“The pride and winning tradition of the University of Texas will not be entrusted to the weak or the timid.”
The signs around the Texas football facilities encapsulate the ethos of the Longhorns football program, serving as a stark demand for the fourth-winningest program in college football history.
When new Longhorns head coach Steve Sarkisian arrived on the Forty Acres on Tuesday, Sarkisian was struck by the phrase as he took his first tour.
At 46 years old, Sarkisian is still young for a head coach, but he’s been through the highs and the lows of the profession. He turned down the head coaching job for the Oakland Raiders before he’d even coached a single down as a head coach in college. He turned around a Washington program that was winless before he arrived in Seattle at 35 years old. He hit rock bottom when he was terminated from a dream job at USC due to alcohol-related incidents.
After going through rehabilitation for his alcohol addiction — a process that still continues with his regular attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings — Sarkisian rebuilt his career.
First it was a stint as an analyst with Alabama that gave him an opportunity with the Atlanta Falcons as an offensive coordinator. When the Falcons fired him after two seasons, Sarkisian returned to the Crimson Tide to become the offensive coordinator, leading Alabama to the national championship on Monday.
“I had to climb my way back in this profession and none of that would have happened if I was timid or weak,” Sarkisian said during his introductory press conference on Tuesday. “And so I that caught my attention, because I do think it speaks to me.”
Sarkisian might not be timid or weak as he begins his third head coaching job and the first since his ignominious departure from the Trojans, but he is humbled and yet confident.
“I think about this logo. I think about the colors. I think about the brand of Texas football. I think about the uniforms, the helmets, all of which are iconic staples in college football,” Sarkisian said. “This clearly is the flagship university in the great state of Texas and I’m truly fortunate to be leading it.”
When he speaks, there’s an unmistakable forward momentum to his comments, an energy that his two predecessors never matched, even in the friendly environment of an introductory press conference that every new coach tends to ace.
As the Alabama offense raced its way past Ohio State on Monday, Sarkisian’s preferred hashtag raced its way to the forefront of the lexicon for Texas fans.
“To Longhorn Nation, it’s time to go to work,” Sarkisian said. “Clearly, you guys have probably seen my mantra. This work will be all gas and no brakes. We will go to it full fledge, we will lay down the hammer and get it.”
The first element of the full-throttle approach is Sarkisian’s offense, which he will continue to call in Austin as he did at Washington and USC. Even if recent years, Sarkisian’s offense has evolved significantly and he’s always looking for an edge, never expecting that defenses will always remain unable to stop his current scheme. Maybe it’s a new formation, a new motion or shift, a new personnel grouping — Sarkisian is always trying to find that new wrinkle.
In the national championship game against Ohio State, he used orbit motion with Heisman Trophy-winning wide receiver DeVonta Smith to get the nation’s most dynamic player the ball out in space. On one play in the red zone, Smith motioned from a tight split into the backfield and then flared out into the flat for a touchdown.
As the college football world had its eyes on the national championship game, the ability of Sarkisian to scheme his best player open earned widespread and justified praise from national observers, retained assistants, signees, and current and former players. Perhaps the most craven cynics weren’t impressed, but they were the only ones not smitten by Sarkisian’s scheme.
On defense, Sarkisian wants to take a similar attacking approach.
“I’ve talked about being an attacking defense. I think you can’t play defense on your heels. You have to be the one that is attacking the offense. You have to make the offense, the offensive players, the offensive coaches on the opposing teams feel uncomfortable and we have to generate that,” Sarkisian said.
“But college football’s is a unique phase right now with what’s happening from an offensive standpoint and so then you start talking about minimizing explosive plays, stopping the run, creating turnovers, getting stops in the red area, affecting the other team’s quarterback, there’s a lot of bullet points that you start to get to. But for the most part, you’ve got to be able to attack the opponent, you need to make people uncomfortable.”
As an offensive head coach who will call plays, Sarkisian’s most important hire will be his defensive coordinator. Since Texas announced Sarkisian as its next head coach, a handful of names have surfaced in connection with that position, but it’s still not clear who will end up with the job.
One of the most important insights shared by Sarkisian was his understanding of all the various constituencies at Texas and the need to keep them united. As legendary head coach Darrell K Royal once told Mack Brown that “when the BBs get out of the box, you have to get the BBs back in the box.”
Tom Herman lost his job because the BBs were most assuredly out of the box.
“This is not something you can do alone — we need a unified Longhorn Nation,” Sarkisian said. “It’s going to take all of us collectively working in the same direction to achieve the goals that clearly we’ll want to achieve.”
Sarkisian understands that winning championships is that goal. After the worst decade in program history, the Longhorns haven’t won a Big 12 title since 2009, the last year Texas competed for a national championship. With the talent recruited by Herman and following a 7-3 season that included two blowouts to wrap up the 2020 campaign, Sarkisian understands that this isn’t a rebuilding job.
It’s not just that the patience isn’t there for a steady ascension back to the top, it’s because Herman was close and couldn’t clear those final hurdles, as evidenced by a two-point loss to TCU thanks to a late fumble, a four-overtime loss to Oklahoma, and a three-point loss to Iowa State when Herman managed the game exceptionally poorly.
“I don’t think it’s going to take us as long as many might think. We’ve got a talented roster. I think we’re going to hire a tremendous coaching staff. And we’re going to continue to recruit the best players in the state of Texas,” Sarkisian said.
“As they see our brand of football, see the type of team that we have, the close-knit camaraderie that our team is going to have, the way our team works, and then what we put on the field, I promise you people are going to want to be a part of this program. We’ve got tremendous facilities. We’ve got great support from our fan base. At the end of the day, this is the University of Texas, and people are going to want to be part of it.”
All gas, no brakes.