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How Steve Sarkisian put together the jigsaw puzzle of his first Texas coaching staff

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On the three big factors that Sarkisian used to assemble a coaching staff that checks almost all the boxes.

Steve Sarkisian
Texas athletics

Death, taxes, and coaching turnover.

For the Texas Longhorns over the last 12 seasons, assistant coaching changes have defined the program — since 2010, the Longhorns have had 10 offensive playcallers and nine defensive playcallers. And those are just the playcallers.

As the early continuity in the Tom Herman era dissolved with seven new assistant coaches last season, some Texas players will be on their third position coach in as many seasons.

So it’s difficult to understate the importance of new Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian getting his initial hires right. In fact, as much as recruiting and development will define his tenure on the Forty Acres, the ability of Sarkisian to get his initial coaching staff right may ultimately determine whether he succeeds or fails as the head coach of the Longhorns. After all, it’s those coaches who will bear a large responsibility for evaluations during the recruiting process and improvement once those players get on campus.

For Sarkisian’s two predecessors, the staffing failures were certainly highly instrumental in why neither Charlie Strong nor Tom Herman made it past four seasons on the job or ever won a conference championship.

Strong fired two assistants after his first season, then demoted playcallers during each of the subsequent two seasons. Herman’s big bet on alignment by remaining loyal to his Houston assistants and deeper Ohio State ties failed as the pandemic helped derail his attempt at hitting the reset button.

Sarkisian compared the hiring process to putting together a jigsaw puzzle that included utilizing his coaching connections across the country to build a staff featuring some familiar names to him, some he had coached against, and some he didn’t know personally.

“Forming a staff is a really intricate process when you start talking about staff culture, when you talk about recruiting, when you talk about player development, when you talk about being a leader of men, when you talk about ties to the university, ties to the state of Texas, there’s a lot of integral parts that go into it,” Sarkisian said.

“When you can start to slot those spots and hire great coaches that want to be at the University of Texas because they hold this job in such high regard, you feel good about it. Now we’ve got work to do, but kind of this first step of getting the staff hired has been a good one for us.”

As Sarkisian went to put together his first coaching staff with the Longhorns, three factors were at the forefront of his search — recruiting ties to the state of Texas, experience coaching at the highest level, and the ability to build relationships and develop players.

“I really love the staff,” Sarkisian said on Friday. “I love the experience. I love the youth. I love the energy. I love the recruiting ability that they bring, I love the ties to the great state of Texas, and most importantly as well I love the development piece that they bring for our current roster.”

While it’s unsurprising that Sarkisian feels confident about the staff that he’s put together with his first game at Texas still months away, there are significant reasons to feel confident that Sarkisian accomplished his three high-level goals with this group.

The greatest alignment exists on the offensive side of the ball, even though it includes two holdovers from former head coach Tom Herman’s staff, running backs coach Stan Drayton and wide receivers coach Andre Coleman. That’s because of the three coaches that Sarkisian brought from Alabama — offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Kyle Flood, quarterbacks coach AJ Milwee, and tight ends coach and special teams coordinator Jeff Banks.

Sarkisian will call plays on gameday, but his relationships with Flood and Milwee are particularly important.

Throughout game week, it’s the responsibility of Flood to coordinate various aspects of the offense, from practice prep like scripting to staff assignments to aspects of game planning that Sarkisian doesn’t have the time to oversee. On Saturdays, Sarkisian confirmed that he’ll be the primary playcaller.

Sarkisian called Milwee his “right-hand man.” When Milwee was hired by Nick Saban as an analyst at Alabama in 2018 coming off six seasons as an extremely young offensive coordinator at Akron, Sarkisian hit it off with Milwee. Like Sarkisian, Milwee is a former quarterback who couldn’t get by on pure talent.

“We instantly kind of had that connection that I think some coaches have when they work together,” Sarkisian said. “When we got him on board, it just kind of clicked and I relied on him quite a bit. What I like about him is he’s kind of the overachiever mentality.”

Out of high school, Milwee walked on at Alabama before transferring to North Alabama and setting multiple school records for the Lions. Now Sarkisian is entrusting Milwee with the responsibility of being his voice with the quarterbacks during position meetings and on the practice field.

Banks, a former Washington State punter, is not only highly regarded for his work with special teams, he’s regarded as one of the best recruiters in the country.

Those three coaches will all be crucial in helping Sarkisian build his culture in Austin. To borrow Herman’s favored phrase, Flood, Milwee, and Banks were hired to provide alignment in Sarkisian’s Alabama-influenced program coming off the national championship for the Crimson Tide.

“I’ve got three other voices now in the building that know our system, that know our schemes, that are well versed in them,” Sarkisian said. “And I’m very comfortable with them talking to anybody about what we need to get done or what we need to work on.”

