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Alabama's doesn't anticipate Sarkisian's imminent departure to be a distraction

Brett Hudson
Tuscaloosa News
Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian will depart the school to become head coach at Texas after the national championship game.

Alabama’s habitual presence in the College Football Playoff and its championship game consistently allows it to play high-stakes games at the end of its seasons. 

Other programs trying to replicate the Crimson Tide’s success leads them to pilfer Alabama’s assistant coaches for their own head-coaching jobs, creating higher-than-average turnover. 

The intersection of the two can create difficult situations. 

Once again, Alabama is going into its most important game with an assistant coach on his way out, as offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian will take over at Texas after Monday’s national title game against Ohio State. 

This dynamic has plagued UA in previous years, but the experience and the people involved are optimistic it won’t be a problem against the Buckeyes. 

“We’ve had several of these situations where (we’re) playing in the national championship game and guys are getting head-coaching jobs someplace else,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “I think it’s up to each individual.” 

Alabama has seen both ends of the spectrum. 

After the 2011 season, Jim McElwain was able to help the Crimson Tide beat LSU 21-0 in the BCS championship before departing for the head coaching job at Colorado State. Four years later, Kirby Smart did the same on his way to Georgia, and two years after that Jeremy Pruitt coached Alabama’s defense to the national championship in 2017 before departing for Tennessee. 

But the end of the 2016 season did not prove so manageable. Lane Kiffin’s departure as offensive coordinator — elevating Sarkisian to play-calling duties the first time — created discord leading up to a 35-31 loss to Clemson in the national championship game. 

Saban understands the juggling act these coaches have on their hands, having done it himself. He also understands the easiest path to clarity. 

“I went through it when I became the head coach at Michigan State and I was the defensive coordinator of the Cleveland Browns with Bill Belichick, and we had like five or six games left to play in the season and had a chance to get in the playoffs, which we did,” Saban said. 

“I think you just have to separate yourself and focus on — look, if it wasn’t for the players, if it wasn’t for the players at the Cleveland Browns being the best defense, I probably would have never got the Michigan State job. So you kind of owe it to the players to give your best, to do your best to help them get prepared for the game so they can play well in the game.” 

Saban added that most of the coaches in Sarkisian’s position have been able to maintain the proper focus on both jobs. If it’s needed, a motivated player corps will help. 

“Everyone is happy for coach Sark,” Alabama receiver DeVonta Smith said. “That's part of the business. But he’s going to be here with us throughout this last game, and we’re trying to finish things the right way.”

Another weapon

Alabama receiver Jaylen Waddle was expected to return to practice Tuesday, according to sources familiar with Waddle’s situation. 

Waddle has been out since the opening kickoff of the Tennessee game with an ankle injury, meaning Alabama has played all but one play of its past eight games without him. Before the injury, Waddle was averaging five receptions and 111.4 yards per game, scoring four times in five games.