“Players-only meeting? Not good. Not needed.”
A quarter century ago, Orlando Magic head coach Chuck Daly’s groaning response to a planned players-only meeting summarized the trepidation to what the New York Times accurately called “the staple of losing teams everywhere,” a reality that has not changed with the passage of time.
So the groans across the burnt orange nation were audible on Thursday when Texas Longhorns head coach Steve Sarkisian volunteered that his leadership council, which met on Monday, then addressed the team on Tuesday during a dreaded players-only meeting.
“The leadership committee addressed some of the things that I talked about where we can improve and I thought that that was a great sign that they were willing to take that initiative and to do that, so a positive on that end, for sure,” Sarkisian said.
But was it actually a positive? As one person noted on Twitter, it’s the type of action that often precedes an assistant coach getting fired, and there’s certainly a candidate for that axing. It’s the type of action that fits into the same category as a vote of confidence from an administration or front office. Tom Herman knows how that goes.
“I want to reiterate that Tom Herman is our coach,” Texas athletics director Chris Del Conte said, ahem, just before the early signing period in Dec. 2020.
Herman was until he wasn’t, which was less than three weeks later when he was fired and Sarkisian hired.
Sitting at 2-2 following Saturday’s overtime loss against Texas Tech, the Texas players clearly feel that the program is at a crossroads facing a wide-open Big 12 schedule that features enough parity that the Longhorns could climb back into the race to play in the conference title game come December or find themselves in some dark place south of last season’s abysmal 5-7 finish.
Two of the next three games are at home, but a trip to the Cotton Bowl for a rivalry game against Oklahoma and a journey to Stillwater to face Oklahoma State, currently ranked No. 9 in the AP Top 25, could make or break the season.
Adversity was always going to test the offseason narratives of improved team culture and a group more capable of sticking together in those tough moments. Well, the tough moment has arrived after another blown double-digit lead in the second half against the Red Raiders with Sarkisian maintaining the same kind of optimism that defined his offseason utterances.
“I do feel a real sense of urgency, I think, coming out of that meeting, my meeting Monday, the players-only meeting on Tuesday,” Sarkisian said. “I feel a sense of urgency not just even from our frontline starters, I feel it from everybody across the board, our scout team players have given us a great look this week. It’s been physical. Everybody’s pushing towards a common goal, which is playing better football, which is ultimately coming out victorious.”
The challenge for the Longhorns at home on Saturday against a Mountaineers team that could replicate the successful ball-control gameplans of the previous two opponents is to maintain the team’s confidence and play to the standard Texas set in the close loss to Alabama.
“We should have a lot of confidence in our ability to play good football, whether that’s on offense, defense, or special teams,” Sarkisian said. “I think that we’ve got a style of football that we took a lot of pride in. I don’t think that we played up to that standard last weekend and even at that we had an opportunity to go win that game. Our goal is to know that we’ve set a standard because they’ve shown what it looks like of how we can play and then go try to play to that standard. And then once we can meet that standard, try to exceed it and create a new standard.”
Now the team has to define whether Tuesday’s meeting was a sign of desperation, of impending collapse, or the effective, enduring resolve that could turn the season around for the better.