Steve Sarkisian's redemption story comes full circle against Washington in Sugar Bowl

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NEW ORLEANS – There is nothing more American than a redemption story, and Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian came full circle Sunday morning during the head coaches press conference at the Sugar Bowl when discussing his journey back to college football prominence. His career was effectively ruined in 2015 when he was fired at USC for being under the influence at work functions. At least that’s what he thought.

“Hell yeah, I did,” Sarkisian said when asked if he thought a stage like the College Football Playoff was out of his reach at any point in his career. ”I was out of work and couldn’t even get an interview, never mind worrying about the College Football Playoff. I think that’s what makes this journey with this team so gratifying,”

USC athletic director Pat Haden terminated Sarkisian on Oct. 12, 2015.

Sarkisian reportedly showed up to practices and meetings under the influence of alcohol and pain killers. His behavior at a charity event in August of 2015 drew headlines for which he later apologized. His staff suspected that he was under the influence during USC’s win over Arizona State that season, a source told ESPN at the time. Sarkisian was going through a divorce and sources said that was “rock bottom” for the now 49-year-old head coach of the Longhorns. 

Sarkisian wasn’t sure he’d work in football again, much less be a head coach of a college program. Nick Saban hired him as an offensive analyst in 2016 with a salary of $30,000 dollars before Sarkisian moved to the NFL as the offensive coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons in 2017 and 2018. He returned to Alabama as the offensive coordinator in 2019, helping the Crimson Tide win the national championship in 2020. That landed him the Texas job ahead of the 2021 season. 

“I’m hopeful that my story can serve as some sort of motivation to others,” Sarkisian said. “We don’t have to stay where are in life. We can change, and life can change for the better.”

Sarkisian sounds like a man comfortable in his skin and accepting of his demons. He doesn’t shy away from the past. His players say that Sarkisian uses his own personal mistakes as teaching tools. And it wasn’t just the off the field drama that caused Texas fans to raise eyebrows when Sarkisian took over the Longhorns. During his time leading the Washington program message boards referred to him as “Seven-win Sark.” Before 2023, Sarkisian had never won 10 games or a conference title as a head coach. 

Sarkisian went 5-7 in his first year on the Forty Acres. He was 8-5 in 2022. Still, he entered this past off-season confident, and his belief in the 2023 version of Longhorn Football was obvious. He never shied away from expectations. He mentioned multiple times in spring and summer that the goal for Texas was to win a Big 12 Championship. He felt comfortable with his team, saying at the Texas High School Coaching Convention in July that, “this finally looks like my team.” 

One of the pillars of rehabilitation from substance abuse is appreciation. Addicts are selfish. Sarkisian put himself first in his previous life. As a husband. As a coach. As a person. Listen to Sarkisian talk about Texas’ locker room culture and his role in the machine and even the biggest cynic can’t deny that Sarkisian no longer sounds like the guy booted from USC. His setbacks provided prospective.

“You appreciate the people that you’re around every day and you try to pour into those people,” he explained. “When you pour into those people, sometimes you get results like this and you get on teams like this and you get to be part of special seasons like this.” 

Sarkisian’s Longhorns are one win away from playing for a national title, possibly against Alabama and Saban, the coach who saved his career. Sarkisian notched a milestone victory during a Week 2 win over the Crimson Tide. Texas fans don’t need more evidence, but a win over Washington on Monday night in the Sugar Bowl means the Longhorns won the gamble by picking Sarkisian as the 31st coach in program history.

As for Sark, he’s hoping that his story helps other coaches and current players avoid those pitfalls. And even if they do stumble, his path back to the top of the coaching profession proves to all of us that we’re not defined by our worst moments, Instead, we’re the sum of our intentions.

“Hopefully, I can serve as a model that we can change the narrative for ourselves and that we can build something even greater than what we have right now,” he said. “Like I said, there was a moment when (I didn’t think this was possible), but not anymore. Here we are.”

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