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Texas hires Steve Sarkisian to turn perception into reality

The perception is that the Longhorns should compete for Big 12 titles and College Football Playoff berths. The reality is that the program has now struggled for more than a decade. On Saturday, the Longhorns made an expensive bet that Sarkisian can bridge the gap.

Steve Sarkisian (middle) with Texas decision makers
Texas athletics

Twenty years ago, Steve Sarkisian told his father that he thought the Texas Longhorns job was the best in America.

On Saturday, Sarkisian was able to reflect on that conversation with his father before he was announced as the 31 head football coach in Texas history only hours after the Longhorns parted with Tom Herman after four seasons and a 32-18 record.

The decision by shot callers like Board of Regents chairman Kevin Eltife, new president Jay Harzell, and athletics director Chris Del Conte comes after a high-profile flirtation with Urban Meyer while Herman was still employed and represents a costly gamble for a program trying to navigate the ongoing coronavirus pandemic — Herman’s buyout was $15 million and it could cost close to another $10 if Sarkisian decides to buy out Herman’s assistants, too.

Eltife, who was appointed to the Board of Regents by Greg Abbott four years ago, was clearly a key decision maker during the process, while Hartzell framed the decision as an investment into the future of the football program.

“Today is a monumental day for the Texas Longhorn football program at the University of Texas,” Eltife said in a Zoom call with reporters. “We have a proud tradition of competing at the highest levels amongst the elite programs in college football, and in honor of that tradition we never settle for anything short of excellence. We don’t do things halfway. We continue to challenge our leadership, coaches, student-athletes, and staff to take hold of what it means to be a Texas Longhorn and collectively compete for and achieve our greatest ambitions.”

Saturday’s hire of Sarkisian was the culmination of a coaching search that only officially took about five hours, but previously included a recent meeting between Sarkisian and the Texas brass. After making the decision to fire Herman, the two sides reengaged and quickly got the deal done.

Del Conte cited the pedigree of Sarkisian as a key factor in the decision — he served as the quarterbacks coach for Pete Carroll at USC during the 2003 national championship season and will continue serving as the Alabama offensive coordinator as he pursues another national championship in his final game under Nick Saban.

There’s also some risk involved beyond the tremendous amount of money Texas will pay to Herman and, almost certainly, at least some of his assistants. Sarkisian was a rising star in the coaching ranks who took over at Washington when he was 34 and USC when he was 39. However, Sarkisian torpedoed that opportunity with the Trojans when he was fired in 2015 after a series of alcohol-related incidents that ultimately resulted in Sarkisian entering rehab.

On Saturday, Sarkisian addressed his status as a recovering addict.

“Any time you go through something like I went through and you make a personal decision to get the help that you know you need, it’s a process,” Sarkisian said. “It’s a process to get that done and I’ve put in a lot of hard work. I’m proud of the work that I put in and I know I’m a better man today than I was a little over five years ago. And that’s not just as a football coach, but as a man, as a father, as a husband, and all those things are important to me.”

After roughly a year away from football, Sarkisian joined the Alabama staff as an analyst and earned Saban’s trust quickly enough that he was named the interim offensive coordinator for the national championship game against Clemson when Lane Kiffin left to become the Florida Atlantic head coach.

Sarkisian spent the next two seasons as the offensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons before returning to Tuscaloosa and leading the Alabama offense for two highly-productive seasons.

Over that time, Sarkisian had other opportunities to interview for or accept head coaching jobs, but opted to wait for the right opportunity as he’s continued to mature as a person and a coach.

“When Texas came along, it felt right initially and continued to feel right the more I got engaged, the more I started to research it,” Sarkisian said.

Even without time to seriously evaluate the roster, Sarkisian took the job in part because of a roster that includes plenty of leftover talent from the Tom Herman era.

“I think there’s championship talent on this team,” Sarkisian said. “Clearly there’s work to be done, or a change wouldn’t be made, and so that’s a responsibility of mine that we have to get that done.”

One of the biggest personnel decisions will happen quickly — Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger still hasn’t decided whether he’ll return for a fifth season on the Forty Acres. Sarkisian anticipates connecting with Ehlinger to discuss his future.

“Clearly, Sam’s a heck of a football player, I mean this guy’s a tremendous competitor,” Sarkisian said. “He somebody that I’d be remiss not to try to keep around, so there’s a phone call coming.”

After Sarkisian coaches Alabama in the national championship game, he’ll have decisions to make about the coaching staff. He briefly met with them collectively on Saturday before he was announced as the Texas head coach and will have individual calls with them as he looks to put together his coaching staff. Contrary to an initial report, it does not appear that Sarkisian has made a decision about members of the support staff, a group that includes highly-regarded Director of Recruiting Bryan Carrington.

Part of the expediency that Sarkisian feels is because of National Signing Day looming next month. It’s hardly a surprise that some part of Sarkisian’s introductory press conference would include comments about the importance of recruiting the Lone Star State and Sarkisian did not disappoint in that regard.

“We cannot let the top talent in the state of Texas leave the state of Texas,” Sarkisian said. “it cannot leave and go to the SEC or the Big Ten. I think the second thing is we have to be a great developmental staff. We have to develop our players.”

Failing in the latter regard forced Herman to fire both of his coordinators and replace five assistants following last season and failures in recruiting this fall made his continued employment by Texas untenable.

Beyond recruiting, however, one of the big bets that Texas is making with Sarkisian is that he’ll be the elite offensive mind that Herman was supposed to be when he arrived from Houston. Herman was never able to live up to those expectations, even when he was calling plays, but Sarkisian believes that his offense will translate to the Big 12.

“It is an attacking style of offensive play, but a physical brand of football,” Sarkisian said. “We believe in running the football, and then in turn, creating things in the passing game off of the running game. I’ve been fortunate enough that I’ve had 1000 yard rusher every year I’ve been calling plays in college football, so there’s definite belief in running the football, but the balanced attack i think is what makes us go.”

If the Herman era was about alignment, a phrase borrowed from Urban Meyer, Sarkisian sounds like Saban when he talks about the process. More than just the process, however, Sarkisian’s task is bridging the gap between the standards and expectations that come along with Texas football and the realities of a program that has now spent more than a decade struggling for wins and relevance.

“It’s my responsibility to make the perception become a reality that Texas is a perennial powerhouse, that we are always in the discussion year in and year out for the College Football Playoff and a Big 12 championship. And ultimately, that’s what you need to go do, and so I think the perception is what we all think Texas should be and now it’s our job to make the perception a reality.”

Four years ago, Texas hired Herman accomplish the same goal. Now the leadership for the Longhorns is making a costly bet that Sarkisian can succeed where Herman failed.