Shooting For The Sark: What Can Texas Expect From Steve Sarkisian?
By Joe Kerrigan
Alabama have just won the 2021 National Championship, boasting arguably the greatest college football roster of all time, and scoring the most points in a national championship game in their history. The mind behind that incredible offense was the newly appointed head coach of Texas, Steve Sarkisian. Can he bring Texas back after a decade of poor performance?
Steve Sarkisian has worked his way from college baseball and football athlete, to a professional CFL athlete, to prominent coaching positions in both the NFL and college football. Now, the Texas Longhorns have given him the opportunity to return to the peak of coaching; being Head Coach of a powerhouse college football program.
The Californian born coach began his football career as a transfer college quarterback at BYU, before having a brief stint in the Canadian Football League as the quarterback for the Saskatchewan Roughriders for three years. He finished with a dismal 3-15 record, prompting a career change.
His coaching career began at his previous community college, El Camino, as the quarterback coach before moving onto the USC Trojans the following season in the same role – hired by then head coach, Pete Carroll. He then got his first taste of the pro league in 2004 as the quarterback coach for the Oakland Raiders before returning to USC as assistant coach the following year after opting not to become the Raiders head coach that season. ‘Sark’, as he is affectionately known, quickly worked his way up to offensive co-ordinator as The Trojans embarked upon an era of dominance, including two National Championships and never losing more than two games in a year for seven straight seasons.
Heading To The Huskies
His offenses were turning heads, most notably from teams within USC’s own conference. The Washington Huskies suffered a winless 2008 season and hired Sarkisian as their head coach. In his first season with the team, he pulled off a huge last minute upset against his former team – the #3 ranked USC – 16-13. That year also included a rout of the #13 ranked California and a huge win over rivals Washington State in the Apple Cup, finishing with a 5-7 record, a huge improvement over the previous 0-12 season.
Looking to continue his success in his second season at Washington, Sarkisian gifted the Huskies their first winning season in nine years in 2010, with a spectacular 19-7 victory over #18 Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl. Sarkisian left a strong impression with the Huskies, leading Washington to two further bowl games, unfortunately losing both, before deciding to return to USC as head coach in 2013.
However, during this period, Sarkisian’s personal issues began to come to a head. He and USC athletic director Pat Haden were punished by the Pac-12 during a game with Stanford, accused of attempting to influence officiating and the outcome of the contest. Thus began a slippery downward slope of alcoholism and intoxication that seemed to stem even from his time at Washington.
After learning Sarkisian had not turned up to a scheduled practice, Harden announced Sarkisian would be taking an indefinite leave of absence. It transpired that Sark had appeared intoxicated at a pre practice meeting and was told by his assistants to go home. Several players later reported they could smell alcohol on his breath. USC Athletic Director Pat Haden initially tried helping Sarkisian with his alcoholism, aiding with his rehab and imposing new measures and rules. Sadly, Sarkisian still struggled; following a profane drunken outburst at a booster rally and claims he was intoxicated during a game against Arizona State, Haden fired Sark in October 2015, their disgraced head coach not finding out for some time as he had checked into a rehabilitation centre.
In September 2016, Alabama gave Sarkisian another chance, hiring him as an analyst for their football team. Hoping to continue the success of the Tide’s national championship game against Clemson the season before, Sarkisian stepped in as newly promoted offensive co-ordinator after Lane Kiffin left for Florida Atlantic. ‘Bama came unstuck against the Tigers in the ‘Natty’, narrowly losing 31-35 in his first and only game of the season. But Sark was back.
2017 saw Kyle Shanahan appointed the 49ers’ head coach after the Falcons blew a 28-3 point lead to the Patriots (sorry Falcons fans), opening up the offensive co-ordinator position in Atlanta. A tough act to follow, Dan Quinn appointed Sarkisian. However, The Falcons offensive stats dropped considerably across the board, with average points per game falling heavily from 33.8 under Shanahan to 22.1 with Sarkisian. Improving by only 3 points per game the follwing season, the Falcons decided Sarkisian wasn’t the guy and fired him later that year.
