemson title game, Sarkisian recounted his camp visit to the Falcons, saying, “As soon as I got out on that field with Dan Quinn, that staff, I knew it’s where I need to be, this is where I want to be, this is what I love doing. Football’s in my blood.”
Asked a couple of times about his personal issues, Sarkisian said, “Life is good,” and “I’m doing great.”
But he generally offered little, saying he didn’t want his story to detract from the players or the game: “This is about our team. This is about our players. This is about the job and the situation that they’ve put themselves in to go out and win a national championship. That’s where my focus is.”
If Sarkisian takes care of myself, the story will be about the Falcons’ offense. But that’s up to him.