On an immediate level, one tweet captured the central meaning of the revelation that Steve Sarkisian would join Nick Saban’s coaching staff at Alabama.
Stewart Mandel of Fox Sports unearthed this detail:
If Alabama's directory is up to date, Sarkisian marks at least 21 analysts/player personnel/ops guys on Saban's staff. Monstrous.
— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) September 5, 2016
Why would Nick Saban take in Steve Sarkisian? Because he can. Because Alabama can. Because Alabama spares no expense when it comes to football.
Schools make investments in various sports. Large sums of money don’t guarantee success, but access to ample amounts of high-end resources certainly doesn’t hurt. Nick Saban is indeed a great coach — he creates the culture and work ethic which are conducive to supreme performance. Yet, he’s willing to surround himself with many voices — perhaps not the best of the best, but certainly people who will be loyal to him.
Kirby Smart paid his dues over several seasons. Lane Kiffin — his head coaching career in tatters — found sanctuary and stability in Tuscaloosa. Sarkisian is in position to gain the same benefits as his former USC colleague, who is now his current Alabama colleague. Sark won’t be in the public spotlight to the extent Kiffin is, but the reality of joining Team Saban at a low point in his professional career is the same. Saban is shrewd in terms of cultivating loyalty, which begins by picking assistants and staffers who have every reason to give their best to him.
This is not an original insight: Supremely talented individuals not completely committed to a process are often less valuable than modestly talented people who totally trust the leadership structure.
Let’s go to the NFL for an example: Buddy Ryan knew more about defense than just about anyone who ever lived, but was he the best assistant coach the early-1990s Houston Oilers could have asked for? Punching Kevin Gilbride could not have helped those teams maximize their potential. An assistant coach with a little less coaching acumen but far better people skills could have made those Oiler teams more cohesive.
Yes, it’s best if head coaches can assemble staffs entirely comprised of geniuses who get along, but it’s no secret that a lot of brilliant people in the same room can clash and fight. If a staff of harmonious geniuses is unattainable, the next-best option is not a group of fighting geniuses, but harmonious worker bees, men with modest talents but total allegiance to the larger effort. This is what Saban does in general, and he’s done it again with Sarkisian.
That Buddy Ryan example mentioned above has relevance within the context of assistant coaches and their relationships to a whole team. It also has relevance in another context magnified by Sarkisian’s arrival in Tuscaloosa.
A lot of people laughed at Saban and thought he was foolish when he hired Kiffin as his offensive coordinator. What those people never seemed to realize is that the craft of being a head coach is substantially different from the craft of being a coordinator. While a coordinator position is a very detail-oriented job, the gulf between that slot and the head coaching throne is enormous.
The head coach is the face of a program. He has ultimate responsibility for all three phases of play, plus game management, plus player discipline, plus recruiting. He deals with the media on a massive scale (at a high-end program such as Alabama). Coordinators and other assistants can focus on their areas of specialization. They aren’t stretched thin in terms of their plate of necessary tasks.
Lane Kiffin clearly couldn’t manage players and deal with the CEO aspects of modern college football head coaching. Sarkisian couldn’t handle the pressure of the USC job, failing to engage in the self-care which is ever more necessary for any head coach. Buddy Ryan knew everything about defense, but because his people-management skills as an NFL coach were horrible (often pitting offense versus defense), his Philadelphia Eagle and Arizona Cardinal teams couldn’t sustain the two-way performance needed to be champions.
The reality that Sark — like Kiffin, his USC predecessor — couldn’t handle the totality of a head-coaching job does not mean that, given a much smaller and more specific basket of tasks, he can’t add value to Alabama’s operation. The same was true of Kiffin when Saban brought him aboard.
That’s a detail people failed to appreciate about Kiffin. Hopefully, they will learn when they react to this story.
The final point worth making in all this: Not everyone is meant to be a head coach. It’s a very demanding job. Nick Saban and Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh know how to do it. For every one of them, however, there are dozens of men who lack the magic touch. It’s no great failure. There are only 128 of these jobs at the FBS level, only 32 in the pros. That’s 160 such positions. It’s a select club for a reason.
Being a successful offensive coordinator (as Lane Kiffin is) or a successful analyst (as Steve Sarkisian could be) is a perfectly good career many people would kill for. The pay’s pretty good. The front-row seat to championship football games — and the adrenaline of gameday — ain’t half bad. One could do a lot worse.
Not being head coach shouldn’t be seen as a character flaw.
Steve Sarkisian will probably do well at Alabama. He’ll probably stay there for at least two seasons if not more. The move will probably work out for all parties.
The power of winning is considerable.