USA TODAY Sports Weekly

New coach, era begin for Texas football

- Brian Davis Hookem

Sark tank: Steve Sarkisian gets his second chance as an FBS head coach under the pressure cooker of Texas.

Come Saturday, Steve Sarkisian’s backwoods journey through personal and profession­al hell will finally be complete. Once again, he will be standing on the sideline as the head coach of a true college football blue blood.

All the eyes in Texas are upon him.

“Sark has been through hard times, and he’s seen that. He’s better for it,” Pete Carroll, one of Sarkisian’s mentors, said last week after the Seattle Seahawks finished a practice. “Sometimes it’s easy to criticize that, but it’s made him a better man and a better coach.”

Sarkisian’s first game out of the box is a doozy, too. No. 23 Louisiana-Lafayette, a team loaded with returning veterans, comes to Austin after going 10-1 last year. Coach Billy Napier’s Ragin’ Cajuns have gone 21-4 the past two years.

“I guess more than anything, it’s exciting,” Sarkisian said. “I’m a really lucky guy that gets to do what he loves to do. And there’s not a lot of people that can say that in the world, and I’m one of them.”

Sarkisian told the AmericanSt­atesman in January that there was a time he wondered about ever getting a second chance. But he soon stopped worrying. “How do I be the best version of Steve Sarkisian today?” he said.

Once considered a coaching wunderkind, Sarkisian was fired by Southern Cal in October 2015 when alcohol issues surfaced. He looked untouchabl­e for a moment, but Sarkisian’s offensive mind was never a question. So Alabama’s Nick Saban first gave him a shot as an analyst, so did the Atlanta Falcons as their play-caller, and then Sarkisian went back to Tuscaloosa to help the Crimson Tide win a national championsh­ip as their offensive coordinato­r.

“Sark is a gifted football coach, and he proved that question to me way back when,” Carroll said. “His ability to handle

all of the demands that a head coach has to deal with is totally gifted.”

Sarkisian served as Carroll’s quarterbac­ks coach on the USC squad that lost to Texas in the 2005 national championsh­ip game. Carroll has always been in his corner. For Sarkisian to get two chances at Alabama was a telltale sign.

“Nick is an all-time ball coach, and he knows what he’s doing,” Carroll said. “I couldn’t agree with that endorsemen­t more. Now that he’s reestablis­hed himself in his career in college and gets his next opportunit­y, it totally makes sense to me.

“He’s going to do a terrific job” at Texas, Carroll added. “Every experience you have is beneficial; the hard ones are unfortunat­ely just as important as any of them.”

Now Sarkisian is back as a head coach, leading the most financially lucrative, equally admired and villainize­d program in college sports. It’s the equivalent of coaching the Yankees, Lakers or Cowboys. And Sarkisian

seems comfortabl­e in the spotlight.

He was the play-caller for Alabama’s title run last season, and he’ll be the play-caller at Texas. He doesn’t shy away from that responsibi­lity, either. “No, I’ll call the plays,” he said in the spring.

Texas administra­tors are banking on this 47-year-old California native lifting the ’Horns into regular playoff contention and staying there. Former coach Tom Herman orchestrat­ed four consecutiv­e winning seasons with four straight bowl wins. But his teams played for only one conference title (2018).

Texas doesn’t pay its coaches to be good. They’re paid to be great.

The Longhorns have already accepted an invitation to join the Southeaste­rn Conference in 2025, if not sooner.

“This is a monumental decision,” UT President Jay Hartzell said when the school executed a well-designed Big 12 exit plan this summer. “I believe the greatest and most exciting days for Texas Longhorns athletics

are ahead of us.”

UT System Board of Regents chairman Kevin Eltife, Hartzell and athletic director Chris Del Conte all want Sarkisian to lead the charge.

Just like Charlie Strong and Herman before him, Sarkisian is facing a major challenge at UT. Texas is the biggest job they’ve ever had while making the most money they’ve ever made in their life. Sarkisian was awarded a six-year contract worth $34.2 million.

Every coach in this position has one daily thought: Don’t screw this up.

“You always just want to make sure your team is prepared,” Sarkisian said. “You want to make sure that everything we’re doing, ultimately when that ball gets kicked off next Saturday, that our players are in position to have success.”

The quarterbac­k

Right off the bat, Sarkisian faced a massive decision at quarterbac­k. Should the Longhorns start junior Casey

Thompson or redshirt freshman Hudson Card?

Sarkisian knew what he was looking for. Once a struggling shortstop, he switched to football at El Camino (California) College and eventually became a star quarterbac­k at BYU.

The Athletic did a detailed look back at BYU’s 41-37 win over No. 13 Texas A&M in the 1996 Pigskin Classic. Sarkisian threw for 536 yards and six TDs that day in Provo. His impression on teammates is still as strong today as it was 25 years ago.

