As the Steve Sarkisian era begins in Austin, the new Texas Longhorns head coach has two main priorities — finish assembling his coaching staff and finalizing a 2021 recruiting class that ranks currently ranks No. 17 nationally and No. 2 in the Big 12, according to the 247Sports Composite team rankings.
But during Tuesday’s introductory press conference as Sarkisian arrived on the Forty Acres, Sarkisian also had another priority, one in alignment with previous coaches — lay out his vision for how he’s going to build relationships with Texas high school football coaches and to keep the best in-state talent from landing at other programs, especially those outside of the state.
“For the high school coaches in the state of Texas — this is your program, our doors are always open,” Sarkisian said. “I have so much respect for the high school football in the state of Texas, the great programs, the rich history and tradition, the great players that have come from your programs. Couldn’t be more proud and humbled to be your head coach and I look forward to creating those relationships with you as well.”
Sarkisian understands that creating those relationships will take time, although he does have some experience recruiting the state after, for instance, serving as a secondary recruiter for former Texas quarterback commit Jalen Milroe, the Katy Tompkins product who ultimately signed with Alabama. But after spending the early part of his coaching career on the West Coast, Sarkisian doesn’t have the same background with coaches that Tom Herman did when he arrived.
In fact, Herman spent significant time in his introductory press conference touting his own experience in the state and the experience of his assistants in recruiting the state. Experience and previous relationships aren’t everything, though — in a 2019 survey of Texas high school football coaches by Dave Campbell’s Texas Football, Herman ranked behind then-Baylor head coach Matt Rhule among the most trusted head coaches in the state.
Rhule provides a good comparison for Sarkisian. After arriving from Temple, he’d only coached in the state for two years, but quickly built strong relationships with the high school football coaches, in part because he hired the THSCA president, David Wetzel, and Cedar Hill head coach Joey McGuire when he assembled his first staff.
Right now, it doesn’t appear that Sarkisian will hire a current or former Texas high school football coach for his on-field staff, so he may need to find a spot on his support staff for one.
The extent to which the presence or absence of those on-staff connections makes a difference while depend on Sarkisian’s ability to build those relationships himself. Sarkisian mentioned the word “authentic” six times in his introductory press conference and that’s an attribute that will be key for him as he looks to build those relationships with Texas high school football coaches.
“I think clearly who I am and what I am will be someone, as people get to know me, who is an authentic human,” Sarkisian. “Whether you’re a player, a donor, a recruit, a recruit’s parent, one that you feel is real and honest and upfront and one that you can relate to, because I do think that is really, really important.”
Add Texas high school football coaches to that list, a critical constituency to win over if Sarkisian wants to accomplish his goal of recruiting the best Texas talent to the state’s flagship university.
“I do think it is vitally important for the University of Texas Longhorns to get back to the top of college football, we need to keep the best players in the state of Texas home,” Sarkisian said. “And that’ll be the priority when it comes to recruiting.”
In the 2021 recruiting class, that was a challenge for Herman and his revamped staff after the disappointing 2019 season and turbulent 2020 season. Alabama landed the top recruit in the state, Longhorns legacy Tommy Brockermeyer, as well as the state’s No. 4 prospect, running back Camar Wheaton. The state’s No. 2 prospect, Donovan Jackson, inked with Ohio State.
Of the top 20 players in the state, Texas only landed one — Denton Ryan jumbo athlete Ja’Tavion Sanders. Twelve of those top 20 players opted to leave the state. Five more sided with Texas A&M.
Sarkisian does have several advantages over Herman when he arrived. Herman’s Houston teams pulled off some big upsets, but those wins didn’t generate nearly as much excitement among current players, former players, and recruits as Alabama’s resounding national championship win over Ohio State did on Monday evening.
In particular, Sarkisian’s masterful play calling helped produce one of the best individual wide receiver performances in college football history, much less a national championship game, as Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith had 12 receptions for 215 yards and three touchdowns, entirely in the first half.
The performance by Alabama helped Sarkisian land his first commitment as the Texas head coach — a pledge from Lewisville wide receiver Armani Winfield, a top-100 prospect in the 2022 class. The two spoke before the game and by halftime, Winfield had seen enough, calling wide receivers coach Andre Coleman to give his commitment.
Winfield told 247Sports that he was sold on Sarkisian’s ability to scheme to get his best players the ball, adding that he’s always wanted to remain in state.
“Growing up in Texas I always wanted to play in Texas and stay loyal to the soil,” Winfield told Steve Wiltfong.
In other words, Winfield just needed a reason to commit to the Longhorns. Not every recruitment is that simple, but as Herman’s tenure bottomed out, he was no longer able to provide those reasons.
Now there’s a renewed sense of excitement around the program thanks to the hire of Sarkisian.
“Getting a commitment to the program already from an in-state player, I mean, that just tells you about where the excitement of Longhorns football is right now,” Sarkisian said.