Inside College Football: Why Saban added Sarkisian to Alabama's massive staff
Opening up the notebook after a surprising weekend to take a deeper dive inside the sport
Steve Sarkisian's job description at Alabama isn't exactly clear. The possibilities, though, are limitless.
USC's former head coach was hired last week as an offensive consultant. He won't be able to recruit or coach on the field. He probably won't even be paid much.
But there's a reason Nick Saban has grabbed the game by the throat. He's ruthless, innovative and relentless. Any edge he can gain is worth it. Saban also has a budget (hint: it's unlimited) that allows him to hire former head coaches -- there are five total on the staff -- to break down the game on a molecular level.
"How they've set it up is unbelievable," said Eric Kiesau, a long-time college football assistant who was hired last year by Saban solely to install no-huddle concepts.
"He knows the game is changing," Kiesau said of Saban. "He knows the tempo, high-octane offenses, that's where the game is going. He wanted to do just the tempo part of it, but he didn't want to change the brand."
Kiesau provided a rare behind-the-scenes look at a deep Alabama roster of analysts and consultants ranging in number from 10-15 just to support the nine Alabama assistants and Saban.
"It's a whole other section of the building," Kiesau said. "There are guys, like students, who played football in high school and love Alabama. They watch recruiting film all day long. Then you have your top guys. They start making cut-ups so the assistant coaches are more efficient with their time."
The "consultants," of which Sark is now a member, are older experienced football minds. Sark joins Mike Locksley on the offensive side. Locksley was Maryland's offensive coordinator and interim coach last year. Now he is reportedly making $45,000 a year from Alabama.
The rest of these salaries, Kiesau said, are "offset" by any money owed by the coaches' former employers. Locksley was the 14th highest paid assistant in the country last year making $900,000. Sarkisian was making $4.25 million a year at the time of his firing in 2015.
Saban's shadow staff is both admired and reviled. He was the first coach to bolster his on-field staff with such a decorated think tank. But those schools without the money to hire extra staffers believe Alabama has a huge competitive advantage.
In a sense, Sark should be grateful he's working at all. He's currently suing USC after his firing and has been in rehab for substance abuse.
Because of that current situation, veteran headhunter Chuck Neinas said, "it would be difficult" for Sarkisian to be hired anywhere else at the moment. Well, anywhere except Alabama.
Neinas Sports Services is one of the oldest search firms in the business. (Alabama used Neinas during failed talks with Rich Rodriguez in 2007. He had no role in the school hiring Saban.)
That in no way suggests Sarkisian shouldn't be hired. The Americans with Disabilities Act does not allow for discrimination of job applicants.
Mike Leach was hired at Washington State despite an ongoing lawsuit against his old employer, Texas Tech. Former Baylor coach Art Briles says he expects to coach next year despite what an independent report found to be a lax response to sexual assault claims from female students.
"[Leach's situation] did come up in coaching searches," Neinas said. "I know there were some that were worried about that."
Not enough to ignore Leach's .661 career winning percentage, though. But Sarkisian has won more than seven games only twice in a head coaching career of six-plus years. He is considered a talented quarterback teacher and noted offensive mind. Sark and now co-worker Lane Kiffin once called plays together at USC under Pete Carroll.
"He's going through some personal things himself," Saban told reporters last week. "We thought it would be a good thing for our organization. To make a contribution to being an analyst would be a real positive. He understands the consequences that he deals with professionally if he has any issues or problems."
Sark's duties behind the Alabama curtain will probably never be fully known. Only after the fact do we know part of Kiesau's duties included reducing play calls from 7-9 words to 2-3 words in the hurry-up no-huddle.
"Everything has to be approved through [Saban] first ...," Kiesau said.
Alabama has become sort of a rehab itself -- for a coaches' image.
Those other four former head coaches on the staff?
- Tight ends and special teams coach Bobby Williams replaced Saban at Michigan State in 1999.
- Offensive line assistant Mario Cristobal was at Florida International and considered a frontrunner at Miami before Mark Richt took over.
- Locksley coached at New Mexico from 2009-11.
- Kiffin has led the Oakland Raiders, Tennessee and USC.
Think what having Saban on your resume means. Kiesau has now rebounded to become Fresno State's offensive coordinator after spending just one year in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Describing the initial interview process, he said, "Saban called and flew me out there. I showed them my presentation. Saban's biggest concern was he didn't want to change the system. He just wanted to eliminate the huddle. ...
"I think the biggest fear in his mind was, 'I don't want to turn into Oregon. That's not us. We're still going to run the ball and have two backs in the backfield.'"
Strange, for Saban who once compared hurry-up offenses to chain smoking.
But the results of the no-huddle were obvious. While the average number of plays stayed static (about 72 per game), Alabama achieved a powerful offensive balance. Derrick Henry won the Heisman Trophy as a workhorse running back. Quarterback Jake Coker also became a reliable weapon as the season wore on.
