One-on-one with Steve Sarkisian: New Texas coach on his offense, addiction and second chance
California native who believes in power running football and an attack style defense to make Texas introduction on Tuesday
MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — Steve Sarkisian’s face really lights up when he's talking about one of his mentors, Pete Carroll. He spent seven years on Carroll's staffs at USC in the 2000s before finally getting his first head coaching job at Washington in 2009.
Carroll’s last lesson then is top of mind now.
“Literally, as I was walking out of the Rose Bowl — we just got done beating Penn State — and he said, ‘Sark, just one last thing: Go be you,’ ” Sarkisian said. “He said, ‘Because at the end of the day, when adversity strikes, the real you is going to come out.’ ”
Carroll hammered the point home. “You don't want people looking at you, whether it’s players or administration, saying, ‘Who’s this guy?’ ” Carroll told him. “So, go be you from the beginning.”
Sarkisian leaned back at the memory. “And that sounds easy, right? But then you have to say, ‘Well, who am I?’ ”
Over the next decade-plus, Sarkisian would ride an incredible roller coaster. He was the hotshot coach at Washington and USC who lost it all due to alcohol abuse. He had to undergo both career and personal rehabilitation and now has a second chance as the 31st head coach at Texas.
In a face-to-face conversation Sunday with the American-Statesman, Sarkisian looked relaxed and upbeat just one day before Alabama faced Ohio State in the national championship game.
As we sat in a darkened second-floor hallway, a steady hum spilled over from the Fontainebleau hotel lobby. Fully clothed Alabama fans mingled with half-naked sunbathers headed to the pool. Back home, it was snowing in Austin. In Miami Beach, it was 65 degrees with clear skies, full-blown swimsuit season in January.
Texas officials have scheduled a press conference for 4 p.m. Tuesday, once Sarkisian arrives in Austin after Monday’s game at Hard Rock Stadium.
It’s unclear whether Sarkisian will formally announce some of his staff hires, but current assistants Stan Drayton (running backs) and Andre Coleman (receivers) are likely to stay. Texas ex Blake Gideon is on track to return and work with the safeties.
Current defensive coordinator Chris Ash is in the mix to stay as well, but it’s not clear yet how the rest of the staff will shake out. “We’ve got a couple guys,” Sarkisian said. “I feel very good about it.”
Whether Texas fans feel good about Tom Herman’s firing and Sarkisian’s hiring will ultimately be determined next fall. Sarkisian inherits a team that went 7-3 but had internal issues involving “The Eyes of Texas” school song controversy and trust issues with the previous head coach. As for the players, the slate should be wiped clean with a new coach.
Sarkisian, 46, is a California-raised, definitely California-cool offensive wizard with a playbook and style that has worked at the NFL and collegiate levels. If it was good enough for the Oakland Raiders, Atlanta Falcons and Nick Saban, it should be good enough for UT.
Sarkisian is a natural conversationalist, one who puts you at ease. School officials, including UT athletic director Chris Del Conte, encourage him to tell his story. For if this works and Texas starts winning big again, Sarkisian’s road to redemption will be one of the best tales ever told in Longhorns lore.
“Hopefully, when people get to know me, they’ll think this is an authentic guy,” Sarkisian said. “They’ll think what you see is what you get; what he says, you can believe. I think I’m a compassionate person, which I think you need to be a great leader of young men.
“I think you have to have some compassion,” he continued. “But yet, you have to be hard. You have to be willing to have those tough discussions or tell people when they’re wrong, and this is what we know to get it right. But at the end of the day, there’s a lot of attributes that I think we all have, and maybe we know, and some we don’t know. But authenticity, I think, is huge.”
Making the introduction
First impressions are crucial. Herman took the taskmaster's approach during his introduction, yelling at players to “sit the (expletive) up” in their chairs at his first team meeting. He created a tier system, awarding prime rib to those who practiced and performed like “Champions” and burnt hot dogs and soggy pancakes to those who didn’t.
Sarkisian, like Herman, talked extensively about the importance of personal relationships.
“I think these kids nowadays need to know you care about them personally — not just the jersey number, not just the talent to make a play, but who they are personally,” Sarkisian said. “And not just that you have their back, but you’re there to support but also guide. And when I say guide, I mean let them know that there’s a better way. They may want to do something a certain way, but give them an alternative option and here’s why.”
The problem, if we’re going to label it as such, is that today’s college football athlete has a trust-but-verify mindset. Every athlete will soon have the ability to transfer one time without penalty, once new NCAA rules go into effect next season. Anybody who doesn’t like what he's hearing can jump into the transfer portal and be whisked away, usually to some place that’s a downgrade from where he is now.
Rivals and 247Sports check the transfer portal multiple times every day, eager to call out whoever they find and signal to rival coaches to start smiling and dialing.
