Time is now for Texas, Sarkisian to cook up a winning recipe

By RJ Young
FOX Sports College Football Writer 

ARLINGTON, Texas — Pardon me for being blunt, but it’s about time for Texas to act its shoe size.

Enough with the rodeo clowning and barrel racing shenanigans, Texas. Make like a Spanish bull fit to fight. 

I mean, goodness me, you’ve got an offense so good that Bijan Robinson giving a stern look to the scoreboard might result in six.

I mean, God bless, Texas, put that 454 in the floor and get after it.

A month removed from winning the Arch Manning sweepstakes, Texas and Steve Sarkisian are riding a wave of optimism going into the 2022 season. The Longhorns got faster on the perimeter and thicker through the middle.

Texas star Bijan Robinson at Big 12 Media Days

FOX Sports’ RJ Young is joined by Texas’ Bijan Robinson and DeMarvion Overshown. Robinson describes why each Texas quarterback is vital to the team and what they can accomplish as players.

They’ve a right to feel confident about their future. But the present presents pressure.

In that way, it’s the same as it has always been down on the Forty Acres: outsized expectations for a program that has produced just one national title since integration and more 5-7 seasons (four) than first-round draft picks (two) in the past decade.

No one needs to remind Sarkisian that last season was tough. The Longhorns finished not only with their worst record since 2016 but also outside the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time since 2017.

Sarkisian also holds the dubious honor of having the worst record of any first-year head coach at Texas since Dana Bible went 2-6-1 in his first season in 1937. 

Like many great coaches, he’s less concerned about how UT’s 5-7 season affected him and more concerned about how it affected his players and fans of the program.

Players don’t usually win in spite of their coaches; they usually win because of them. Coaches who are great teachers inspire great learning and produce great students. Winning is a byproduct of putting into action that which the student is taught.

In that way, Sarkisian has joined Baylor coach Dave Aranda in his approach to the game. Most people who’ve heard Aranda speak about football for any length of time quickly come to understand that he doesn’t focus so much on the outcome of games as on the attitude and execution of his players.

When Aranda sat down to talk with me at Big 12 Media Days — just a day before Sarkisian sat in the same chair — I asked him how he managed to create not just a great defense but also the defending Big 12 champions just a year after going 2-7. He told me he tried to be himself, not just authentic but vulnerable in front of his players, to create the kind of connection and trust that so many coaches claim to create but that doesn’t always manifest on the field.

I was amazed to hear that Sarkisian devoted the 2022 offseason to emphasizing much of the same. And for a coach at a big-time program such as Texas, Sarkisian’s decision might be the most important aspect of the Longhorns’ ability to win more games than they lose this season.

“When you can become vulnerable,” Sarkisian said, “when you can become transparent, when I can talk about the things that are frustrating to me or that I’m dealing with off the field or that I’ve dealt with off the field in my past, I think I create a platform for them to where they say, ‘Man, Coach Sark is real. And I can share things with him on things that I’m dealing with.’

“Now I can really start to help. Now I can really start to help navigate their world. Because ultimately, they all want to be great players. They all want to be successful. But they have a lot going on in their worlds to where they’re becoming distractions that deter them from being the best that they can be. And so, if I can start to help facilitate that for them and maybe give them an easier, softer way of navigating things that ultimately, they come out on the other side.”

When I heard him in that manner, delivering that message, I could not help but see that Sarkisian spoke from experience. After coaching Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart to Heisman trophies and being an assistant for Pete Carroll at USC while it ascended to the top of the sport, he needed to find his way back to coaching at a high level nearly a decade later. 

Alabama coach Nick Saban gave him that opportunity to find himself while watching and learning from the greatest college football coach ever. That chance yielded a national championship, a Heisman Trophy winner, a Broyles Award and a bevy of first-round picks selected from the offense he coordinated in 2020. 

