Since an embarrassing downfall at Southern Cal, Steve Sarkisian has certainly caught plenty of breaks in his professional life.
He called plays for Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide in the national championship game.
Now, he’s got an opportunity to run the Atlanta Falcons’ offense, inheriting a high-scoring team that just made it to the Super Bowl behind MVP quarterback Matt Ryan.
But Sarkisian’s personal demons are something he must keep a handle on every day.
During a conference call Thursday introducing the Falcons’ new offensive coordinator, he talked openly about the battle with alcoholism that cost him his last head coaching job in 2015.
“Everybody has issues they to deal with, some physical, some mental, whatever it may be,” Sarkisian said. “This happens to be an issue of mine that I work on daily. It’s important to me so I can be the best person, the best father, the best coach I can be. I’m diligent about that.”
Sarkisian was fired by the Trojans after athletic director Pat Haden said the coach showed up for practice in no shape to work, on the heels of a bizarre display in which he appeared to be intoxicated during a rally with USC boosters.
The 42-year-old sought treatment for alcoholism and continues to be involved in that program.
“It’s not something that is necessarily in the past,” Sarkisian said. “It’s something I have to work on every single day, and I do work on it every single day. It’s important to me, and it’s important to who I am as a person. It’s a piece of me, this disease of alcoholism. It’s a piece of me, but it doesn’t define me. I have a lot more to offer than that.”
Saban gave Sarkisian a chance to get back into coaching, hiring him as an offensive analyst this past season.
When offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin took the head coaching job at Florida Atlantic, Sarkisian was picked as his successor — and wound up getting a head-start on the job when Alabama parted with Kiffin a week before the national championship game against Clemson.
The Tide lost 34-31 on a touchdown pass with one second remaining.
Sarkisian said he was looking forward to his first full season as the Tide’s coordinator, but his outlook changed when Dan Quinn called the day after Atlanta’s Super Bowl loss to New England.
With Kyle Shanahan moving on to become San Francisco’s head coach, Sarkisian got an offer to work with Ryan, All Pro receiver Julio Jones, 1,000-yard rusher Devonta Freeman and an offense that averaged nearly 34 points a game.
“I couldn’t be more grateful to Coach Saban and everyone at the University of Alabama,” Sarkisian said. “That’s a heck of a football team with some really talented players. But when you get this type of opportunity — to come to a team that just competed in the Super Bowl, with all the talent they have offensively, to work with Dan — that was something I couldn’t pass up.”
Sarkisian will be under enormous pressure to make sure there’s no slippage in the wide zone scheme that worked so well under Shanahan, while also putting his own stamp on the offense.
Knowing how important it will be to develop chemistry with Ryan, the two met for lunch shortly after Sarkisian arrived in Atlanta.
“There’s no question that my relationship with the starting quarterback is critical to our success,” Sarkisian said. “That will be a point of emphasis the whole offseason and going into the season.”
At the very least, the two have something in common.
Sarkisian’s only game as Alabama’s coordinator was a heartbreaking loss. Ryan and the Falcons experienced a similar fate in the Super Bowl, squandering a 25-point lead in the second half before losing 34-28 in overtime.
“This guy has a real fire in his eyes right now,” Sarkisian said. “These guys were close. They’re coming into the offenses with a chip on their shoulder. I feel the same way. I have a chip on my shoulder.”
Even though he has only one year of NFL coaching experience, the new coordinator expects his philosophy to work well with the Falcons, who set an NFL record with touchdown passes to 13 players.
“They were very explosive and very aggressive,” Sarkisian said. “That’s why Dan and I thought this would be such a great fit. I’m aggressive by nature as a player caller.”
The Falcons are confident that Sarkisian has his personal life in order, too.
He’s not taking anything for granted.
“I’m not being negligent in the things I need to do,” Sarkisian said. “That will make me, in the end, a better person.”