Roughly a week ago, new Texas Longhorns defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski got the type of call that he often does this time of year.
It was from a longtime coaching friend of Kwiatkowski who wanted to inquire about his interest in an open defensive coordinator position. Long known as a top defensive mind, Kwiatkowski had been the picture of stability in a notably transient profession, spending 15 years between his alma mater Boise State and Washington, with 14 of those seasons as Chris Petersen’s trusted assistant.
So none of those calls had ever led anywhere for the parties interested in prying Kwiatkowski away from his steady path.
But this time was different.
On the other end of the phone was Texas tight ends coach and special teams coordinator Jeff Banks, the perfect person on the developing Longhorns staff under Steve Sarkisian to make the call.
Like Kwiatkowski, Banks played in the Northwest, punting at Washington State, then spent some formational years in the region as a young college coach. When Banks got his first break as the running backs coach and special teams coordinator at Idaho State 20 years ago, Kwiatkowski was the defensive coordinator at Montana State. On recruiting trips, their paths crossed and they formed the type of relationship that regularly proves so important in a field that often features little security and frequent job changes.
For the first time in years, Kwiatkowski seriously considered a change in trajectory.
Before long, he was on the phone with Sarkisian as both coaches tried to determine if there was a strong enough fit for Sarkisian’s extended defensive coordinator pursuit to finally end.
“We started started talking about his vision, direction, the staff, and one thing led to another,” Kwiatkowski said last week during a Seattle radio appearance. “If you pair that with the staff he’s putting together, the guys I know on the staff, I’ve been here seven years. I think the timing was right for me to make this move and try another adventure, another challenge, and see where it takes me.”
By Tuesday, Kwiatkowski accepted the offer from Texas and was officially announced as part of Sarkisian’s staff on Friday.
Kwiatkowski’s decision ended a substantial search effort for Sarkisian as he sought to make his most important on-field coaching hire.
Former Florida and South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp wasn’t interested in uprooting his family and returning to Austin. Other SEC coordinators like Barry Odom of Arkansas and Dan Lanning of Georgia made similar decisions. Sarkisian’s old boss with the Atlanta Falcons, Dan Quinn, surfaced as a potential target, but he quickly took the defensive coordinator job with the Dallas Cowboys. Mississippi State’s Zach Arnett interviewed for the job, but the mutual interest never went far enough for new to break that he’d turned down the Texas job.
Then Sarkisian decided to target a coach he didn’t really know that well personally, but respected for the difficulties he’d experienced facing Kwiatkowski as a playcaller.
“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 on Friday. “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.”
Sarkisian first faced off against Kwiatkowski in the 2012 Maaco Bowl when the longtime defensive coordinator was still at Boise State. The Huskies out-gained the Broncos in the 28-26 win by Boise State, but Kwiatkowski’s opportunistic defense forced three crucial turnovers that turned into six decisive points for the Broncos. The second Boise State interception of the game with 14 seconds remaining ended a late comeback attempt by Washington.
Less than three years later, Kwiatkowski got the best of Sarkisian once again when Washington pulled out a 17-12 upset of No. 17 USC in Los Angeles, the last game of Sarkisian’s tenure with the Trojans. Once again, Sarkisian’s squad had the advantage in total yards, but Cody Kessler threw three interceptions.
As an analyst at Alabama during the College Football Playoffs in 2016 — one game before taking over as playcaller for a departing Lane Kiffin — Sarkisian got one final up-close look at a Kwiatkowski-led defense as Washington held the Crimson Tide offense to 17 points and 57 passing yards in defeat.
If those experiences helped convince Sarkisian that Kwiakowski was the right choice as defensive coordinator, the knowledge that Kwiatkowski had of Sarkisian from the recruiting trail helped convince him that coming to Austin was the right career move.
Along with the assist from other coaches like Banks and strength and conditioning coach Torre Becton, who worked with Kwiatkowski in Washington.
“He’s always been a great guy hanging out with and talking to and telling stories and talking ball and that kind of stuff and these guys that I’m close to and trust really spoke highly of him,” Kwiatkowski said. “Obviously, his results speak for themselves.”
The results for Kwiatkowski do as well — 17 NFL draft picks developed at Washington, including 10 in the top two rounds, along with three consecutive seasons (2016-18) in the top 10 nationally in scoring defense.
Now, after facing a diverse set of offenses in the Pac-12, Kwiatkowski will embrace the challenge of scheming against the notoriously high-octane Big 12 attacks.
“I think it was a combination of getting that itch to go try and do something different and the University of Texas is an outstanding university. And the Big 12, it will be fun to go out there and try and defend all those those high-powered offenses.”