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Bohls: Texas, Del Conte hoping big gamble on Sarkisian pays off

Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian takes the field for team warmups before the Nov. 28 win over Auburn; Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban missed the game because of COVID-19 quarantine, and Sarkisian acted as head coach.

Texas just rolled the dice.

Big ones.

There are questions.

Did Texas just fire Tom Herman and hire Tom Herman 2.0? Or did the Longhorns just land a budding star in the best offensive mind in college football and a motivated man eager to make amends for some past troubles?

Who knows? Besides, Herman was supposed to be a sure thing, wasn't he? And the confetti to celebrate all his Big 12 championships is still in the bags. There are no guarantees.

Just more than two weeks after Chris Del Conte weakly endorsed Herman as the Longhorns head football with the most ambiguously worded release in history but told reporters he would return in 2021, the athletic director fired the unpopular, fourth-year head coach and hired a much-celebrated, highly regarded assistant coach on Saturday.

Welcome to the meat grinder, Steve Sarkisian.

Sarkisian, who becomes the third head coach since Mack Brown to try to restore Texas to national prominence, isn’t just any assistant coach. He's the man of the hour, a confident coach who has coached on the big stage and in the NFL and now hopes to make good on the faith bestowed in him.

In fact, he may be the most capable assistant coach in college since he’s the offensive coordinator for the best program in the nation at Alabama. He was just awarded the Broyles Award as the best assistant in the country, and as recently as Friday night helped coach the No. 1 Crimson Tide to a lopsided CFP semifinals win over Notre Dame for a date with Ohio State in the national championship game on Jan. 11.

Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian talks to players during a 2019 game against Southern Mississippi. He was hired Saturday  as Texas' head coach.

But still he’s an assistant, and that raises a number of questions. Texas isn't a place for on-the-job training, and some thought Herman, like David McWilliams years before, didn't have enough seasoning.

In one of the most un-Texas-like moves ever, the school chose to make what could be a lateral move by plucking a top offensive coordinator with a largely unproven track record as a head coach and a checkered past to be the new face of the Texas athletic program. It's a sobering thought, to be sure.

He's a good coach. Great? We'll see.

In a late presser, Sarkisian talked about winning championships and instilling discipline and toughness and hiring the best staff possible. Asked what the outside perception of Texas has been, he said, "The biggest thing is what's wrong? Why isn't Texas in the CFP every year? Nobody really knows."

Exactly.

From most accounts, Sarkisian has a brilliant offensive mind, works well with others, recruits well, has atoned for mistakes like a drinking problem that sent him to rehab but cost him his last head coaching job at USC and comes with Nick Saban's blessings. That's pretty stout.

Lord knows a lot of former Saban assistants from Texas A&M's Jimbo Fisher to Georgia's Kirby Smart are doing just fine of late. Fisher's even won a national title. But does Sarkisian scare Fisher and Oklahoma's Lincoln Riley?

And in so doing, Del Conte bet his own future on a 46-year-old Californian who hasn’t been a head coach since 2015 when he was fired at midseason. “This is a career-defining move by CDC,” said a prominent school official.

Quite the gamble.

And maybe a questionable one since Sarkisian, for all his merits, doesn’t pass the initial eye test as a serious upgrade over Herman. We know Del Conte spoke to other candidates for the job before pulling the trigger, but he has mishandled this from the start.

Steve Sarkisian, then the head coach at USC, congratulates Trojans cornerback Adoree Jackson during the 2014 Holiday Bowl against Nebraska. Sarkisian was fired midway through the 2015 season.

To make this move after a 7-3 record and days after a blowout bowl victory is mind-boggling. Clearly, Del Conte wasn’t alone in making this decision and may have had to be pushed in this direction because he has staunchly preached stability and was responsible for giving Herman a two-year extension just two years ago. And he has long claimed he looks at a candidate’s “body of work” as a main criteria. Sark has a 46-35 record in seven seasons with one losing season and three 7-6 years, although in fairness he was rebuilding a Washington program that sank to 0-12 before his arrival.

Longhorn Nation now has to put its faith in a truly outstanding play-caller and developer of quarterbacks who is also a recovering alcoholic, a failed coach at two prominent programs at USC and Washington and a coach who was fired by the Trojans for drunken behavior and fired as offensive coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons after a two-year stint.

So, I ask. Does Nick Saban come with Steve Sarkisian?

We kid although Texas tried before but couldn’t land the best coach in the history of organized sports when Mack Brown submarined the process and the Texas president and athletic director wanted no part of a marquee coach who would be bigger than the university.

Texas tried again when it hotly pursued Urban Meyer in a fishing expedition, but he wouldn’t come because he wanted too much power and because he had health concerns with a brain cyst.

The Longhorn fan base also has to trust the decision of an athletic director who in the last two months has lied or at the very least strongly misled Herman and recruits who signed in mid-December as well as the media that covers this program and depends on him to be truthful. So much for transparency.

So why didn’t Del Conte just fire Herman some time after the Kansas State game and let defensive coordinator and former Rutgers head coach Chris Ash serve as interim coach at the Alamo Bowl?

Oh, and why did he choose to do it on the same day that Shaka Smart had his biggest win in his six seasons over Kansas and steal the moment from him and his outstanding basketball team?

The blunder of that timing was monumental. 

But here's hoping Sarkisian is as smart and high school coach-friendly and motivated and organized as there is.

Still, it's a risky hire that doesn't totally move the needle, but let's hope Del Conte got it right. Hey, the last guy Texas hired with Washington in his background turned out OK, even if Darrell Royal was just 5-5 in his one year there. He wasn't proven yet either.