Getting in the ballgame with the nation’s best recruits is why Texas took a shot on Sarkisian, despite years of evidence that he does not stack up among the elite coaches in college football.
With its wide-open checkbook, its endless arrogance and its desperation to be relevant in football after more than a decade of mediocrity, it was easy to scoff at Texas’ decision to hire Steve Sarkisian at the end of 2020.
This was not landing a home run swing like Dabo Swinney or a surefire program-changer like Urban Meyer. Sarkisian had already been a head coach at two schools and not particularly successful at either stop. He’d been run out of the NFL after an unremarkable two years as the Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator. A rehab stint at Alabama put him back on the radar, but let’s be honest: The next offensive coordinator to fail under Nick Saban will be the first.
Couldn’t Texas, with all of its ego and money, do better than this?
But for all the knocks on Sarkisian as a coach and program builder, he’s always been able to do one thing at an elite level — maybe the most important thing. The man can undoubtedly recruit.
And with one decision Thursday by a certain high schooler with a famous last name, that $34.2 million contract Texas gave Sarkisian makes a whole lot more sense than the day it was signed.
Hiring coaches is hard, even for Texas. The Longhorns have gotten it wrong (David McWilliams, John Mackovic, Charlie Strong, Tom Herman) far more than they’ve gotten it right with Darrell Royal and Mack Brown.
But getting in the ballgame with the nation’s best recruits is why Texas took a shot on Sarkisian, despite years of evidence that he does not stack up among the elite coaches in college football. When you land a quarterback prospect like Arch Manning, it’s a whole lot easier for the rest of the pieces to fall into place.
From the beginning of Manning’s recruitment, it was clear that he had a special relationship with and affinity for Sarkisian. The question was whether he’d actually have enough confidence in Texas’ future to sign on with a program that went 5-7 last year and lost to Kansas.
Pressure is always going to follow Manning by virtue of his pedigree and his talent, but it would have been easier to blend in — and perhaps safer for his long-term goals — if he’d jumped on board an already established juggernaut like Alabama or Georgia. Clemson, which has turned Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence from blue-chip prospects into national champions and first-round draft picks, would have been a logical choice. He could have stayed home at LSU or followed in the footsteps of one of his uncles at Tennessee or Ole Miss. There was even a moment where Notre Dame looked like a contender.
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In reality, Manning’s career destiny would probably be the same whether he went to McNeese State or Southern Cal. But if he can transform Texas from the butt of jokes to a real national title threat for the first time since 2009, it would make him one of the most legendary players in the history of the sport.
That’s not the easiest sales pitch in this day and age for someone like Manning, who was not going to make a decision based on a name, image and likeness deal or what campus could offer him the most fun on a Friday night. If you take the Mannings at their word, this was going to be a football decision, a relationship decision and a long-term decision with the ultimate goal being the NFL.
For Sarkisian to pull this off in the face of real competition from the best coaches and programs in the country says an awful lot about his ability to get things done on the recruiting trail.
It’s not easy to just snap your fingers and get players. Since the advent of the College Football Playoff, recruiting at the highest level has been a self-perpetuating cycle with the best players flocking to the small handful of schools that have been in the championship mix year after year.
Not many coaches could do what Sarkisian has pulled off already, landing what 247 Sports ranked as a top-five incoming class for this fall. With Manning as the cornerstone of the 2023 class, it’s a virtual certainty that other elite recruits will follow.
Talent procurement is, without question, the most important skill for any college football coach at the highest level. You can win games with good development and scheme, but you can’t win championships without a critical mass of five-star prospects.
At the same time, there are no guarantees. Plenty of quarterbacks don’t live up to the hype, and programs with loads of talent can go sideways for all kinds of reasons. That’s going to be the ultimate test for Sarkisian, who is just 51-42 overall as a head coach despite leading three big brand name programs in Washington, Southern Cal and now the Longhorns.
Texas was well aware of the record and the reputation for underachieving when it hired Sarkisian. But the Longhorns and athletics director Chris Del Conte made a big bet that Sarkisian would put them in the best position to compete for talent, which will become even more important when the Longhorns move from the Big 12 to the SEC likely in 2024 or 2025.
It’s clear now they were right about that in a big way. Now all he’s got to do is win. With prospects like Arch Manning in the fold, that just became a whole lot easier.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken