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On Moro Ojomo’s comments, Steve Sarkisian’s response, and culture building at Texas

The low-grade controversy over the last few days illustrates once again just how far the Longhorns have to go to develop a winning, player-led culture.

NCAA Football: Texas at Oklahoma Andrew Dieb-USA TODAY Sports

The Texas Longhorns have a culture program, a needlesome reality readily apparent to even the most casual observers of college football, and one that reached a public head on the Forty Acres in the last week thanks to the candid comments of fifth-year senior defensive tackle Moro Ojomo on Thursday and head coach Steve Sarkisian’s response on Tuesday.

First, a quick recap of the abysmal stretch for the Longhorns that is now reaching well into its second decade.

The impressive run under head coach Mack Brown in the 2000s gave way to Brown’s demise, leading to four head coaches in less than a decade and a revolving door of assistant coaches on almost a yearly basis. Regular transition classes combined with poor evaluation and abysmal development sunk the tenures of Charlie Strong and Tom Herman as players struggled to deal with the distractions present in a city known for its entertainment scene and vibrant nightlife.

Those issues were front and center last season under new head coach Steve Sarkisian as the Longhorns gave away double-digit leads in three consecutive games in the midst of what became a six-game losing streak featuring another embarrassing loss to the Jayhawks, this time in the friendly confines of Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.

Player buy-in was an obvious issue with the latest coaching change, eventually prompting an expletive-laden rant from defensive line coach Bo Davis after the loss to Iowa State, an incident that eventually made it’s way to social media, further illustrating the challenges facing Sarkisian in building a winning culture on the Forty Acres. Sarkisian talked publicly about expecting significant roster turnover and that’s exactly what happened with the Horns bringing in 32 new players — so far — in the 2022 recruiting class.

In the midst of an offseason with a heavy emphasis on becoming a player-led team, Sarkisian once again deflected when asked about the program’s current level of buy-in during a recent media availability.

“I said this to you guys last year,” Sarkisian replied. “I think it’s good, but you’ve got to ask the players that question.”

So it was hardly surprising last week when the topic surfaced during a 25-minute interview session with Ojomo, an unusually long availability with a player. A finance major who is a six-time member of the Big 12 Commissioner’s Honor Roll and wants to become a corporate lawyer after his football career is over, Ojomo is widely known in the Texas press corps as one of the team’s most interesting and engaging interview subjects.

During the wide-ranging availability, Ojomo offered his barely-filtered perspective on the team’s culture in the midst of a pandemic stretching into its third year, the distractions inherent in the Austin scene, and the dangers of the burgeoning opportunities with Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL).

“They’re 18 and want to chase women, chase money, and chase alcohol,” Ojomo said of his young teammates. “They don’t see the future. They’re very distracted by what is in front of them — that’s a hard thing, especially for guys who haven’t been in a winning culture.

“To me, it’s very easy for a lot of these powerhouses to keep going, because it is established. So the new guys come in, and they’re like, ‘Oh shit, this is how we have to do it. This is what we do.’

“They always talk about coming here and changing stuff. It’s like, it’s ingrained. Like you’re uprooting, what, 10 years of shit that’s just been let go? They’re more worried about being on Sixth Street than like balling and making $50 million. It’s crazy as hell.”

In an attempt to foster better player leadership, Ojomo has an accountability group he meets with in addition to making himself available to other players in the TANC, the nutrition center for Texas athletes.

“It’s sad,” Ojomo said of Longhorns players not taking advantage of their opportunities on the Forty Acres. “I have this accountability group, and I met with my group, and I tried to impart on them how many guys I came in with that had talent and have done nothing with themselves. It’s sad. They have a bare-minimum degree and made no money off football. I tried to impart on them that you can’t waste this opportunity. Some of them escaped — Caden Sterns, Joseph Ossai. But there are a lot more who should’ve been with them that didn’t make it out.”

One of Ojomo’s most sharp comments was in response to a question about so many players on the team believing they’re going to make the NFL.

