The difference between winning and losing close games doesn’t solely lie in talent on offense or defense, head coach Steve Sarkisian and the University of Texas have always had that. The difference lies in the culture of a program. As Sarkisian enters his third year, and Texas enters their final year in the Big 12, is the culture of Texas football under his coaching staff finally starting to take shape?
Texas lost five games by a one-score margin in 2022, including their 27-20 loss to Sarkisian’s former team, the Washington Huskies in the Alamo Bowl. One way to remedy those issues for the upcoming 2023 season is through an established culture where players buy into the system, execute their roles when it matters most, and have enough depth to overcome injuries and fatigue. If Sarkisian and his coaching staff can do just that, it may be the difference between a disappointing eight-win season and a 10-win season.
During the offseason, Sarkisian indicated progress in his culture-building efforts.
“I think that as we went through the offseason program of winter conditioning, spring practice, our summer training, I think that our team has built a culture that we’re excited about,” Sarkisian said to open preseason camp. “Clearly, we like the talent on our team, but when you start putting that together with staff continuity, the veteran players on our roster, and then the the influx of the newcomers, we’ve built something here that we’re excited about. Ultimately, we have to go out and play and that’s what’s going to define us is by the way we play and the way we perform.”
Consistency from the coaching staff has been something that these talented Longhorn rosters have been missing over the years. From Strong, to Herman, and now Sark, it has been difficult to find that Mack Brown-esque culture and continuity that Texas fans and players have been searching for over the last decade.
Staff continuity in Sarkisian’s third season is a positive sign that he’s building a culture similar to Brown — Strong had already had significant coaching turnover by 2016 and Herman was headed for it after the high of the Sugar Bowl win gave way to an 8-5 season in 2019 and a hard coaching staff reset. Neither coach made it to a fifth season.
So far, Sarkisian has retained his entire initial defensive staff, replaced running backs coach Stan Drayton after Drayton became the head coach at Temple, and gone through three wide receivers coaches when Andre Coleman’s retention didn’t pay off and Brennan Marion took a promotion after one season on the Forty Acres.
Texas athletics director Chris Del Conte emphasized a similar message of culture in 2021 when introducing Sarkisian, saying, “Coach Sark is building a culture, he has a tremendous group of coaches with him, and we are providing every ounce of support we can muster to help them redirect our program.”
What better way to “redirect the program” than to bring in the highest-rated high school quarterback prospect since Vince Young in Quinn Ewers, and a quarterback with the last name of Manning in back-to-back recruiting cycles? There is a feeling in the air that big-name high school football talent, especially at the quarterback position, wants to come to Texas to play for Sarkisian — the Longhorns are now seventh nationally in blue-chip ratio, the number of four-star and five-star recruits in the program.
However, Texas has always had highly-ranked recruiting classes, including four top-10 classes in the last five years. The Longhorns posted the No. 3-ranked recruiting class in 2018, the No. 3-ranked class in 2019, the No. 8th-ranked class in 2020, and the No. 5-ranked class in 2022. What makes this year’s talented roster and coaching staff the one that can finally return the Longhorns to the upper echelons of college football?
Sarkisian enters his third year as the head coach of one of the biggest football brands in the nation, so of course expectations are high. “It’s the biggest brand in the land,” Sarkisian said on the Pivot Podcast with Channing Crowder, Fred Taylor & Ryan Clark. “I’ve never not loved a great challenge, I’ve always wanted something that meant I wanted to do it the biggest, the best, better than anyone’s ever done it before.”
Sarkisian has certainly experienced many great challenges throughout his coaching career. He’s been a part of two national championship teams as an assistant coach for USC and Alabama. He’s seen quarterbacks under his tutelage accomplish tremendous success — Matt Leinart, Mark Sanchez, Mac Jones, and Tua Tagovailoa in college, and Matt Ryan winning an MVP with the Falcons in the NFL.
However, he never has fully experienced equal success on his own as a head coach. Other than the 2017 season where the Huskies went 8-4 in the regular season, Sarkisian wasn’t able to finish a season with over seven wins in Washington during his five-year tenure. He began to see some success as the head coach of USC in posting two winning seasons of 9-4 in 2014 and 8-6 in 2015 before his unfortunate termination from the university the following year. But even the nine-win season came with the benefit of a 45-42 Holiday Bowl win over Nebraska during which USC blew most of an 18-point lead in the third quarter.
