In what bizarre world should former TCU coach Gary Patterson be a “special assistant” to current Texas coach Steve Sarkisian? Sarkisian should be fetching coffee and breakfast tacos for Patterson, and if he’s smart, that’s exactly what Sark will be doing over the next few months, as Patterson offers advice on cleaning up the mess the Longhorns have become.
Dysfunction has been the state of affairs for football at the University of Texas for most of the past dozen years. Forget the University of Georgia and its shiny new national championship trophy. Pay no attention to Jimbo Fisher and all those five-star recruits he’s brought to Texas A&M. Alabama? When losing the national championship game qualifies as a catastrophe, you’re disqualified from this conversation.
When it comes to sheer rubbernecking entertainment value, the Longhorns are lapping the field. In this latest installment of the saga, Patterson has agreed to join the Longhorns as a special assistant to Sarkisian, the head football coach. In reality, Patterson is being asked to save UT athletic director Chris Del Conte’s butt.
Around this time last year, Del Conte, who worked with Patterson when both were at TCU, finished a $79 million transaction in which he fired Tom Herman and replaced him with Sarkisian, then an Alabama assistant coach. (For those counting at home, that’s about $24 million to buy out Herman and his coaching staff, plus Sarkisian’s six-year, $34.2 million deal, plus around $21 million in total salary for Sark’s assistants.)
Sarkisian promptly engineered one of the most embarrassing seasons the Forty Acres has ever seen—which is pretty impressive for a program whose recent history has been largely defined by underachieving. In the past twelve seasons, UT has managed only one finish better than nineteenth in the AP rankings.
Last season’s 5–7 record doesn’t quite illustrate the full measure of Texas’s futility in 2021. There was also the six-game losing streak, the school’s longest in 65 years.
And watching Kansas hang 57 points on Texas on the way to winning its first Big 12 road game in thirteen years.
And watching Texas blow double-digit leads in losses to Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Baylor.
Those are especially galling numbers because Sarkisian’s handpicked defensive coordinator, Pete Kwiatkowski, was made one of the ten highest-paid assistants in college football at $5.1 million over three years.
Surrendering leads and stopping the run are symbolic of larger problems related to the team’s resilience and will to win—intangibles that are difficult to instill in a program’s culture and that, unfortunately for UT, can’t be bought.
Texas was so lacking in those areas that the wisdom of Del Conte’s decision to hire Sarkisian in the first place is open for debate. With Longhorns fans focused on a big-name replacement for Herman, Del Conte went for the Alabama offensive coordinator. But Sarkisian was an underwhelming 46–35 in eight-plus seasons as the head coach at Washington and USC. He had one losing season and three in which his teams went 7–6. His 2014 USC team went 9–4.
And after all the spending it took to get Sarkisian to Austin, the head coach’s stint at Texas isn’t off to a promising start. Surely, there’s a business school research paper in there somewhere. Big money begets more big money. But the issue is more about smart decisions than money.
As for Patterson, this is an intriguing career move. The former TCU head coach was shown the door in October after he rebuffed the school’s efforts to persuade him to resign after the season. At 61, Patterson will surely have opportunities to become a head coach again, after leading the Horned Frogs to seven top-ten finishes in 21 full seasons, including 11 years of double-digit wins.
His finest achievements in Fort Worth came when the Horned Frogs won the Rose Bowl in 2011 and tied Baylor for the Big 12 championship in 2014. Patterson beat Texas seven out of the eleven times his team faced the Longhorns.
From a practical viewpoint, Patterson can provide two elements Texas badly needs. First, he’s one of the finest defensive minds in college football. His 4-2-5 setup with two linebackers and five defensive backs is copied in some form by virtually every team. And if teams typically reflect their head coach, the Longhorns would do well to reflect a little of Gary Patterson. When he had TCU rolling, the team’s toughness and consistent effort were the gold standard almost every other program measured itself against.
Patterson does not tolerate fools. At times, he doesn’t tolerate much of anyone. But he’s a great, proven coach, and he loves what he does. TCU fired him after an October loss to Kansas State, but Patterson still showed up the following week to help his former coaches construct a game plan for Baylor.
Now he’s joining a Texas program that hasn’t won the Big 12 since 2009 and is coming off its worst season in five years. Sarkisian should thank his lucky stars that Patterson is willing to help, even though the latter’s role appears unclear. As special assistant, Patterson won’t be an official member of the coaching staff. That is, he won’t be stepping onto the practice field to, you know, coach players.
Will he serve in more of advisory role? Was he given a perch to wait, before eventually taking over as defensive coordinator? Is Patterson UT’s insurance policy at head coach, in case the Longhorns flop again under Sarkisian?
Patterson’s strength during two decades at TCU was a strong-willed, hands-on approach that, at times, put players, staff, and administrators on edge. Perhaps that kind of hard coaching can have diminishing returns over time, but right now, it’s difficult to name any college football program in the nation that needs a kick in the butt more than Texas.
Fans may never know what drove Del Conte to hire Sarkisian—and the coach still deserves a chance to rebuild this program. As disappointing as the Longhorns were in 2021, Texas has been so mediocre for so long that it was unrealistic to think Sarkisian could have turned it all around in one season. Still, the way Texas lost—blowing leads, getting dominated at the line of scrimmage—would raise red flags at any Division I school, let alone one with the expectations and self-regard of Burnt Orange Nation.
If Texas fans are looking for a reason to feel optimistic, it’s that Sarkisian has had a tremendous off-season, perhaps not as great as Texas A&M’s, but close. The Longhorns’ recruiting class is ranked fifth overall by Rivals, and Texas also got one of the crown jewels of the transfer portal in Quinn Ewers, the ex–Ohio State quarterback who was projected to be the number one high school prospect in 2022 before he left Southlake Carroll High School early to take advantage of name, image, and likeness business opportunities.
Ewers is viewed as the kind of program-changing player Texas hasn’t signed since signal-callers Vince Young and Colt McCoy were leading the Longhorns to national championship games in the aughts.
Ewers and the rest of UT’s talented new arrivals will be tested early, when Alabama comes to Austin in the second week of the 2022 season. You can’t ask for a better—or more unforgiving—measuring stick than the Crimson Tide, and the game should be a useful gauge of the Longhorns’ progress in Sarkisian’s second season, and whether or not the coach is likely to get a third.