“They have to understand it doesn’t happen on autopilot,” Ojomo said. “There’s so many people who have this effed-up mentality of thinking they’re gonna go to the NFL, and they haven’t touched the field. It’s the funniest thing to me. It’s like, ‘You haven’t touched the field in three years.’ And they’ll be like, ‘Oh no, I’m gonna get my bread, dog.’ It’s very funny.”

“This whole offseason, I think that me and a couple guys who have been here a minute have tried to be more outward focused and worried about the team, because the team is going to need to win however many games to go in whatever round we want to get drafted in,” Ojomo said. “Working on actually being a family and a brotherhood is a huge focus this offseason.”

But Ojomo believes that NIL opportunities can inhibit those culture-building efforts by serving as a distraction.

“Guys don’t want to get together. Guys don’t want to spend time together,” Ojomo said. “They don’t see. They’re so young and so stupid. I don’t know how to explain it. They need us. They need the team, and it’s so difficult because NIL makes your mind turn its focus to more social media and more exposure. It’s a very in-depth problem.”

Instead of sacrificing the work it takes to develop relationships within the team, Ojomo wants his teammates to take a long-term approach.

“They have to somehow see the 24-year-old, 25-year-old maybe signing their second contract in the NFL for $50 million as opposed to seeing the 20-year-old making $40k off of NIL, sleeping with women, drinking, and all that as opposed to, you’ve got $50 million,” Ojomo said. “You’re living in Spanish Oaks. You’re living in Westlake. Traveling when you want. You’ve got the Rolls Royce outside. That’s the life they have to see, and they have to understand that it just doesn’t happen on autopilot.”

After the Longhorns lost seven games for the fifth time since the 2010 season that presaged Brown’s downfall, Ojomo is fed up with losing.

“It needs to be player led, coaches fed,” Ojomo said. “Someone made a statement about whatever senior class changes the tide for UT is going to be extremely memorable. It’s because it’s the players. Coaches come and go. Players have to make a stand and basically be like ‘enough is enough,’ 7-6 bullshit Texas isn’t happening anymore. We have the ability, we have the talent, get your mind right.”

Sarkisian’s response on Tuesday put the spotlight back on Ojomo’s comments and the culture-building challenge still remaining for the Longhorns.

“I think he’d love to have some of the things he said back,” Sarkisian said, noting the issues with making generalities about an entire program and his preference for players to instead speak publicly about their own efforts.

“I would like our guys when they answer questions to y’all to talk about what they’re doing, what’s their buy-in, and be careful speaking on others and where they’re at.”

In further addressing Ojomo’s comments, Sarkisian walked the fine line between the controlling nature so prevalent among college football coaches and the legitimate desire, echoed by at least one former player on Twitter, to handle issues internally instead of speaking about them publicly.

“The forum was really poor — you should not have done that in public,” Sarkisian said when asked about Ojomo’s team-wide messaging. “A player-led team, a really good player-led team, those issues, and if you have issues with anything, get taken care of in the locker room, get taken care of in the meeting room. If you’re really a family, you don’t go out and talk about family business. You take care of things internally.”

One task for Sarkisian in building a player-led program with a winning culture is educating well-intentioned players like Ojomo on what effective public messaging looks like and ensuring that the players delivering that message have the status to do so.

In that regard, while Ojomo’s frustration is understandable and certainly shared by fans and program observers, whether he’s earned the right to talk about other players is more debatable. He has started 25 games among the 38 games he’s played in, but he’s only produced two career sacks, both in 2020, and three tackles for loss last year in what was supposed to be a breakout season for the Katy product.

“In the end, you have to make sure to mow your own lawn first and you’ve got to make sure your own house is in order first before you start to discuss what somebody else is doing or how they’re doing it,” Sarkisian said.

Suffice it to say that Ojomo won’t be meeting with the media any time soon as Sarkisian continues his attempts to build a winning, player-led culture as the current low-grade controversy once again reveals just how much there is left to accomplish.

Ojomo isn’t wrong. Sarkisian isn’t wrong. And those two realities existing simultaneously gets to the heart of the continued problems in Austin.