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‘Winning is hard’: Steve Sarkisian detonates first landmine at Texas

The new Longhorns head coach would do well to avoid the new generation of excuses worn out by his predecessor.

Steve Sarkisian at Big 12 Media Days
Liz Parke

ARLINGTON, Texas — What has Texas Longhorns head coach Steve Sarkisian learned since he took his first head coaching job with the Washington Huskies in close to 13 years ago?

“I think I stepped on a lot of landmines as a first-year head coach at Washington, and even a second-time head coach at USC,” Sarkisian said last Thursday at Big 12 Media Days. “As a third-time head coach, and then having spent three of the last five years with Nick Saban, I think I do a better job of being consistent in my approach, having a little bit more awareness for landmines and avoiding landmines, or, you know detonating landmines, if that’s a better term.”

At an event known more for coach-speak and the silliness of persistent questions like penalties for horns down celebrations by Texas opponents, Sarkisian detonated his first landmine since arriving in Austin last January when his coach-speak strayed into the territory of his predecessor, Tom Herman.

Herman was already discussing the difficulties of his attempted turnaround at Texas after his first game, a 51-41 loss to Maryland in 2017.

“I told our guys to never get used to this feeling, but that if we all thought that we were going to come in here and, in nine months, sprinkle some fairy dust on this team and think that we’ve arrived, then we’re wrong,” Herman said.

Herman’s mentor-turned-enemy Urban Meyer immediately panned the comments.

“C’mon man,” Meyer told CBS Sports. “I don’t know where that came from. It’s like a new generation of excuse.”

A year later, following a second loss to Maryland and a disappointing seven-point win over Tulsa, Herman still didn’t have any fairy dust as he retreated to a phrase that became all to familiar to Texas fans.

“Winning is really hard,” Herman said.

Sometimes it was really, really hard, a reality that Herman noted even before the first loss to Maryland and all too often thereafter.

Winning never really got any easier for Herman over his tenure at Texas — by the time his team made blowout victories over Kansas State and Colorado look easy to end the 2020 season, it was already too late for Herman. Days after that Alamo Bowl win, Herman was fired following a 32-18 record overall and a 22-13 record in Big 12 play over his four seasons with the Longhorns.

So it sounded all too familiar when Sarkisian sat in front of the assembled national and Big 12 media last Thursday for his press conference and echoed some of the most frustrating moments of Herman’s tenure.

“We can’t sit back and relax and think because we’ve got a great stadium, because we’ve got great resources, because we’ve got the five-star, four-star players, that we just sprinkle a little magical fairy dust and all of a sudden we’re a really good football team,” Sarkisian said.

“Winning is hard.”

On the field at AT&T Stadium, the collective groans of a fan base that has spent the last 11 years lost in the college football wilderness were almost audible. The reactions on Texas Twitter left no doubt about that phrase’s ability to trigger Longhorn fans.

Of course, the context still matters.

Sarkisian was asked about why the Horns have struggled so long and what he’s learned about the keys to fixing it.

“I think at the end of the day, when you think of the University of Texas, you think of resources. You think of great recruiting and recruitability, all those things — big stadiums, great education,” Sarkisian said to open his response. “The point I’ve been trying to make is focus on us and what we’re doing and not necessarily what didn’t work before, but what are we going to do to make it work this time.”

Then he strayed into Herman territory while trying to make a point about the necessity of the process and hard work.

“And winning takes work,” Sarkisian continued after noting that winning is hard. “And winning takes perseverance. Winning takes grit. Winning takes great teamwork and great leaders and great teammates and an awesome culture. Those are all the things that we’re working on to make sure that we put ourselves in position to be as successful as we can be, not even just for the short term, but for the long term.

The new Texas head coach lauded the buy-in from his players, who he believes are taking the right team-first mentality into his first season

“They’re doing it together,” Sarkisian said. “I think they’re enjoying the process of it all. And the direct result of it is we should have a pretty good football team come the fall.”

That’s what Sarkisian was hired to do, at great cost to the university — to take the final step that Herman couldn’t in last season’s 7-3 finish, by taking the talent on campus and finally developing it to compete for the conference championship that has escaped the Longhorns since 2009.

After winning the national championship at Alabama days after taking the Texas job, Sarkisian is supposed to have the answers. So while there might not be any magical fairy dust, the Longhorns tapped him despite a thoroughly uninspiring 46-35 record as a head coach because he knows the Saban process and because he’s supposed to be one of the best offensive minds in the country.

Of course, Herman’s pedigree wasn’t too different — he’d won a national championship under Meyer and was supposed to be one of the best offensive minds in the country. He’d even taken down bigger programs as the underdog at Houston, going 22-4 with victories over Louisville (twice), Oklahoma, and Florida State.

But then Herman and his assistants couldn’t execute the plan in Austin. It became apparent that Herman’s offense hadn’t evolved as Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley continually exposed the vast gap between his innovative Sooners attacks and a Longhorns scheme that often seemed straight out of 2014.

Whether Sarkisian can succeed where Herman failed won’t have anything to do with what he says at Big 12 Media Days or in post-game press conferences — it’s about developing players and winning enough to recruit at the level necessary for the program to take the next step. About putting the offense in position to hang with and beat Riley’s teams. Getting the defensive coordinator hire right.

However, if there’s one messaging lesson from the Herman era, it’s that employing what Meyer called that new generation of excuses will quickly wear thin for a Texas fan base repeatedly triggered by them under Herman.

Time for Sarkisian to learn a fresh lesson about not detonating those particular land mines any more — with a difficult game against Louisiana to open Sarkisian’s Texas tenure and a trip to Fayetteville looming the week after, Sarkisian might end up in a position where he needs to get the messaging right after a loss or two.

If he does, it’s abundantly clear what he shouldn’t say.