In 1,088 plays, Kiesau said the Tide didn't huddle once. The look changed. The result didn't as Bama won a fourth championship in seven years.
"Alabama has the money; it has the resources," Kiesau said. "All they care about is winning and there is no cost to winning."
Through a spokesman, Alabama AD Bill Battle did not respond to a request for comment.
Etched in stone: Kalen Brallage is both immortal and fairly unknown. After Arizona State's junior running back scored an NCAA record-tying eight touchdowns Saturday against Texas Tech, there was one obvious football question: What's his 40 time? "We don't run the 40," ASU strength Shawn Griswold told CBS Sports.
Then what does coach Todd Graham tell NFL scouts when they roll through town? At 6-foot-3 and 227 pounds, Ballage just happens to be the fastest player on the team.
There are other ways to convey speed. Ballage was tracked Saturday running 21.3 miles-per-hour on the top end while wearing a Catapult bio-monitor vest. The vests are now commonplace through college football, worn to track players' performances. (By comparison, Usain Bolt ran 28 mph in the 100 meters at the 2016 Rio Olympics.)
Graham, though, relies more on NFL Combine drills that speak a common language to those scouts. Ballage has a best of 4.03 seconds in the pro agility drill and 6.77 seconds in the three-cone drill. "We run as much as anybody in the country," Griswold said.
Just not in a straight line. Ballage's accomplishments are all a bit of a revelation. Before his 185 total yards vs. Texas Tech, his best performance had been 142 total yards last season in a three-overtime loss to Oregon. His nine total touchdowns are more than 65 teams.
But if you must have a 40 time, then prepare to be amazed: Those 21.3 miles in an hour convert to a top-end speed of 3.84 seconds over 40 yards.
New quarterback at LSU: Les Miles' chances for future employment now seem to hinge on a Purdue transfer at quarterback. Danny Etling was serviceable last week against Jacksonville State, but how did it ever come to this? Etling replaced junior Brandon Harris, who was essentially booed off the field after a 1-for-4 start.
Miles may have "solved" his quarterback problem by finding a $20 laying on the side of the road. Etling may have found new life after being 2-10 as a starter at Purdue.
Back to the well: Penn State will honor Joe Paterno in some kind of way prior to Saturday's game against Temple. I just wish Penn State would own up to that fact. The school buried the announcement a couple of weeks ago in a press release. It did not say how Paterno would be honored.
Are they going to name the field after him? Bring Paterno's statue back? The lack of detail suggested Penn State seemed almost embarrassed that Paterno has become such a lightning rod. Some power or another obviously wants Paterno honored despite that fact.
You don't announce the game's winningest coach will be honored in a bulletin item halfway down the page. Own the news, Penn State, because right now you're obfuscating it.
A moral obligation: I was shocked that both Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy and athletic director Mike Holder suggested the botched final ending to the Central Michigan game should be overturned. Have we learned nothing from the Fifth Down Game or the Duke-Miami fiasco of last season? When a game is over, it's over.
The NCAA Rules Manual states: "... the team having the larger score at the end of the game shall be the winning team ... When the referee declares that the game is ended, the score is final."
Fairly clear, right?
Sure, Saturday was unfair. Sure, the officials screwed up. But there is no moral obligation to overturn the result or for Central Michigan to "give back" the win. That would insult the good-faith effort by the Chippewas on the game-winning hook-and-ladder. More to the point: The Big 12 is the only Power Five conference without a redundancy system that could have caught that extra play that shouldn't have been run.
Fun with depth charts: Colorado's wacky mocking of Jim Harbaugh made the rounds this week. Listing movie stars and celebrities in place of Michigan players came from the fertile, sarcastic mind of Colorado sports information director Dave Plati. Once when Kansas State refused to divulge injuries, his game notes included a reference to "Don Corleone, out, bullet wound."
South Florida docs: A Freedom of Information Act request revealed these documents South Florida used last week to make its expansion case to the Big 12. Points of interest: USF's decade-long effort to become a prestigious American Association of Universities membership. Also, Tampa Bay lightning owner Jeffrey Vinik saying, "I guarantee when the Big 12 comes to this area ... we will always be 100 percent behind them and they will never regret that decision." When?
Short gains: More evidence Bret Bielema is turning the corner: He began his Arkansas career losing his first seven against ranked teams on the road. Bielema has now won his last three ... Of the top five "fastest" teams (plays per game), none have a winning record -- Ohio, Hawaii, Cal, Middle Tennessee, Missouri and TCU ... Virginia Tech is last nationally with nine lost fumbles after losing all five against Tennessee on Saturday. It lost seven all of last season ... East Carolina has now won six straight games against the ACC going back to 2013. In that span, NC State is 6-18 against the ACC ... Colorado travels to Michigan for only the second time since the Hail (Mary) To the Victors game in 1994. Since Kordell Stewart's desperation pass to win it for the Buffs, CU has employed seven coaches. Michigan has had four ... Three of TCU's last four games have gone to multiple overtimes. The Frogs have won two of those.
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