If it was a coaching sweepstakes this hiring cycle, Texas won it. The Longhorns clinched the “title” by landing the hottest available prospect: Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian.
Sarkisian will smile, articulate and bring some portion of promise and scheme from the most dominant Alabama team of the Nick Saban era to Austin, Texas. That’s assured.
Whatever forces run Texas football are really good at winning the press conference, though that is still to come. Now, it’s time to win games on a level with school’s ambitions.
On the surface, Sarkisian is a slam-dunk hire. He capitalized at the peak of his comeback from personal and coaching ruin. Texas got him when South Carolina and Auburn could not — or would not.
Sarkisian also looks a lot like this year’s version of Tom Herman. Take that whatever way you want. Four years ago, Herman was completing an impressive run as Houston’s coach, and before that, as Urban Meyer’s offensive coordinator at Ohio State. On Saturday, he was fired.
Herman won at Texas (32-18 in four seasons); he just didn’t win enough.
That just happens to sum up Sarkisian’s head coaching career to this point. At Washington and USC, he never won 10 games, a conference championship or even a division title. His career famously flamed out after less than two seasons at USC with conduct that eventually landed him in rehab during that 2015 season. The 46-year-old Sark is 46-35 as a coach with a 2-2 record in bowl games.
Five years after his USC exit, he has re-emerged as that home-run hire the Longhorns needed. Under Sark, Alabama’s offense has been literally unstoppable. If quarterback Mac Jones doesn’t win the Heisman Trophy on Tuesday, wide receiver DeVonta Smith likely will.
Sarkisian has impressively remade himself as a person — and a coach — to the point that Saban trusted him to lead the program while the Alabama coach was out with COVID-19.
To the point that Sarkisian was being mentioned as the 69-year-old Saban’s eventual replacement.
To the point that, life being short and all, Sark wasn’t going to wait around.
Sarkisian was elevated on short notice from analyst to offensive coordinator after Lane Kiffin hastily departed for FAU back in 2016. Alabama lost that College Football Playoff National Championship in the final seconds to Clemson, but Sark called a fantastic game that night. In the lead up to that game, I asked Sarkisian if rehab worked. He was emphatic in its effectiveness, looking me in the eyes and simply saying, “Yes.”
Since then, Sarkisian returned to the NFL as Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator (2017-18) before coming back to Alabama in 2019 to permanently lead the Crimson Tide’s offense. He oversaw not only the last season of Tua Tagovailoa, but the transition to Jones, and now an offense that appears unstoppable entering another CFP National Championship.
Now, after coaching in that game, he will wake up every day as the head of a top-five job trying to revive what has been dormant for more than decade since Texas’ last conference title (and national championship). He’ll also wake up fighting a personal demon that will never go away.
Sark’s private (and public) revival has been admirable. He is the latest success story from Saban’s professional reclamation project that is his staff of analysts and assistants. In fact, Sark is his greatest success story. Not only getting the Falcons job but now taking over the head job at Texas, while others like Kiffin (FAU), Mike Locksley (Maryland) and Butch Jones (Arkansas State) have taken a more stepping-stone approach.
However, the entire package must be taken into account. For Texas, it’s more than worth the risk when Saban, Meyer and Brian Kelly — all linked to the Longhorns through the years — aren’t walking through the door. Especially when Lincoln Riley and Oklahoma aren’t going away anytime soon.
The process has typically been cutthroat, even for Texas. Remember, when it was believed that COVID-19 was going to provide every hot-seat coach a mulligan year? The hiring of Sark comes three weeks after Herman was given a tepid vote of confidence by athletic director Chris Del Conte. That’s the cruelty — and craziness — of the business. If Herman is emotionally hurt, he has $15 million in buyout money to get him through these troubled times. (His assistants are owed another $10 million.)
The repetitive nature of recent Texas coaching changes feels familiar. That has become numbingly clear in the past as Texas moved past Brown to Charlie Strong to Herman and now to Sark. All were some version of the Next Top Model who, as Power Five coaches, never made it to the end of the runway.
Texas’ power brokers won this round. For now. Del Conte runs the nation’s biggest athletic department. The man could get a donation out of Scrooge. The new basketball arena is state of the art. One of the most impressive football venues in the country is being renovated. Del Conte was hired for fundraising but also for times like these when all that revenue goes to paying off one coach while hiring a new one. Hopefully, the right one.
It wouldn’t be the first time Texas was involved with an impatient assistant coach. Will Muschamp couldn’t wait around after being named Mack Brown’s coach in waiting. Muschamp’s subsequent career has been lucrative but not overly successful at Florida and South Carolina, the latter of which fired him after the 2020 season.
Was Texas lucky not to have Muschamp ascend the throne or just as guilty making him coach-in-waiting in the first place?
Texas has to own all that, not just Sark’s hand in the high-flying Alabama offense.
But at the press conference, that’s what they will be selling. That’s why Sarkisian has gotten this next chance. That’s why the Texas influencers who run the program are on trial as much as the new coach. They couldn’t get Meyer, who reportedly told Texas officials no. So they got Saban’s top lieutenant after firing Meyer’s former top lieutenant.
Texas views itself as a destination job. Years ago, while Brown was still coach, a group of boosters went rogue and made a play for Saban. It got made public, and the effort quickly fizzled out.
Maybe that’s what Texas is right now: dazed and confused as to the scope of its football program. It’s a top-five job that, for a disturbingly long period, hasn’t been a top-five program.