University of Texas head football coach Steve Sarkisian was waiting at the back of the room on Monday to give running back Bijan Robinson a bear hug. If this wasn’t precisely the ending they’d hoped to write, it nevertheless oozed with soaring good vibes.
The occasion was a press conference, where Robinson announced he would be skipping his final two years of eligibility at Texas to enter the 2023 NFL Draft, where he seems certain to be the first running back selected. Robinson will not suit up for the Longhorns against Washington in next week’s Alamo Bowl. “It’s been a fun ride here,” he said. “I know it’s time to start the new journey, and I’m just excited to figure out another part of my life just like I tried to figure it out here.”
When Robinson had finished speaking, he made his way around the room to individually thank reporters for showing up and to tell them he’d enjoyed getting to know them these last three seasons. This isn’t standard protocol, but perhaps as much as anything, it was a gesture that speaks volumes about how coaches, teammates, and media members around the Forty Acres feel about one of the greatest football players Texas has ever had.
“It was definitely a hard decision,” Robinson said. “The reason why it was hard is because I just love it here. I just love everything about this place. I love this fan base, the coaching staff, the people. . . . It was a tough one and I knew that it had to be made for my future.”
Legacies are tricky things, especially at a place like Texas, where, despite many years of underachievement, the football program still measures successful seasons by winning—or playing for—national championships, with conference titles and bowl victories serving as consolation prizes. Robinson’s three teams were 20–14 and didn’t come close to winning anything of significance. He finished his freshman season with 220 rushing and receiving yards in a 55–23 Alamo Bowl victory over Colorado, but that result so impressed the administration at Texas that they promptly fired head coach Tom Herman and hired Sarkisian, an Alabama assistant coach, to replace him.
The Longhorns were 13–11 in the two seasons Sarkisian and Robinson had together. Nevertheless, in terms of pure running ability, Robinson might be as good as any Longhorn ever. His combination of speed and power, along with the instinct to both swerve in and around tacklers, has made him a joy to watch. “He can do everything,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said before the Crimson Tide faced UT earlier this season. “He’s got speed, he’s got power. He’s a very instinctive runner. Sets up his blockers well; has a burst. And he’s got great hands, he’s a good receiver. They use him in the passing game. This guy is as good of an all-around back as there probably is in the country.”
According to the analytics web site PFF, Robinson leads the nation with 104 broken tackles this season, including at least four in one highlight reel play against Baylor. Other moments include bursts of speed through the first line of defense in two long touchdown runs against UTSA.
Against Kansas State, he dodged one tackler, then two on his way to a 36-yard touchdown run and a 209-yard day. In the next-to-last game of the season, he went for a 32-yard touchdown run against Kansas that began with a sweep to one side and ended with him bursting free on the other side. He had 243 yards that day.
Along with what he’s meant to the Longhorns on the field, Robinson has won over fans, teammates, coaches, and media alike with his personality. Austin American–Statesman columnist Kirk Bohls wrote this of Robinson: “He’s been the nicest, kindest UT athlete this writer has encountered in 50 years. . . . He has a gentle spirit off the field and a rugged attitude on it.”
College football today is a different world than the one Robinson’s UT predecessors once dominated. Players are eligible for the NFL Draft three years after leaving high school, and given the injury risk of remaining in college, we’re unlikely to see many more four-year stars.
Earl Campbell closed out his Texas career as the first Longhorn to win a Heisman Trophy. Only a 38–10 Cotton Bowl loss to Notre Dame kept that previously unbeaten team from living fondly in the hearts and minds of UT fans. It would be 21 years before the Longhorns had a running back that approached Campbell’s greatness. Ricky Williams, with his signature dreadlocks and sweet smile, won a Heisman Trophy of his own during new head coach Mack Brown’s first season, a nine-win campaign that whetted the appetite of Longhorns’ fans for more than a decade of sustained excellence under Brown.
Brown had Texas rolling by the time Cedric Benson stepped onto the Forty Acres from Midland Lee High School in 2001. Benson, who died in a 2019 motorcycle accident, was one of the most heralded recruits in Texas history and backed up the hype with a four-year career that produced 5,540 rushing yards and 64 touchdowns (second only to Williams in both categories on the school’s all-time list). The Longhorns were 43–8 in Benson’s four seasons and finished out of the Associated Press Top 10 just once (twelfth in 2003). Benson didn’t win a Heisman, but his career ended with a Rose Bowl victory over Michigan that set the stage for UT to win the national championship one year later on the same field.
