There’s a recurring joke between Texas Longhorns head coach Steve Sarkisian and his fiery defensive line coach Bo Davis that goes like this — athletics director Chris Del Conte is set to build a statue of Davis for placement outside the north end zone of Darell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium alongside other Longhorn luminaries like Royal, Jody Conradt, Earl Campbell, and Ricky Williams.
It’s a joke with all the more import right now as the Longhorns stand at 10-1 overall and 7-1 in Big 12 play with conference and national championship aspirations still remaining heading into the final game of the regular season as signs of the culture that Sarkisian and Davis have worked to build over the nearly three years since they arrived on the Forty Acres — back on the Forty Acres in the case of Davis — looking to rebuild a program in the midst of its most futile decade in its history.
Sarkisian’s joke, of course, isn’t just a reference to the work that Davis does with the vaunted Longhorns defensive line, it’s about the now-iconic, expletive-filled rant the position coach went on in 2021 after hearing players laughing and joking in the wake of a 30-7 demolition at the hands of Iowa State in which Davis told players in no uncertain terms they could put more serious work into building a winning culture at Texas or enter the transfer portal.
Not only was the diatribe by Davis recorded by a player, it also leaked publicly, leading to internal discipline by Sarkisian as the rant and its public surfacing revealed how far the Texas program had to go in building a winning culture.
“We didn’t play very good, kind of got our butts kicked, and it was one of those moments that I guess in a weird way, fortunately that situation on the bus got out,” said Sarkisian after Sunday’s 26-16 win in Ames over the Cyclones two years after the rant by Davis.
“But I think you could feel the passion in Bo’s voice of what all of this means to all of us as we came into this program and what we were trying to do, and Bo made it very clear that we’re here to win championships and we’re here to compete for championships and that’s day in and day out. That’s not just Saturday night on the road — we compete every single day. The work that we do throughout the week to prepare for these moments, that’s what I think Bo was trying to get across and the fact that people remember that I think is a good thing.”
The rant came in the wake of an incident in practice between wide receiver Joshua Moore and Sarkisian and other members of the coaching staff. Moore was available for that game against Iowa State before leaving the program and entering the NCAA transfer portal the following week.
So the players on the bus were well aware of the cultural issues that Davis was referencing in his rant — 36 players on that 2021 roster, including Moore, eventually took the Texas defensive line coach’s advice and entered the NCAA transfer portal, more than 40 percent of the scholarship players.
“I think it meant a lot to a lot of the players in that locker room because from the sounds of it, that might have been going on and the fact that we were able to put a stop to that and change the direction and the trajectory of our program, it doesn’t happen overnight. That was just the starting point and then we had to continue to build off of that for years to get to this point,” said Sarkisian.
The Texas culture was called out and put to the test this week by Iowa State offensive lineman Jarrod Hufford’s public comments that clearly caught the team’s attention, even though Sarkisian downplayed the value of bulletin-board material during his Thursday media availability. On Saturday, Sarkisian’s response was more evident when the team named senior defensive tackle T’Vondre Sweat and junior defensive tackle Byron Murphy captains for the game.
“Very intentional,” said Sarkisian when asked about that choice. “I wanted them to walk to the middle of field so they could see them. I wanted them to look at 90 and 93. And they showed up and so their mindset was, we got challenged, okay, let’s go play.”
Sarkisian called the two big defensive linemen the team’s locker-room leaders who follow the messaging provided by the coaches, evidence of the program’s growth in player leadership over the last two years.
“First of all, I don’t know why you’d ever call them out. It’d be the last thing I would do if I was getting ready to play us, but that was that was their choice to call them out and to call out our culture, quite frankly, and that’s how we took it,” said Sarkisian. “I thought our players did a nice job of staying focused on what we needed to do, particularly those two guys — they went into the game and focused on what they needed to do and that was dominate the line of scrimmage, the interior of the line of scrimmage.”
Texas held Iowa State to nine rushing yards on 21 carries, rendering the Cyclones one-dimensional behind their freshman quarterback Rocco Becht to come away with Saturday’s gritty 26-16 win in Ames, aided by contributions from other Tom Herman-era holdovers like senior wide receiver Jordan Whittington, who caught his first touchdown pass of the season and scored on a two-point conversion.
“I love it for these guys. When you go through what we went through in year one and some somber locker rooms and some tough moments and some hard coaching and for those three-year guys to continue to buy into what we were talking about...” said Sarkisian.
“But then like I talked about even before the season, we were trying to build a culture that we thought could be part of the winning formula here and when I got here, you don’t know why you get hired, but everybody gets hired for reason. Then you’ve got to try to figure out how can you take it somewhere else and we just felt like the culture piece was going to be so critical as we were going through year one, that going into year two we invested in the culture, going into this year we continue to invest in the culture, but to the credit of those guys in the locker room, they took it to another level.”
Two years ago when Sarkisian was asked whether the team was bought in, he’d routinely ask reporters to put those questions to the players themselves.
“I knew quite frankly not all of them were and it was sorting through the guys that continued to show up through it all,” said Sarkisian. “And I appreciate that about those guys that are still in that locker room that have been here for three years — we owe everything to those guys because they’re the ones that were the catalysts when the new players came in.”
Those players helped deliver the messages from the coaching staff to the newcomers, what the coaches were looking for and why the team runs in DKR at four o’clock when the temperature on the field reaches 130 degrees, explaining the need for mental and physical toughness and the bond necessary to succeed in the ultimate team sport.
Those players also helped pull others back in when they were getting sideways or simply explained to the staff that they weren’t the right fit for the program.
The result, Sarkisian believes, is a brotherhood made up of players who go through each game with love for each other, bringing the Texas head coach back to another defining moment against Iowa State in 2020 when running back Breece Hall framed the matchup as five-star culture versus five-star players.
“Well, now we have both, and that’s a pretty cool thing to be able to say.”