“They need to know that you know what you’re talking about,” Sarkisian said. “You need to validate yourself. And that’s unfortunate in this day and age. But I think as a new coach, you kind of have to do that.”
So who is Sarkisian the football coach? He was the Oakland Raiders’ quarterbacks coach by the time he was 30 and nearly became the team’s head coach in 2007. Sarkisian took over an 0-12 Washington club in 2009 and promptly beat No. 3 USC three games in with the Huskies. He went 34-29 in five years at Washington and 12-6 in two seasons at USC.
He was an offensive analyst with Alabama and was summoned to call plays in the 2016 national championship game, which Clemson won 35-31. Sarkisian left Alabama to be the offensive coordinator with the Atlanta Falcons, and two years later, Saban hired him back at Alabama. With the Tide, Sarkisian orchestrates one of the most potent offenses in college football, unleashing Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith, running back Najee Harris and a host of other weapons against Ohio State.
“We’re happy for him relative to the opportunity that he’s created for himself by the great job that he’s done for us here,” Saban said Sunday at the final pregame press conference.
Sarkisian loves running the football, leaning on run-pass option concepts. Hello, Bijan Robinson. He wants receivers catching the ball on the move, not running curl routes as quarterbacks throw to stationary targets. Smith won the Heisman this season averaging 15.6 yards per reception and scoring 20 touchdowns, as an example.
The Longhorns should watch Monday night's game if they don't have plans to already. Watch to see when quarterback Mac Jones signals to his receivers to change their routes if the safeties creep toward the line of scrimmage. Watch how the running backs wait for blocks to develop. Keep tabs on how the Crimson Tide use their tight ends and how they disguise things through formation wrinkles.
“Clearly, we’re playing in the national championship Monday night; that whole football team will get to watch my work, right?” Sarkisian said. “And they’re going to be able to know, hey, this guy knows what he’s doing. So I get a little instant validation that way. But the personal side, that’s going to take work. You can’t just come in and drop the hammer on these guys from day one.”
Just so there’s no confusion, Sarkisian will call the offensive plays at Texas, too.
“I definitely want to be the play-caller. I will be the play-caller,” he said. “I made that mistake one year of my career (in 2015 at USC). It won't happen again, not in the near future. But the reality of it is, part of the reason Chris and the people at Texas liked me is because of the job I was doing as a play-caller. All of a sudden, why would I relinquish one of the best traits that I have?
“Hopefully, I got a few other ones up there once you get to know me.”
Learning his way around Texas
Well, that’s definitely one issue. A lot of Texans — specifically Texas high school coaches — don’t know Sarkisian.
Raised in California, he tried to make it in baseball at El Camino College but was eventually talked into playing football. Smart move. He would transfer to BYU and start soaking up knowledge from Norm Chow, later the offensive mastermind at USC. Sarkisian led BYU to a win over Texas A&M in the 1996 season opener. He wound up throwing for 7,464 yards and 53 touchdowns in two seasons.
He had a stint in the Canadian Football League but was back at El Camino coaching the quarterbacks in 2000 and then at USC the next year as a grad assistant under Chow.
Once Sarkisian’s coaching career began, he stayed mostly on the West Coast before going to Alabama. Now he will coach at the flagship school in Texas. The school logo helped former UT coach Charlie Strong, another newcomer to the state, get started. Ultimately, in recruiting, what counts is all about what happens once you're inside the high school fieldhouse.
Will the lack of Texas ties hurt Sarkisian?
“I wouldn’t say I’m worried,” Sarkisian said. “I do recognize the need to develop those relationships as well, whether that’s in recruiting, whether that’s the high school coaches, whether that’s our donors. Like I said, I'm a big relationship guy. And that takes time. But also, you have to put in the work to do it.
“You have to extend the olive branch to people to make them feel welcome, to make them feel that they can now in turn have that relationship,” he said. “And so it’s never really been a problem for me. But I do recognize that that is something — if you want to call it a hurdle — that we’re going to have to cross that hurdle.”
Sarkisian noted that you never have 100% acceptance. He hopes for 90%, though.
“If everyone’s buying into what we’re doing, why we’re doing it and how we’re doing it, that’s a really positive step for us to take,” he said.
To get full buy-in from the players, the Longhorns are going to want to know more about his offensive philosophy. There’s a 40-minute YouTube video that was posted last week of Sarkisian working a coaching clinic where he delves into the hows and whys of Alabama’s offense. Every UT offensive player should go find it.
During the presentation, Sarkisian shows various plays and at one point says plainly, “If you can’t create explosive plays, it is really hard on offense.”
Sarkisian inherits a team with three proven running backs and an offensive line that won’t see as much changeover as initially thought. There will be a quarterback battle between Casey Thompson and Hudson Card, but to hear Sarkisian tell it, that will be secondary.
