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No masks, all football: Texas' Steve Sarkisian returns to normalcy with Houston fan event

Sarkisian to Touchdown Club: “I feel very comfortable in this role of wearing this hat of being the football coach at the University of Texas”

Texas coach Steve Sarkisian handled questions about the quarterbacks, the transfer portal and preseason prognostications Wednesday during an appearance at the Touchdown Club of Houston.

HOUSTON — Most of Steve Sarkisian’s view of Texas has been through a pinhole-sized laptop camera. The last five months sure have gone by fast, most of it a drag on Zoom. 

But Sarkisian came striding into the Bayou City Event Center on Wednesday wearing a crisp jacket and tie, ready to shake hands and take photos with UT fans.

It was a typical offseason college football event and, considering everyone’s been cooped up for Lord knows how long, it was tremendous.

“How’s everybody? In person. This is great,” Sarkisian said to start his first in-person press conference since becoming the Longhorns head football coach on Jan. 2. When he hit the stage, the lunchtime crowd of nonmasked UT supporters gave a hearty standing ovation.

“This is our first public speaking engagement (outside of Austin),” Sarkisian told the crowd. “To be out and about again, this feels so good.”

These summertime fan events are a minefield all their own, a special kind of torture for the uncharismatic. The location doesn’t matter as long as the mic is hot. 

Texas fans in Fort Worth may still be choking from 2014 when new coach Charlie Strong told too much truth about his rebuild. “Don’t say, ‘Ooh, coach said next year we’ll be in the national …’ We will not be in the national championship game,” he said at Joe T. Garcia’s restaurant.

More:Four months in, Texas’ Steve Sarkisian: ‘I know we’ve got a competitive group’

Tom Herman, having learned from his predecessor, always played it safe on UT’s rubber chicken circuit. Sarkisian, no stranger to these events, knows how to handle audience firecrackers, too. “The Alabama football players,” a grizzled UT fan stood up and shouted, “they ever go to class?”

The former Alabama offensive coordinator laughed it off. But other questions among the crowd of just under 250 were no laughing matter to this crowd.

How about these two quarterbacks?

“Casey Thompson and Hudson Card, both very talented guys,” Sarkisian said. “Different stages in their career.”

Who are the leaders on the team? 

Sarkisian mentioned center Derek Kerstetter, running backs Roschon Johnson and Bijan Robinson and tight end Cade Brewer. On defense, he touted defensive tackle Keondre “Snacks” Coburn, LSU transfer Ray Thornton and defensive backs Josh Thompson and Jerrin Thompson.

Texas running back Roschon Johnson has said he is more comfortable with his position and the offense under first-year coach Steve Sarkisian.

So, about those running backs, one fan pondered, “You ever thought about having a two-back offense?” (This pro-Darrell Royal crowd most definitely approved of the concept.)

“I don’t know if we’ll go to the Wishbone this fall,” Sarkisian said. “I know coach Royal would like that. But I will say I believe in playing our best players. I believe in putting our best players in a position to be successful. If that means both of them on the field at the same time, then you’ll probably see them on the field at the same time.”

How challenging is it to be the head coach and offensive play-caller?

“To me, that’s the norm because that’s just what I’ve done,” Sarkisian said. Although he noted that fans are sharp enough to know good calls from the bad ones. “That one worked; that one didn’t.”

Texas Longhorns running back Bijan Robinson breaks away from the Colorado Buffaloes during the Valero Alamo Bowl in December. Coach Steve Sarkisian pointed to Robinson and Roschon Johnson as offensive leaders.

Sarkisian didn’t delve into team specifics or reveal anything about the depth chart. Asked beforehand how much had been solidified this spring, Sarkisian said, “I really don't think anything is solidified. We're a competition-based organization, and I don’t want anyone to feel comfortable.”

Asked about the transfer portal, Sarkisian said he wants to use it for specific needs. “Do we have a need at a position where that player can fulfill that need for the short term while we develop a younger player?” he said. 

That’s probably a good answer since NCAA rules allow for on-campus recruiting visits to restart on Tuesday. Recruiting should be a three-ring circus this summer everywhere.

He also dismissed those trafficking in preseason prognostications. Most magazines hitting newsstands have Oklahoma picked to win the Big 12, followed by Iowa State and then Texas.

“I’d say those things are irrelevant,” Sarkisian said. “I mean, I don't know. I wish those people that would make those predictions would come out at the end of the year and then (we) give them a grade how many right/wrong they got.

“The reality of it is, we’re going to compete our butt off,” he said. “We’re going to prepare really well, nobody’s going to work harder. Nobody’s going to prepare better. And come every Saturday, we want to be the best versions of ourselves, want to put our best foot forward and make sure we put ourselves in position to win football games in the fourth quarter.”

Sarkisian kept on trucking — all gas, no brakes, as it were.

“And then have the football IQ to handle those special situations when they present themselves in the fourth quarter games, which is to take the next step,” he said.

Sarkisian told the crowd that he and his wife Loreal just moved into their house. They’d been living in the AT&T Conference Center on campus. That’s where he's been doing most of his Zoom calls with reporters, fans, school administrators, whomever. 

“The TV is terrible,” Sarkisian said with a laugh. But he said the tube did have Longhorn Network. “I got to watch all of our spring sports. What a run!” He then tried to rattle off the lengthy list of spring success but admitted, “I know I’m probably leaving somebody out.”

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“If you want to be inspired, that was one of the most inspiring five months to me,” Sarkisian said. “It’s a standard of excellence. And that’s what the University of Texas is about. It’s about winning championships.”

In a larger sense, Sarkisian knows what he’s signed up for. The questions will get tougher, and the applause will ebb and flow. But the coach left no doubt he understands the role at “the flagship” university in Texas.

“I recognize accepting this job, there come expectations to what we expect the results to be,” Sarkisian said. “I feel very comfortable in this role of wearing this hat of being the football coach at the University of Texas.”

Contact Brian Davis by phone or text at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com or @BDavisAAS.