Why did the Texas Longhorns sign the No. 17 recruiting class in the country in the midst of terminating head coach Tom Herman?
It wasn’t just the losses to rival Oklahoma, the 32-18 record overall, and the 22-13 record in Big 12 play.
To put it bluntly, recruits lost trust in Herman’s vision of the program, a belief confirmed not only by the results, but also an anonymous survey by Dave Campbell’s Texas Football in which 21 of the 32 recruits who responded called Texas the most overrated program in the state.
No other in-state program received more than two votes.
The responses shed light on the perception issues that new head coach Steve Sarkisian and his staff will have to combat on the recruiting trail.
Foremost among the criticism is the inability to develop the four-star and five-star prospects signed by the Longhorns program over recent years.
“They get tons of highly rated recruits but can’t seem to put those super talented guys on the field and have them pan out,” wrote one recruit.
In the cycle after Herman fired seven of his 10 assistant coaches because those highly-rated recruits failed to develop under his initial staff, the votes of no confidence in Herman’s vision continued in the 2021 cycle — only one of the top 25 in-state players in the 2021 class committed to the Longhorns.
So as Sarkisian touts the developmental ability of his staff, the early results, particularly during the 2021 season, will set the stage on the recruiting trail as those coaches attempt to convince recruits that they can succeed where Herman’s assistants failed.
“I really believe you can put this group of coaches up against any staff in the country,” Sarkisian said as the school announced the hire of nine assistants. “They all are highly-regarded, knowledgeable, proven coaches and teachers who can recruit with the best of them and will develop players and maximize their ability.”
Where Herman made big failed bets on loyalty, familiarity, and in-state ties, Sarkisian’s staff has a much deeper track record of success, not only at the college level, but at the NFL level as well. Four of the assistants have NFL experience and three coached with Sarkisian on the most recent Alabama national championship team. The group has won six combined national titles, 25 conference championships, and appeared in 11 College Football Playoff games.
The area where Sarkisian has more personal control is in how he builds relationships with recruits and players. In Herman’s introductory press conference, he promised that, “You have my word that I will work every day to be a program that you are proud of,” but his behavior behind the scenes didn’t match those publicly-conveyed intentions.
Even beyond the infamous first team meeting during which Herman laid into the players, the dislike that a handful of current NFL players still have for Herman wasn’t just about their strong feelings for their former head coach Charlie Strong — it was a direct result of how Herman acted when he arrived at Texas and then continued to act as the years progressed, according to one recruit.
“Also heard poor things about how the old staff would treat players after signing,” one recruit wrote to DCTF.
In the attempt to change the culture at Texas, Herman took too much from Urban Meyer and not enough from Mack Brown.
“It’s not going to be Camp Texas around here, I can tell you that,” Herman said as he took the job. “This is going to be a very difficult program, especially at first. And you’re going to have to earn the respect and trust and love of our coaching staff and of myself. But once you have, I mean, the sky’s the limit. Once you’ve proven yourself to us as a bona fide dude, a real guy, a guy that we could trust and count on, then the love is limitless.”
The problem, as demonstrated by players negatively recruiting against the program just before Herman’s termination, is that Herman wasn’t able to build the meaningful relationships that he promised, even when almost the entirety of the program was made up of players that he recruited.
So when his job was on the line, Herman hadn’t earned the trust of current and former players, the people in a position to either serve as his best advocates or his worst critics. Ultimately, enough of them served as his worst critics, an indictment of Herman’s interpersonal failures.
As Sarkisian tries to deal more authentically with recruits, their families, and players once they arrive on campus, the lessons learned through his early coaching years and then his time striving to return to the highest levels of college football should serve him well.
“I think for myself through experience you have more of a firm belief of who you are, what you believe in, what you want your program to look like,” Sarkisian said on 105.3 The Fan. “I think one of the mistakes you can make as a head coach or a first-time head coach is you just tried to emulate the guy that you just worked for, when in reality that’s not really you. Those are his principles.”
The development facet is huge, but landing top recruits, retaining players, and creating a group of advocates to enable a beneficiary feedback loop will depend on the ability of Sarkisian and his staff to form strong, meaningful relationships that survive the transition from the recruiting process to the coaching process.
In that regard, Herman’s tenure was a major failure, and now it’s up to Sarkisian to clean up the mess. He can start by being his own authentic self.