Retaining running backs coach Stan Drayton was one of the first decisions that Sarkisian made due to Drayton’s NFL experience, national championship at Ohio State, and his overall reputation for developing players. Initially, keeping wide receivers coach Andre Coleman on staff was more surprising, but in retrospect, it shouldn’t have been — Sarkisian said that he’d tried to hire Coleman when he was with the Atlanta Falcons and at Alabama before he was ultimately overruled.

Of the on-field assistants, hiring defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski from Washington was arguably Sarkisian’s most important decision because Sarkisian is an offensive coach by trade who will likely have little input on defense. The two initially got to know each other as assistants recruiting the same areas years ago, but Kwiatkowski really got Sarkisian’s attention when he was on the opposite sideline.

“This guy has really been a kind of a thorn in my side over about the past decade — every time we’ve butted heads with him, whether it was at Boise State or at the University of Washington,” Sarkisian said. “I think he’s a really good leader of men. I think he does a tremendous job of working from a collaborative effort with the staff that he has, and then developing a game plan from week to week that puts players in the best position to be successful.”

One of those games was in the College Football Playoffs in 2016 when Washington held Alabama’s offense to 17 points during a season in which the Crimson Tide averaged over 40 points per game against its other 14 opponents. Ten of those points came off turnovers by the Huskies.

Part of Kwiatkowski’s appeal to Sarkisian was his ability to field cutting-edge defenses that were flexible enough to adjust to the wide range of offenses in the Pac-12, from Mike Leach’s run-averse Air Raid at Washington State to David Shaw’s heavy, pass-averse offense at Stanford to Oregon’s warp-speed approach.

“The multiplicity of offenses that you see I think has allowed him to grow as a coach to make sure that he has enough multiples on defense to defend all of the variables that you get,” Sarkisian said. “Because in reality when you look around our conference right now, it is a pretty multiple offensive conference when you go from one extreme at Texas Tech to the other extreme at Iowa State and everybody else in between.”

On the Texas staff, the key collaborative efforts for Kwiatkowski will be with passing game coordinator Terry Joseph. Expect a similar relationship as Kwiatkowski had with current Washington head coach Jimmy Lake when they shared defensive coordinator duties — Kwiatkowski, often known simply as PK, will work with Joseph to tie together Kwiatkowski’s defensive front with Joseph’s secondary.

Like Kwiatkowski, Joseph caught the attention of Sarkisian during the College Football Playoffs.

“I was really impressed obviously with our game against Notre Dame and just the way they defended us compared to everybody else in the country,” Sarkisian said.

Now entering his second stint at Texas after two separate periods at Alabama and time in the NFL, defensive line coach Bo Davis will be an asset recruiting and developing players, according to Sarkisian.

“He’s a tremendous recruiter. He’s a tremendous developer of talent once you get them here, which is important,” Sarkisian said. “It’s one thing to get players here. It’s another to develop them, and probably one of the key components to Bo is he’s an unbelievable staff guy. We talked about building a culture here — I think the presence he brings on a daily basis is great for the program.”

Some coaches choose to allow their coordinators to have at least some say about the position coaches hired. For Sarkisian, he built his defense backwards, with three assistants hired before Kwiatkowski as the coordinator. The key decision made by Kwiatkowski was hiring Montana State head coach Jeff Choate as his co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach. Choate worked on Kwiatkowski’s Washington staff in 2014 and 2015.

One of the easiest staff decisions for Sarkisian was bringing former Texas safety Blake Gideon back to the Forty Acres.

“A lot of great ties in state from a recruiting standpoint, but also does a really cool job for us of tying in to our rich history tradition here at Texas,” Sarkisian said. “I just think Blake’s got a very bright future in the profession and he’s been super impressive up to this point.”

Gideon was a key piece in another three-pronged approached that Sarkisian took in building his staff — he wanted to have some continuity in assistants, he wanted to hire a coach with previous experience on the Forty Acres, and he wanted to hire someone who understood what it’s like to play football for the Longhorns.

A two-time captain and four-year starter for the Horns, Gideon surfaced on Sarkisian’s radar last year when he was considering a coaching opportunity that he ultimately declined. Then, Gideon’s name came up on two different occasions when Sarkisian was speaking with his longtime friend Lane Kiffin, who hired Gideon when he took the Ole Miss job. Kiffin was impressed with Gideon’s work in Oxford and championed him as a coach with a bright future.

So even though Gideon is the youngest and least-experienced member of the staff and one of the bigger question marks as a recruiter, he was also one of the first calls that Sarkisian made once he took the Texas job.

“It really just feels kind of like a home-run hire for us and pumped to have him,” Sarkisian said.

On a staff where Gideon and Coleman are the only two coaches who don’t clearly check the three key boxes that Sarkisian laid out, it’s impressive that Sarkisian can convincingly call one a “home-run hire” and twice tried to hire the other in the last several years.

Now the hope is that if Sarkisian does have some near-term coaching turnover on his staff, it will be for that most rare of reasons at Texas — because someone received an opportunity to advance their career somewhere else.