Steve Sarkisian gives props to Nick Saban

RJ Young is joined by Texas Longhorns head coach Steve Sarkisian, who explains his approach to coaching this year’s team and describes his relationship with Alabama head coach Nick Saban and what Saban has done to help his career.

“I would not be the head coach at University of Texas if it weren’t for Nick Saban,” Sarkisian said. 

On Sept. 10, Alabama travels to play the Longhorns on the Forty Acres. Of course, Sarkisian wants to win, but he also wants the chance to reflect and appreciate that he’s in that position, in part, due to the man he’ll be coaching against.

“I have a lot of gratitude toward him, Miss Terry [Saban],” he said. “It’s a special day for us to play that game because I know how much he means to me. I think we both know each other to a point now where [we’re] the ultimate competitors, and both of us want to win that ballgame.

“But in the end, I think it just goes beyond football. A lot of respect for him and what he’s done in that program. But more importantly, what he’s done for a lot of people in his and Miss Terry’s life.” 

Sarkisian hopes to pay forward that kindness to his players, staff and others as head coach at the flagship university in Texas. That means helping 57 extremely talented underclassmen out of his 85 scholarship players.

To coach or play at UT is to be marked by every team on your schedule as the one they simply must beat. To coach or play at UT also means you’re all one another have, as expectations are as outsized as the state itself, so you better trust the man in burnt orange beside you, next to you and behind you.

It’s in the latter where most fans will focus and where Sarkisian must be sure. 

In his mind, Hudson Card, who has started games at UT, and Quinn Ewers, who hasn’t thrown a pass in college, are vying for the starting quarterback gig in Austin, Texas. 

And he’s interested in seeing the derby through preseason camp, if for no other reason than that he’s likely going to have to play them both — for one reason or another — over the course of 12 regular-season games.

Keeping the player who loses the derby engaged is as important as giving the named starter every opportunity and advantage to be successful. To Sarkisian, that means adapting the system to the strengths of each individual QB.

“What we tried to do is not just essentially put them in a silo, saying, ‘This is where you are as a player in our system,'” Sarkisian said. “‘Both of you could be successful playing in our system. But here’s what you need to work on, Player A. And here’s how we’re going to work on it.

“‘Whether you’re the starter or not, we’re going to keep working on these aspects of your game.’ Here is Player B, he’s in a different silo, he’s got a different skill set, he’s got different things that he needs to work on. Ultimately, me as a coach, whether it’s Player A or Player B, I need to call the things that put those two guys, whichever one is on the field, and position them to be successful.” 

And to help him better communicate and prepare for his job, he’ll have another man who was a head coach just a year ago. In the offseason, Gary Patterson stunned college football fans — twice. 

First, he stepped down as head coach at Texas Christian University — where a statue of him has been erected — eight games into the 2021 season after 22 years as head coach. Then he took a job as special assistant to Sarkisian at Texas, an act of treason to some TCU fans and one that can only serve to help Pete Kwiatkowski’s defense, which was streaky at best in 2021.

“Coach Kwiatkowski can utilize him as a sounding board about the what-ifs, about the adjustments, about how we’re going to play a certain coverage or a certain scheme,” Sarkisian said.

The Longhorns’ defense was the type that could hold Rice scoreless but give up 57 in a loss to Kansas. Patterson, having seen the sport as a defensive playcaller and head coach for the majority of his career, offers valuable insight on what might be a blind spot for Sarkisian and a weakness for Texas.

“I think head coaches look at the game differently,” he said. “I think they look at it from a really big-picture approach, where sometimes position coaches and things can look at it almost through a straw very specific to their position group.”

With just two seasons left in the league, the ingredients are in place for UT to make a leap forward and ascend to the top of the Big 12. But ingredients have not been the problem at Texas. Finding a head coach capable of mixing those ingredients into a championship program has been.

Show us what you got, Sark.

RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the podcast “The No. 1 Ranked Show with RJ Young.” Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young, and subscribe to “The RJ Young Show” on YouTube. He is not on a StepMill.

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