“Well, I think we definitely believe in the physical brand of football. And our offense really starts with the running back,” Sarkisian said. “We are not a quarterback-driven run football team. We run the running back. And it’s about them understanding the concept of our runs, where runs should hit, understanding defense of where the ball should hit based on the defenses we’re getting.
“And then in the passing game, (the running backs) have the best matchup on the field,” he added. “You can create matchups with those guys to get them the ball in a variety of ways, whether it’s in the screen game, wheel routes, option routes, there’s a bunch of ways to get them the ball. So the touches for the running back are really important to me, because I do think it sets an identity for your team.”
The importance of power running ties back to Sarkisian as play-caller. When the entire team knows who’s calling the shots, the offense has confidence. When the running back runs hard, the offensive line will block even harder. Strong line play helps everything. The end result is winning football.
“When that guy has the mental and physical toughness to persevere, that the players know, there’s almost a sense of confidence the way we run the football, the way we line up behind, next to the quarterback, that we’re in good shape,” Sarkisian said.
An ‘attacking style’ defense
So what about the defense? Texas used a three-man defensive front the first three years of Herman’s tenure. Once Big 12 offenses figured it out, they blew right through it. The Horns went to a four-man front last season under defensive coordinator Chris Ash and made real progress.
Ash is being considered to remain as defensive coordinator. Sarkisian was mum on anyone specific, only to say that he did speak with Will Muschamp, who wasn’t ready just yet to jump back into the fray after being let go by South Carolina.
Sarkisian said he’s not married to any specific alignment. In this day and age, he said, “You have to have the ability to do both.”
“I definitely think we should have an attacking-style defense, one that plays with tremendous effort,” Sarkisian said. “One that is disciplined. One that stops the run. If we’re preaching running the football, you have to be able to stop the run.
“Coach Saban talked about it the other day in his press conference. You’ve got to try to minimize your explosive plays that the other team gives you,” he continued. “You have to get stops in the red zone. And you have to create turnovers. So that’s where the attacking style, for me, comes into play.”
Sarkisian will find that Texas has explosive playmakers on offense. DeMarvion Overshown, Josh Thompson and Keondre Coburn headline a group of talented defensive players. This team has talent. It’s a locker room built by three straight top-10 recruiting classes.
But maximizing the talent, squeezing the most out of who’s in this locker room, has been the issue.
“Well, I think that’s the developmental piece, right?” Sarkisian said. “I mean, we pride ourselves in being a tremendous developmental program. And not only on the field, but off the field in the classroom.
“That starts in the weight room,” he said. “It starts in the classroom, and in the meeting room, of really teaching football the way we want it to be taught. And then that’s on the football field in knowing what to do, how to do it, and why we’re doing it.”
Then Sarkisian dovetails into coaching theory. Close your eyes while listening, and it could easily be Saban talking about his well-known philosophy, “The Process.”
“Everybody wants to win every Saturday at 3:30, right?” Sarkisian said. “I mean, we want to win Monday night at 8 o’clock. Everybody wants to win. We have to minimize the focus of the end result and focus on the task at hand throughout the process to get ourselves to the end result.
“That’s a little bit of the shift that’s going to have to occur,” Sarkisian added. “Some things may seem minimal. Some things may seem mundane, but there’s a rhyme and a reason to why we’re doing what we’re doing on a daily basis, so that we can get the result we want down the road.”
Rebuilding his life
Sarkisian isn’t even having this conversation if not for mental shifts in his own life.
His downfall at USC, fueled by alcohol abuse, has been well-chronicled. He wasn’t afraid to talk about it Sunday with the Statesman and will probably be well-equipped to talk about it in recruits’ homes whenever the topic arises.
Sarkisian was sent home by USC administrators midway through the 2015 season and eventually fired. He sued the school over wrongful termination but lost in court. Sarkisian was out of the game for 11 months and almost went into TV work with Fox. His friend Lane Kiffin helped get him on board as an analyst with Alabama in 2016.
If you’ve ever known anyone going through addiction, you know it’s an ongoing topic. Sarkisian said he goes to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and frankly, it’s an issue that some athletes and college students in general might be quietly battling themselves.
“I am proud to be part of the program,” Sarkisian said. “And again, I have to be careful how I say this, because it is Alcoholics Anonymous, right? But I'm proud to be part of the program, because those people in that program are trying to better themselves, so that they can be better for the people around them. And sometimes I think that gets missed.”
Does he go to meetings regularly? “Yes, regularly,” he said.
“Clearly, my story is not anonymous. People know my story,” Sarkisian said. “But I am also sensitive to what the program is supposed to be about.”