In January 2019, Sarksian was re-hired as the Alabama offensive co-ordinator, resurrecting and rebuilding his career reputation. He even briefly serving as interim head coach in Bama’s 42-13 victory over Auburn after Nick Saban had to quarantine due to COVID. Blessed with a roster packed with talent, Sarkisian moulded stars like Tua Tagovailoa, Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs, Devonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle and Najee Harris into NFL calibre prospects. But it was his work with 3-star recruit Mac Jones and the devastating aerial offense he presided over that earned him the Broyles Award, given to the top coaching assistant in the nation.
On January 2nd, Sarkisian’s journey back to the pinnacle of college football was complete as Texas named him their 31st head coach in program history. Ten days later, he finished the job he started and helped the Crimson Tide to a resounding 52-24 victory over Ohio State in the National Championship game .
Sarkisian brings three coaches with him from Alabama – offensive coordinator and O-Line coach Kyle Flood, quarterback coach AJ Milwee and tight ends coach & special teams coordinator Jeff Banks. Sarkisian will hold the power of play-calling during games, but these relationships with prior staff will be important. Those three coaches will all be essential in helping Sarkisian build a winning culture in Austin – alongside returning running backs coach Stan Drayton and wide receivers coach Andre Coleman, Sark has a strong team in place to galvanise the Longhorns offense in the same way he did in Tuscaloosa.
Head Coaching Record
W Fight Hunger
What Sark Brings To Austin
Some of the key strengths that Longhorns fans hope Sarkisian will bring to Texas include top QB development, offensive creativity, and proven high-level performance; all things the Longhorns are desperate for. The state of Texas should in theory provide some of the most talent-rich QB prospects in the country, yet the Longhorns have struggled to truly develop any top level talent, something Sarkisian has proven to excel at.
Think about some of the biggest QB names in Alabama from recent history; Mac Jones, Tua Tagovailoa, Jalen Hurts. They all share one thing in common – they were coached up by Sarkisian. Many thought Mac Jones would be nothing more than a game manager after stepping in for an injured Tua. But he didn’t miss a beat, thanks to total confidence from Sarkisian and a tweaked offense to compliment Jones’ skillset.
Even during his inharmonious stretch at USC, Sarkisian developed talent. Cody Kessler was so good he hoodwinked NFL franchises into a decent pro career, throwing 39 TD’s and accumulating 3,826 yards in his first year with Sarkisian. Going back even further you will find household names like Keith Price, Mark Sanchez, Jake Locker, John Booty and Matt Leinart who have all benefited from learning under this offensive mastermind.
Alabama was loaded with talent – that is undeniable. And Texas certainly does not have a roster to rival them, but if Sarkisian continues to show his dominating offensive play like he did at Bama, Austin could very well be the destination of choice for offensive weapons around the country. Prospects at every position on offense will be encouraged that he can put them into a position to showcase their talents and help them to a pro career. Take a look at Devonta Smith, who many would consider traditionally too small for the NFL. He’s on the cusp of being a top ten pick, in part because Sarkisian was able to scheme him open and let his skillset shine.
The Art Of Winning
One thing assistant coaches learn at Alabama is a winning culture. Texas have lost that mindset ever since Mack Brown left town, but if history is anything to go by Sarkisian should reverse that trend. Twelve of Nick Saban’s assistants have gone on to become head coaches in college football; and most with success. Lane Kiffin and Kirby Smart have carved out impressive resumes since leaving Tuscaloosa, and both are now back in prominent roles in the SEC. On top of that Mario Cristobal (Oregon), Mike Locksley (Maryland) and Billy Napier (Louisiana) have all turned heads with promising starts to their head coaching careers.
Sarkisian is a proven coach who has already succeeded at the highest level of college football as both an assistant and head coach. His fall from grace and moments of adversity appear to have made him both mentally and physically stronger to endure the rigours of this unforgiving sport, and his dedication to self-improvement has helped him rebuild his reputation. Texas may have taken a chance on him, but it’s a calculated risk well worth taking. It will be very exciting to see how he does in Austin later this year.