“He’s one of the best, if not the best leader I’ve ever been around,” former BYU receiver Levi Kealaluhi told The Athletic. “He had this swag about him. … I actually strive to be like him as a coach and a leader. He had this way to make us feel comfortabl­e when we knew it was on the line.”

Sarkisian finally announced Aug. 30 Card will start against the Ragin’ Cajuns. How long Card keeps the job is up to him. There are no promises for Week 2 at Arkansas.

Thompson will also play against the Ragin’ Cajuns, Sarkisian said. “And then we’ll continue to evaluate from there,” he said.

“I’ve tried to impress upon this to our team, to our staff, to anybody that wants to listen, the quarterbac­k position is the most important position in sports. I always say that, and I believe that. But it’s one position of 22 starters on our team on offense and defense.

“Everybody has a role in our organizati­on, and ultimately come game day, you have a responsibi­lity to do your job. And the quarterbac­k’s no different.”

Sarkisian said that from a defensive perspectiv­e, he didn’t think delaying an announceme­nt created much of a competitiv­e advantage.

“If the players were drasticall­y different style of players, if one guy was just a straight pocket passer and the other guy was an elite runner and maybe not

as gifted of a passer, then you’d have to prepare for knowing which one is in the game,” Sarkisian said. “That might adjust your calling of the defense. But I think most people have their schemes; they run their schemes.”

Asked if he was worried about one of the quarterbac­ks jumping into the transfer portal, he said, “I can’t worry about that. I have to make decisions that are in the best interest of the entire football organizati­on and our entire team.”

Sarkisian’s initial staff has better credential­s than Strong’s or Herman’s did, on paper anyway. Kyle Flood (offensive line) and Jeff Choate (inside linebacker­s) have both been head coaches. Defensive coordinato­r Pete Kwiatkowsk­i was the architect of some of the nation’s best defenses at Washington. Bo Davis is widely regarded as an elite defensive line coach.

“This is the third stop that Sark and I have been together,” Flood said. “One of the things about working with Sark that you realize right away, he’s the best playcaller in football. I mean that. It makes me feel good that I’m working with someone who does it at an elite level.”

Sarkisian’s first team isn’t perfect from a roster makeup standpoint. Bijan Robinson and Roschon Johnson make a terrific tandem at running back. The offensive line should be solid with veterans such as Derek Kerstetter and Junior Angilau

paving the way. But there are questions about the receivers and whether there are enough dynamic playmakers out wide.

The defensive line should be impressive, possibly the best unit on the team. Texas has plenty of veterans in the secondary. But are there enough linebacker­s besides DeMarvion Overshown? Sarkisian went after six transfers, including edge rushers Ben Davis (Alabama) and Ovie Oghoufo (Notre Dame).

On the field, Sarkisian should be fine. Off the field, it’s literally a circus.

School officials are ramping up the pregame Bevo Boulevard festivitie­s with a Ferris wheel, zip lining and more carnival games. The school is eager to unveil the new south end-zone project with a large Longhorns logo outlined in LED lights. There’s a new video board, new items at the concession stands and better antennas for cellphone use.

When Herman arrived, he wanted to know every detail down to what kind of messages were played on the stadium video board. Sarkisian’s different.

“I’m connected to it. I don’t make it a point to try to micromanag­e everybody and everything. We’ve got a great team,” Sarkisian said. “But I do take a lot of value in it, because I do think that we are the product on the field. We’ve got to make sure that we’re creating an environmen­t that is exciting. I don’t get overly involved, but I am aware of the things that we’re doing.”

Most Texas fans would probably offer clear advice: Just focus on the winning. Let Del Conte handle the rest.

It’s Sarkisian’s first game week, but Texas officials hope it’s the first of many.

Building his support staff

 ?? AARON E. MARTINEZ/AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN ?? Steve Sarkisian takes over as Texas’ head coach amid heightened expectatio­ns after a short stint at the University of Southern California.
AARON E. MARTINEZ/AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN Steve Sarkisian takes over as Texas’ head coach amid heightened expectatio­ns after a short stint at the University of Southern California.
 ?? AARON E. MARTINEZ/AP ?? Steve Sarkisian made clear that Hudson Card, above, is the starting quarterbac­k in Week 1, but the door is open for Casey Thompson after that.
AARON E. MARTINEZ/AP Steve Sarkisian made clear that Hudson Card, above, is the starting quarterbac­k in Week 1, but the door is open for Casey Thompson after that.
 ?? KELLEY L. COX/USA TODAY ?? Giants pitcher Johnny Cueto and Dodgers first baseman Albert Pujols’ teams 1-2 in power rankings.
KELLEY L. COX/USA TODAY Giants pitcher Johnny Cueto and Dodgers first baseman Albert Pujols’ teams 1-2 in power rankings.

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