Great news: the University of Texas coach is in the College Football Playoff! Of course, Steve Sarkisian is still Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator at the University of Alabama, which is also why Sarkisian got the UT job. If you’re hiring in tech, you look for somebody who went to Stanford. If you’re hiring in college football, you look for someone who’s been breathing the same air as Saban—or at least gets to be in heavy rotation on his Zoom calls.
While UT’s announcement that Sarkisian would replace coach Tom Herman was both unexpected (at least in its belatedness) and sudden (seemingly), last week’s College Football Playoff semifinal helps explain the timing behind the move. Sarkisian, who gave his first press conference as a Texas state employee less than 24 hours after Alabama’s win over Notre Dame, will be expected to deliver what Herman couldn’t—wins (plural) over Oklahoma and a Big 12 title. But even Oklahoma ranks a tier below Alabama, Clemson, and Ohio State, which have won five of the last six championships (with Clemson or Alabama also on the losing side four times).
Does Sarkisian give the Longhorns a better shot at reaching this level than Herman did? Will he be worth his reported $34.2 million contract over six years? Until he reports to work after Monday’s Alabama–Ohio State game—assuming that it’s not postponed—we can only wonder. Here are six questions about Sarkisian, how and why the Longhorns got him, and what lies ahead for UT football.
1. Herman went 54–22 over six years at UT and the University of Houston. Sarkisian went 46–35 over six years (and change) at Washington and USC. Why is this exciting?
It’s not, exactly. But Sarkisian’s previous head coaching jobs are no longer atop his résumé. Since being fired from USC in 2015, the 46-year-old has climbed back up the ladder, sandwiching two stints at Alabama around two seasons with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons. Sark originally became a head coach on the strength of his work as USC’s offensive coordinator under Pete Carroll—you may recall USC’s Rose Bowl loss to Texas—and his time with Alabama has been even more impressive, turning what was once a “defense wins championships” program into a scoring juggernaut.
The winner of the 2020 Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant, Sarkisian was already making almost as much money ($2.5 million) as Texas Tech head coach Matt Wells ($3.1 million). Three of Alabama’s skill position players—quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and wide receivers Henry Ruggs III and Jerry Jeudy—went in the first round of last year’s NFL draft, with four more—wide receivers DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle, quarterback Mac Jones, and running back Najee Harris—likely to do the same in 2021. Smith also won the Heisman Trophy, with Jones and Harris finishing third and fifth, respectively.
The Longhorns haven’t had a first-round NFL draft pick since Malcolm Brown in 2014, nor a Heisman finalist since Colt McCoy. But they’ll take it:
— Texas Football (@TexasFootball) January 6, 2021
Still, none of that is why Sarkisian got the job. Nick Saban is. UT thinks it should be Alabama, which is not the same thing as knowing how to build a program like Alabama’s. The Longhorns even tried and failed to get Saban himself in 2013. So, like many other schools, including Texas A&M (Jimbo Fisher), Georgia (Kirby Smart), Oregon (Mario Cristobal), and Tennessee (Jeremy Pruitt), UT went and got a Saban guy. What Sarkisian needs to bring to Austin is not so much his football acumen, but a bit of Saban’s secret sauce: the relentless recruiting, infrastructure, routines, and culture that have sustained Alabama’s dominance, even as the players and assistant coaches churn.
Which is easier said than done when the culture of “We’re Texas” has been more like an episode of Dallas. Or the Dallas Cowboys. All helmet, no titles. But that’s where Sarkisian’s head coaching experience becomes more relevant. He’s the first UT coach since Dana X. Bible who already knows what it’s like to work for a national championship–winning school. Two of them, in fact (and yes, Darrell K. Royal also coached at Washington, but the Huskies hadn’t won a title at the time). Sarkisian’s familiarity with USC seems particularly meaningful, as the Trojans can give Bevo a run for its money in terms of not just ego, history, and branding, but also shaky athletics departments, unreasonably passionate fans, and unspeakably loaded donors. Coaching is the easy part.
2. Okay, fine. But what about the reason he got fired by USC?
Sarkisian was let go by USC in October 2015 after a very public incident in which he said he was under the influence of both alcohol and painkillers. It was a serious, and apparently long-standing problem. He went into rehab before joining Saban’s staff as an offensive analyst in 2016, and later lost a lawsuit claiming it was improper of USC to fire him instead of letting him seek treatment.
Given the coarse discourse around sports on social media, a few people couldn’t help but tweet their Sixth Street jokes the day Sarkisian was hired. But in 2021, most people know alcoholism is a disease, same as a heart condition (which Sarkisian also had). Regardless, UT is hiring a completely different coach than the one who lost his job at USC, and probably a better one.
Sarkisian addressed the topic head-on at his mini press conference. “Anytime you go through something like I went through, essentially in the public eye, I don’t want to say you’re humbled, but you are,” he said. “I’m proud of the work that I’ve done but I will say when you battle what I battle, you have to work on it every day.”