By that measuring stick from an earlier, far different college football era, Bijan Robinson might never be appreciated the way Campbell, Williams, and Benson are. He played fewer games at Texas and his career rushing totals fall well short of the records they set. But Robinson’s average of 6.3 yards per carry is higher than the norms put up by that trio of all-time greats, and it’s also the statistic that most reveals Robinson’s gifts.
In Robinson’s era, rushing is not the offensive focal point it was in previous decades, and unlike the greats who came before him, his role with UT sometimes seemed to be that of a super-talented decoy. Robinson touched the ball just 101 times in his freshman season under Herman, and whatever NFL team ends up with him should send Herman a thank-you card for limiting the wear and tear on his body. Other than 35 carries in a 2021 victory over TCU, Sarkisian managed Robinson’s workload carefully, putting the ball in his hands fewer than twenty-five times in seven of twelve games this season.
Only in the final two regular season games did Texas truly ride Robinson. Those contests came at a time when Sarkisian might have been fighting to keep his job. With quarterback Quinn Ewers struggling, Sarkisian simplified things by getting the football into the hands of his best player. Texas ran the ball 105 times and passed it just 38 in season-ending victories over Kansas and Baylor. So much for the sacred balance coaches strive for. Robinson carried the ball 54 times and gained 422 yards in those final two games.
Robinson led the nation with 1,894 combined rushing and receiving yards, and was named the 2022 Doak Walker Award winner given annually to the nation’s top running back. He was just the twenty-third Longhorn—and fourth running back—to win unanimous All-American honors based on the five outlets recognized by the NCAA.
Through it all, Robinson never seemed to express a single note of discontent. “He’s such a nice human being that sometimes he doesn’t get enough credit for the competitive spirit that he has,” Sarkisian said after the Kansas game in which Robinson gained 243 yards on 25 carries. “I think that’s just what he’s made of. Man, he’s a special person beyond a special player, but that competitive spirit sometimes gets overlooked.”
Robinson, who grew up in Tucson, Arizona, chose Texas over Ohio State and USC (even after Trojan legend Reggie Bush offered him his retired jersey No. 5). He was the nation’s top-ranked running back and No. 15 overall recruit, according to 247Sports.com. His final two seasons at Texas came just as college athletes were allowed to earn income for their name, image, and likeness rights. Robinson signed deals worth an estimated $1.7 million, according to On3, including endorsements with Lamborghini and his own brand of dijon mustard—Bijan Mustardson.
“NIL has been a blessing, man,” he said at Big 12 Media Days in July. “I’ve learned so much on the business side of things, and just meeting a lot of people. I feel like building relationships has been very important for me in that scene.”
He aspires to an acting career somewhere down the line and has picked Matthew McConaughey’s brain for advice. He hopes there’s a happy rom-com in his future. “Matthew said he thinks I could be a really good actor,” Robinson said in a preseason interview. “He says just keep practicing. I’ve done a lot of commercials, and I think I’m pretty funny. I think if you’re a happy person, you can be a good actor.”
He’s a regular at Austin Ridge Bible Church and is comfortable sharing his faith. His former coach at Tucson’s Salpointe Catholic High School, Eric Rogers, told BVM Sports: “He has a tremendous faith and it’s contagious. People gravitate to him and it was crazy to see the progression from five, then it was ten and fifteen. Next thing you know by the end of the year, there were twenty-five guys huddling up with him to pray right before our games. For me, it was unique.”
But for all of Robinson’s virtues as a locker room leader, celebrity endorser, would-be actor, and man of faith, he’ll need to be a world-class competitor to succeed in the cutthroat world of professional football. That part, according to his teammates and coaches, won’t be a problem, either.
“You don’t get to where you’re at in your career by just being talented,” Sarkisian said. “He’s got a great competitive spirit.”
Teammate Jordan Whittington has seen that other side of Robinson, telling reporters: “Usually, he can just look at you, and you’ll go, ‘Okay, I’m going to lock in.’ I’ve told you he’s an angel, but you don’t want to be in his way. That’s a dominant guy.”