Texas officials aren’t going into this blind. They understand the risks, two high-ranking UT sources told the Statesman. Every UT coach signs a contract that includes language about morals and behavior. For example, Herman’s said a coach could be fired in part for “conduct that the University administration reasonably determines is unbecoming to a head coach.”
Sarkisian is expected to sign a six-year contract worth more than $30 million, according to a UT source. However, the contract has not been formally approved by the UT System Board of Regents.
“I know the work that I’ve put in personally,” Sarkisian said. “My head is not in the sand that we don’t have players on our roster that maybe are dealing with some of the same issues. What a resource I can be for them.
“I think it is something that I don't shy away from in recruiting,” he added. “So that a parent knows, you know what, this is a man who has been through a lot in his life, who has persevered. And now, I have real-life experience. It's not fictitious of what I'm talking about. It’s very real life."
Sarkisian, married and a father of three, said he doesn’t believe in punitive punishment.
“I do think there is something to be said about being rehabilitated and to be something for these young men,” he said. “Yeah, they’re going to make mistakes; that’s what 18- to 22-year-old kids do. But can I teach them a better way? Can I be there for them? Can they open up to me because I open up to them? That's where all of the personal relationship comes.”
Was there a time Sarkisian thought he would never get a second chance to be a head coach?
“I did, but then I went into this mode of I don’t know if it’s going to happen again, but I’m not going to focus on that. I'm going to focus on today,” Sarkisian said. “How do I be the best version of Steve Sarkisian today? Then tomorrow, hopefully, I’m better tomorrow. And then so on and so forth.
“I think it's changed my perspective as a coach and how I deal with our players,” he said. “I think it’s affected how I call plays. I think it’s affected how I treat people. There’s been a lot of kind of a shift in Steve Sarkisian from 2015 now to 2021.”
You just try to keep learning, keep evolving, Saban always tells his staff.
“He jokingly says there’s a reason dinosaurs aren’t here anymore,” Sarkisian said. “They couldn’t adapt. Kids have changed. Our profession has changed. I clearly have changed. But you need to change with the times, and I’ve taken a lot of pride in that.”
A memorable night with Mack
Finally, Sarkisian recalled a time from early in his career when he learned a lesson in how you treat people. It was the coaches’ dinner before the 2005 national championship game. He remembers Carroll sat with Texas legend Darrell Royal. He also remembers how Mack and Sally Brown treated him, a self-described “young, punk assistant coach.”
“He was so gracious, they were so gracious with me,” Sarkisian said. He reminded Brown of that dinner last week when they spoke by phone about Sarkisian getting the Texas job. Even from North Carolina, Brown still supports whoever’s steering the battleship back in Austin.
“I told him that on the phone,” Sarkisian said. “I said, ‘I never forgot that conversation. That always left an impression on me. That’s how you should treat people. And that’s how you should treat young assistant coaches.’ He didn’t know me from Adam. And he treated me just so graciously. That was 15 years ago. But yeah, I definitely remember the conversation.”
Sarkisian was the USC quarterbacks coach that fateful night in the Rose Bowl. So, yeah, about that game …
“Being on the other side, I remember more so us not making the fourth-and-2,” Sarkisian said. “We went for it. We were a very aggressive team that year. We went for and didn't make it.”
Enough time has passed that it doesn’t sound so heartbreaking now. Texas quarterback Vince Young’s famous touchdown run on fourth-and-5 clinched a magical 41-38 national championship victory.
“It was almost like they had so much momentum, how was the guy not going to score?” Sarkisian recalled. “But it was an iconic play for college football; it was an iconic play for Texas. At the time, I remember being in the locker room saying we didn’t win, but I was glad I was part of that game.”
Sarkisian’s life would truly come full circle if he can guide Texas to the College Football Playoff and win another national title. Right now, fans would just settle for winning the Big 12. The school hasn’t won its own conference since 2009.
Sarkisian points out how this year’s team lost its three games — a goal-line fumble late against TCU, a four-overtime game against Oklahoma and a missed field goal at the end against Iowa State. It’s a competitive team that’s not far from being championship caliber.
Not being from Texas and not knowing much about Longhorns history might actually help. Sarkisian isn’t battling the ghosts of Royal or Fred Akers. He’s not trying to be Mack Brown, either.
He’s just “Sark,” a man eager to start writing the greatest comeback coaching story in college football.
“I think we’re going to have a brand of football that they’re going to be excited about,” Sarkisian said. “It’s going to start with discipline, on and off the field. It's going to be an attacking style, one that’s built on mental and physical toughness, accountability, commitment to the program.
“It’s one that you’re going to see a team play unified as one. And one that every Texas fan is going to be able to say, ‘I’m proud of my team. And that’s our football team. And I can’t wait till next Saturday to watch them again.’ ”