Sounds a lot like football.
3. Didn’t Texas athletics director Chris Del Conte say that Herman would be back in 2021?
Not exactly. Del Conte’s statement on December 12 said, “With the close of the regular season, I want to reiterate that Tom Herman is our coach.” Brian Davis and Kirk Bohls of the Austin American-Statesman subsequently got him to clarify that, yes, this meant Herman would be the coach in 2021.
Which he was, for a little more than thirty hours.
It now looks as though Del Conte was still shopping, leaving both Herman and the school’s recruits to dangle. The AD told the Statesman’s Davis that, in fact, “I had not completed my evaluation” of Herman’s performance, and that doing so revealed issues that legitimately changed Del Conte’s mind.
What happened after statement, six starters opted out of Alamo Bowl. Recruiting class was 17th in nation. The 2022 class wasn’t looking good. Also, some players were doing negative recruiting. 3/3
— Brian Davis (@BDavisAAS) January 3, 2021
Stewart Mandel, The Athletic’s college football editor in chief, didn’t think much of that explanation. “No one believes a word of [Del Conte’s] back-tracking on his initial statement,” he wrote. According to Yahoo Sports’ Pete Thamel, Del Conte had been doing background work on Sarkisian “over the past few weeks.”
And the most damning, supposedly course-altering detail—negative recruiting by UT’s own players—still seems poorly substantiated. Maybe someone specifically said, “our coach is a jerkface, don’t come here.” But it also seems possible someone could have said, “our fans want us to sing a racist song, don’t come here.” Or just, “nobody can figure out how to fix this place.”
One refreshing aspect about the way it all played out: the Longhorns’ interest in Sarkisian—or even just the fact that they were still swiping right on Head Coach Hinge—never fully leaked. That means the boosters and “insiders” who are often the sources of such rumors either didn’t know or they kept their mouths shut. That’s almost Alabama-like.
4. Isn’t this a bad look during a pandemic?
Of course. People have been saying it all season, present company included. At this time last week, I even praised the Longhorns for not firing Herman. The San Antonio Express-News’ Mike Finger, Sports Illustrated’s Pat Forde, and Defector’s Ray Ratto all wrote blistering columns making this point over the weekend. But Texas is gonna Texas, and college football is gonna college football, and, well, what more can you say but…
The colder truth, as Mandel pointed out:
This makes it seem like taxpayers are footing the bill. Boosters are. The type of people whose portfolios are up 60 percent since March. https://t.co/KQzar69X4U
— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) January 2, 2021
The people putting up roughly $60 million—to buy out Herman and his staff, and then pay Sarkisian and his staff—aren’t suffering financially (plus they get a tax deduction). And they are also not apparently inclined to give that money to regular students, or to the med school, or even to laid-off athletics staffers. One assumes there was a private plane to whisk Sarkisian to Austin on the morning after Alabama–Notre Dame, where he and his wife joined Del Conte, UT president Jay Hartezel, and Board of Regents chairman Kevin Eltife for a masked, undistanced photo.
— Texas Longhorns (@TexasLonghorns) January 2, 2021
Every problem in college football stems from the fact that the logic of college football requires the sport itself to always be the most important thing. Del Conte blaming Herman for UT players who began opting out of late-season games—first after they were eliminated from Big 12 title contention, and then before the Alamo Bowl—is part of that logic. To a normal person, an athlete who chooses to skip a meaningless bowl game because of the pandemic or to avoid injury and begin preparing for the NFL draft is an athlete who got the most of his University of Texas education. In college football, that’s an athlete who’s letting down his school, his team, and his now ex-coach.
5. Can this really work?
Sure. Why not? The argument for keeping Herman was that the team might improve. The argument for starting over is that it can’t get substantially worse. If Sarkisian is no better than an eight- or ten-win coach—if he’s another Herman, or another Jim Harbaugh at Michigan—he’ll eventually lose the job too. But the program’s not likely to crater, so maybe Sarkisian can take the Longhorns to the upper echelons the program aspires to.
If the university will let him, that is. The reason Oklahoma didn’t miss a beat from Bob Stoops to Lincoln Riley is that the Sooners didn’t need rebuilding. Over the last ten years, however, UT’s troubles have come from instability—there’s always a new coach or coordinator or athletics director or president or chancellor. Herman wasn’t hired by Del Conte, who started at UT in 2017, and Hartzell officially became school president four months ago. Now they have their guy.
“We all believe Texas should be back,” Sarkisian said on Saturday. “That’s why I’m taking this job.” But maybe Texas doesn’t need to be back. Maybe Texas needs to change.
6. Are we rooting for … ugh … Alabama?
Absolutely. You want Sarkisian wearing that national championship ring on recruiting trips—or not wearing it, but with all the blue-chip prospects knowing that he could be. And you especially want him to be able to reach out to Southlake Carroll quarterback Quinn Ewers, who jilted Texas for Ohio State in late November, with both a little trash talk and a little sweet talk. Roll Tide!