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Texas coach Steve Sarkisian faces on-field losses, off-field chaos in his first season

Texas (4-7, 2-6) ends regular season Friday vs. Kansas State hoping to avoid going into 2022 on seven-game losing streak

Steve Sarkisian was chock full of emotion on Jan. 2, the day he rose to the highest point in his professional life. “I’m excited. I’m honored. I’m pumped. I’m humbled to be named the head coach of the University of Texas.”

Hollywood wouldn’t even script what happened over the next 11 months.

Texas (4-7, 2-6 Big 12) must win Friday’s regular-season finale against Kansas State to avoid finishing the year on a seven-game losing streak. That hasn’t happened at UT since 1956.

Should the Horns win, there’s a slim chance they could make a bowl game with a 5-7 record. But it depends on which other teams win or lose and how many open bowl slots are still available after all the six-win teams get their bids.

Sarkisian isn’t worried about a bowl, although getting 15 extra practices would be nice. He’s thinking about 2022 and beyond. He desperately wants this to work.

Looking ahead:Quarterback, pass rush, offensive line depth, injury: Plenty of issues ahead for Texas Longhorns

More:Texas seniors playing for pride in this woebegone 4-7 Longhorns season that can’t end fast enough

Texas coach Steve Sarkisian and his players celebrate their 58-0 win over Rice on Sept. 18. The team has won just two games since, losing six in a row before facing Kansas State in Friday's regular-season finale.

“I'm built for it. I think that’s how I feel. I'm built for this,” Sarkisian said Monday. “There's a lot that comes at you. And I think my level of perseverance, my level of compartmentalizing some of the issues that we've been faced with, hopefully, is a direct reflection of how our team deals with some of the things that we've been faced with.

“Ultimately, a lot of the things that we’ve been through this year, I think are actually going to be really good for us, that have hardened us for potential things that are going to come down the road for us.”

This was not a normal year, not even close, even by Texas’ circuslike standards.

The pandemic kept Sarkisian away from his new players, the coach himself was diagnosed with COVID-19 in January, and an ice storm kept everyone locked at home. Then came the tragic death of Jake Ehlinger in May, and Sarkisian led his team into Riverbend Church for an uplifting 90-minute service.

Then this summer, Texas and Oklahoma started a series of chess moves to jump to the SEC by 2025 — moves that nearly destroyed the Big 12. Nobody from UT should ask Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby for a favor anytime soon.

Then the real games started. Arkansas bullied Texas into submission. Texas made a quarterback change and got false hope with blowouts of Rice and Texas Tech and a gritty win at TCU. Then came three straight losses after the Horns led by double digits in the third quarter. Iowa State dismantled UT in the third, too.

“I can’t envision that we’re going to have another year exactly like this with some of the things that we’ve been faced, some of the heartbreaking losses, some of the things that have occurred off the field,” Texas coach Steve Sarkisian said this week. “But what I do know is if, and, or, when some things arise again, I think that our team is now built for it as well.”

Losses to Kansas — Kansas, one of the worst teams in college football — and West Virginia have just added insult to injury.

Along the way, Sarkisian had to deal with embarrassing TMZ-level stories, like one involving a pet monkey and another of a leaked video from the team bus. As one Texas administrative source said at the time, “This comes from the you-won’t-believe-this department.”

Words like “Monkeygate” and “the Bo Davis video” are now a permanent part of Texas football lore.

In more serious matters, Texas ex Brian Jones went on local radio and said boosters are pressuring Sarkisian into decisions that are “crossing color lines.” Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte told the American-Statesman that Jones’ accusation was “absurd.” Sarkisian said those comments were “a little unfortunate.”

“I wish Brian would have reached out to me before making those comments,” Sarkisian said in response. “I can tell you guys, clearly, no donor has ever told me anything to do or suggested anything to do.”

For his part, Jones has gone silent.

This doesn’t even begin to address how Sarkisian handled the quarterback situation with Casey Thompson and Hudson Card. Did he make the wrong decision by starting Card initially then switching too late against Arkansas? Should he have gone back to Card when Thompson’s thumb injury became a problem?

Texas quarterbacks Casey Thompson, right, and Hudson Card have both had turns starting for the Longhorns this season. Card went 1-1 to open the season before Thompson took over in mid-September. Texas has gone 3-6 under Thompson.

Injuries started piling up, as did player frustrations. Receiver Joshua Moore blew up at Sarkisian and quit the team with three games left. It’s expected that others will hit the transfer portal not long after the season ends.

Throughout, Sarkisian has maintained an even-keel approach with reporters, rarely snapping at sharp questions presented in respectful ways. How he handles himself in press conferences goes a long way toward shaping how fans view him, too.

“I can’t envision that we’re going to have another year exactly like this with some of the things that we’ve been faced, some of the heartbreaking losses, some of the things that have occurred off the field,” Sarkisian said. “But what I do know is if, and, or, when some things arise again, I think that our team is now built for it as well.”

Multiple Texas players, at least the ones made available to reporters, have defended Sarkisian at every turn.

“This team will do a lot. It's just a rebuilding process,” senior defensive end Jacoby Jones said. “I just want to tell the fans, ‘Don’t give up on us; don’t give up on them.’”

Sixth-year offensive lineman Tope Imade said: “We believe in Sark, and we believe in the direction this program is going. Obviously, the record doesn’t show that, but every single one of us in our locker room believe in Sark.”

Running back Bijan Robinson is expected to make a full recovery from a dislocated elbow suffered against Kansas. He admitted that some have advised him to sit out the 2022 season and just focus on the 2023 NFL draft. No way, he said.

“It’ll just be hard for me to sit out and watch week to week while I could be out there contributing,” Robinson said. He’s planning on coming back, running hard for the Longhorns.

There are major problems to address, no question. Sarkisian said the Horns must develop a pass rush, find more depth on the offensive line and get healthy. He said the team could have 33 new players next season through recruiting and the transfer portal.

Maybe he should fire some assistant coaches? There’s also a school of thought that the continuous change in recent years is a big reason Texas has become mediocre.

Texas coach Steve Sarkisian has identified three keys for the offseason: finding and developing a pass rush, improving depth on the offensive line, and getting players healthy for the spring.

Sarkisian said before the season, “This team has talent.” But it looks more like a total rebuild.

Sark’s ability to turn things around or at least make inroads toward that goal in 2022 will determine whether he truly has long-term staying power at Texas.

“The reality of it is we’re in year one. Did it go exactly the way we wanted to? No,” Sarkisian said. “If this was year four and we had multiple losses and we weren’t competing for a conference championship, then I would be really concerned, right?

“But we’re in year one,” he stressed. “We’re in the building phase of where we’re headed as a program.”

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

Texas vs. Kansas State

When: 11 a.m. Friday

Where: Royal-Memorial Stadium

TV: Fox

Radio: 104.9, 99.3, 98.5