Now that Sarkisian is in his third opportunity as the head coach of a major college football program, he’s learned from and grown from the broken road that led him to Austin. With the high expectations that naturally come with being the head coach of the Texas Longhorns, and the abundance of talent this current roster holds, Sarkisian may face his greatest challenge yet to prove that he not only belongs, but deserves to be the head coach of the Texas.
What looks different than his previous stops as a head coach is the current culture on the Forty Acres.
“I really praised our staff — and I think it helps, again, with the continuity — and I praised our players. I don’t think they just bought into this culture. I really think everybody has contributed to it and elevated it. And that’s probably been something that’s been different for me from my time as a head coach at Washington and USC —I think our culture here is real,” Sarkisian said in July on On Texas Football.
“I think it’s one that’s that’s based on love, connectivity, respect, but those guys, they’re the ones that have really made it come to fruition. I can talk about it and I can put pieces in place for it to happen, but the culture here is real, and this is one of the closest if not the closest team I’ve ever been a part of so far.”
The pressure on Sarkisian for that culture to produce wins in 2023 couldn’t be higher. The University of Texas is blessed and cursed with a history and pedigree that comes with the world-renowned Longhorn brand. “The history and tradition speak for itself,” Sarkisian explained on FS1’s The Herd with Colin Cowherd. “We’ve got a brand that’s world renowned, in my opinion it’s the number one logo in sports.” The Longhorn brand certainly has its perks as one of what Cowherd describes as the “three glamor brands” of college football. However, it also comes with unique costs.
Yearly high expectations, an impatient board of regents, and the greatest fan base in the world that expect, and frankly deserve, a national championship-caliber program. A program that every year is expected to be a contender, but hasn’t been able to live up to that hype since the likes of Brown, VY, and Colt McCoy. Longhorn nation does not hope, but expects Sarkisian to lead them through the desert and into the promised land immediately. A tall task that rests on the shoulders of a coach that has yet to offer a 10-win season in his first two years, and a sophomore quarterback with all of the potential in the world.
Despite the ups and downs from Ewers as a redshirt freshman, last year the Longhorns were able to put together a respectable 8-5 season behind the powerful rushing attack of Bijan Robinson and Roschon Johnson o offense. A season in which four regular-season games were decided by a touchdown or less. Four games that could potentially have been the difference between an 8-5 season, and a 12-1 season.
The expectation is that 2023 will show more improvement as Sarkisian and his coaching staff create a Texas football culture that reflects the abundance of talent on all sides of the ball. The guys are there, returning 10 of 11 starters on offense. Ewers steps into his second season, with DraftKings giving him the sixth-best odds at +1500 to win the Heisman.
The offense is littered with talented skill positions thanks to the addition of AD Mitchell from Georgia, JT Sanders at tight end, fifth-year senior slot receiver Jordan Whittington, and wide receiver Xavier Worthy back for his third season. The offensive line returns all five starters, including likely future first-round draft pick Kelvin Banks at left tackle.
The defense, led by incredibly talented middle linebacker Jaylen Ford, ranked 17th in ESPN’s future Top 25 Defenses through the 2025 season.
The talent is there, and Texas is certainly trending in the right direction under Sarkisian. The question is if and how these players have bought into this program and culture that Sarkisian is trying to build.
DraftKings gives Texas -140 odds to win over 9.5 games this season, and the best odds to win the Big 12 at +100. If there were ever a season for Sarkisian to win nine or more games in the regular season, it’s in Texas’ farewell season before leaving for the SEC.
Texas will always be blessed and cursed with high expectations, and Longhorn faithful have learned to temper those expectations over the years. In year three, Sarkisian and his staff certainly have an embarrassment of riches with all of the talent this roster holds. If Sark can get this roster to buy into his program, and the University of Texas brand, they will go as far as their culture will take them, perhaps even to somewhere Sarkisian has never been as a head coach by fulfilling the bet that Del Conte made nearly three years ago — that Sarkisian is a different head coach than he was at Washington and USC, one capable of bringing Texas out of its generation of misery.