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Steve Sarkisian is the Ultimate Test of Nick Saban’s Process

Nick Saban

Nick Saban

Steve Sarkisian

TAMPA — Often copied, rarely duplicated and consistently discussed, Alabama head coach Nick Saban’s "Process" about building and running a team at a championship level is about as well known in college football circles as the spread offense by this point.

There are numerous books on it, to say nothing of the in-depth features that have appeared on nearly every major website and radio station trying to dissect it. It’s a favorite talking point for television analysts and is as much a part of the lexicon in the state of Alabama as “Roll Tide” is.

"I think what we're trying to say when people talk about the process is there's a certain way that you go about whatever it is you're trying to accomplish, and you define that so everybody clearly understands what their role is," Saban said at Media Day for the College Football Playoff National Championship Game. "Everybody has got to buy into it, or it doesn't really work."

It is that last point that led the waves of reporters at Amalie Arena to flock not to Saban’s podium, but to roll up 10-deep in front of the team’s new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. It was a striking visual because, for the first time in what must be two decades, the biggest media throng at a press conference was not reserved for the sport’s most towering figure, but rather for somebody who was out of work six months ago and persona non grata from just about any coaching position.

Saban’s decision five days ago to install Sarkisian as the team’s offensive coordinator one game early is easily one of the most surprising moves at the biggest stage in all of college football. The only comparable situation was nearly 20 years ago when David Cutcliffe left Tennessee for Ole Miss after the 1998 season.

The Volunteers had nearly a month to navigate that situation however. Alabama will have less than a week this time around and will be playing a team that pushed them to the very brink 12 months ago.

The reason for Lane Kiffin’s early retirement to Boca Raton was simple, no matter what early statements said to the contrary. His focus was elsewhere in the run up to the Peach Bowl and the Tide’s game plan suffered in that rather shaky win over Washington. He did not buy into everything that Saban was saying in December. Comments to Sports Illustrated about the program, staff meetings and the head man himself that came out shortly before the semifinal game didn’t help things and Kiffin feeding a reporter news about missing another bus was probably the final straw in the relationship between the two very different personalities.

As a result, we’re about to see if Saban’s meticulous “process” — one that spells out every role and often every minute of a staffer’s job — is up to the ultimate test against another elite program for that illustrious golden trophy. It has been a process that has delivered ring after ring to Tuscaloosa over the past eight years. It’s one that has seen coaches come and go at all levels. But it hasn’t quite been one that has ditched play-callers a week before the biggest game of the season.

"Sark has done this for a long time, and he's called plays for a long time. He's got a lot of experience, he's got a lot of knowledge. I think he's very well organized in his approach, and I'd tell him what I tell any coach: we've prepared to do certain things in certain situations, let's stick with the plan," Saban said. "Until we have to adjust the plan, that's what the players know, that's what we've practiced, that's what we need to go out and try to do, and that's going to give us the best chance to be able to execute and be successful. I think he'll do that."

That’s subtle speak for saying a Kiffin-for-Sark exchange is much more of a calculated decision than a leap of faith, especially at this stage in the season. The Alabama head coach wouldn’t be as successful as he has been without navigating that calculus over the past several years and it’s a testament to what Saban has established in Tuscaloosa that just about every one of his players barely batted an eyelash at the move upon first hearing of it.

Lane Kiffin

Nearly to a man, the team didn’t say they were shocked or surprised at what unfolded last Sunday night and into the formal announcement on Monday. Most of the Crimson Tide offensive players had to struggle to even come up with a few noticeable differences about practice this week, falling back on saying things were simply a little more energetic or up-tempo — but overall just as smooth as before.

"It didn’t affect myself or anyone on the team as much as everyone wants it to affect us. Everybody keeps talking about it," left tackle Cam Robinson said, almost exasperated at answering another question about the OC changeover. "We just come out and work. We don’t care who the offensive coordinator is. We get the game plan and come out and work.

"I mean, y’all honestly think Coach Saban would change the way we prepare or the process we go through week in and week out? No. He’s not letting that happen. Our preparation is the same, the way we prepare is the same, our mindset is the same. Nothing has changed because we have a new offensive coordinator."

That probably has equal parts to do with the regimented process the players go through in preparation for their 30th game over the past two seasons as the two coaches at the center of attention this week. Sarkisian and Kiffin were cut from the same cloth as young coaches under Norm Chow and Pete Carroll during the Trojans’ dynasty nearly a decade ago. Both put up with the idiosyncrasies of Al Davis up in Oakland and been among the youngest head coaches in college football at marquee programs. Each has a good reputation for calling plays and a similar approach to blending up-tempo spread concepts with a traditional pro-style attack.

Even Clemson isn’t expecting many changes when the Tide take the field with a new face on the sidelines. While Tigers defensive coordinator Brent Venables did note that the staff has gone back and watched film of USC from 2014 and early ‘15, he cautioned the staff that they couldn’t go "chasing ghosts" to prepare for something different when so much will be the same.

So while everything is very much unexpected from the outside, there really is the feeling that this is nothing more than a title change at Alabama to both teams playing in the title game.

"I don't think I could have foreseen this four months ago when I was contemplating doing TV to get into this situation," said an energetic Sarkisian at his first public event since being let go by USC last season. "But being part of the program for the last four months, seeing Lane work, being around the office, game planning, working with the coaches, it's not just so foreign where I'm just coming in from the outside and trying to pick up from where they've left off. I’ve been around this thing. When you start calling plays, you start calling plays. You don't get caught up in everything going on outside, you focus on what's going on in between the lines. That's the mindset I'll have."

A thinner, healthier looking Sarkisian acted like a natural taking questions on Saturday despite the sudden thrust into the spotlight. He paused for loudspeaker announcements, he said hello to familiar faces in the national media, and he didn’t shy away from answering questions about his abrupt tenure in Los Angeles nor his subsequent journey away from football while he dealt with personal demons.

But as Sarkisian explained his duties as an “offensive analyst” and what his role will be in coaching young quarterback Jalen Hurts, he fell back into the mantras of his new mentor 50 feet away saying many of the same words.

"I don't want to take away from what this really is about. This is about our team. This is about our players," said Sarkisian. "This is about the job and the situation that they've put themselves in to go out and win a national championship. To do it for a second consecutive year would be an amazing accomplishment. That's where my focus is."

For good reason too. After being pushed to the brink by Clemson a season ago, Saban knew that he needed everybody all in on the title game in 2017. Kiffin clearly wasn’t. Sarkisian clearly was given where he was both personally and professionally.

Now we’re about to find out if all those minutes that have been accounted for, all those roles clearly defined, all those game plans precisely laid out will pay off. While everybody in the program insists that not much has changed in swapping out coordinators, this isn’t exactly like a manager bringing in a relief pitcher in baseball during the Game 7 of the World Series.

Can a coach who’s been on the job for days, and around the program for just a few short months in a limited role, step in and fill maybe the most important shoes in the program on Monday night? That titanic Alabama-Clemson rematch and the ultimate outcome in it will come down not to whether Steve Sarkisian is ready for being thrust into duty, but rather if his boss’ process is truly as dominant as ever no matter what’s thrown at it.

— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.