Everything is bigger in Texas, the old axiom goes. The oil wells, the pickup trucks and the cowboy hats. It’s a place where value is placed on size, a swaggering old ethos that’s often a way of life.
At the University of Texas, the school and athletic department began a gamble on Saturday that’s one of the biggest in recent years. They are potentially paying more than $24 million in buyout money to fire coach Tom Herman and his staff. That doesn’t count a dime for the incoming staff, just the potential payout for coaches not to coach.
First off, the timing of Herman’s firing may have been a surprise, but the result wasn’t. Ever since athletic director Chris Del Conte launched his failed courtship of Urban Meyer a few weeks back, this result was just a matter of when the call came from human resources. The timing was the only question, and Texas decided to avoid the Dead Man Walking season that Mack Brown endured in 2013.
The most compelling part of the decision is the dueling risk, which fits that bigger-in-Texas ethos perfectly. By paying out so much money, Texas officials need to be sure that the new coach offers a significant upgrade over Herman.
Steve Sarkisian will be the school’s next head coach. Sources told Yahoo Sports over the past few weeks that Texas AD Chris Del Conte had been doing background work on Sarkisian, the Alabama offensive coordinator who has authored a strong comeback after imploding his career while the head coach at USC in October of 2015.
Sarkisian returned to work at Alabama as an analyst. And after an underwhelming stint in the NFL, he came back to Alabama to be Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator. In 2017, he addressed his alcoholism on a conference call with reporters: “It’s a piece of me, this disease of alcoholism. It’s a piece of me, but it doesn’t define me.”
Texas announced late Saturday that it had hired Sarkisian, as it has been the expectation that Texas would have a coach in place if it fired Herman. That’s why Del Conte went through his protracted and clunky courtship of Meyer this fall, the start of which essentially marked the firing of Herman without the public announcement.
Here’s the first aspect of risk for Texas. This decision, as with most of the crucial decisions at the school, came from high above Del Conte’s desk. These are the same types of board members and donors who let Texas facilities atrophy to be among the worst in the Big 12 and decided Steve Patterson and Mike Perrin would be capable athletic directors. The meddling forces of Texas have contributed to the program’s long winter nap, and their only answer to problems is throwing more money at it. This is the Texas-sized barrel toss of cash.
While Texas could potentially privately raise the buyout dough or deflect and dodge the expense, it’s an atrocious look to spend $24 million to pay coaches not to coach in a global pandemic. This is especially true at a place that likes to ethically hold itself above the win-at-all cost fray. On Saturday, Texas cannonballed into the muck and settled right next to Auburn and its $21 million buyout for coach Gus Malzahn. That caliber of company will undercut any self-important rhetoric that comes out of Texas the next few years.
Del Conte returns to offices where he’s laid off 35 workers and 18% of the athletic department’s workforce, according to local reports. That can’t be a comfortable feeling walking down the halls of the office knowing administrators are throwing away money for people not to work while laying off other people to save money.
The football reasonings for firing Herman are fair, as long as the upgrade is significant. Meyer would have been an upgrade. Sarkisian comes with a middling head coaching record, a prominent moment of career self-destruction and a nice comeback story at Alabama where he’s been able to dominate with the best players. Sarkisian is a good hire, and maybe the best hire Texas could have made from the current field of coaches.
But any notion that this is a low-risk slam dunk is ludicrous. There are essentially three programs in college football that everyone is chasing – Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State. To topple them, you need massive investment, significant recruiting gains and the type of administrative alignment Texas has famously lacked. Ohio State and Alabama have been dominant in recruiting the state of Texas in recent seasons, and Sarkisian brings little experience in the state. It’d be naïve to think he couldn’t capture the state, but Texas is going to have to start performing like the consistent 10-win Texas of Mack Brown in the early 2000s to do so.
Recruits aren’t as much attracted to logos anymore. They want success. And that’s why the College Football Playoff has become a self-fulfilling prophecy of those who’ve invested the most and recruited the best.
Sarkisian got one of those potentially neon jobs in 2014 when USC surprised many by hiring him from Washington. And Sarkisian’s results at USC were poor, as he went 9-4 in his lone full season and lost to unranked Boston College and Arizona State, the type of losses that get boosters passing the hat at Texas. In 2015, days after a stunning home loss to Washington, Sarkisian got fired. He later sought treatment for alcoholism and sued USC.
That stint at USC came after a milquetoast tenure at Washington, where he went 34-29 over five years after inheriting a winless program. He won 54% of his games at Washington, while Chris Petersen won nearly 70% of his games the subsequent five years.
So here’s Texas’ play: Sarkisian has shaken his demons, learned from his time in the NFL and from Saban and can go revive a fading brand in an unfamiliar place. Sarkisian is assuredly an elite play caller, but calling plays for Najee Harris and DeVonta Smith is going to look better than Bijan Robinson and Joshua Moore.
Herman’s tenure at Texas was solid but unspectacular, as he went 32-18 (64%) and won four bowl games. He failed to win a Big 12 title in that time, and the team played with a general sloppiness — No. 117 in penalties and consistently horrific special teams — that never quite portended a trip to the elite. But he was a significant upgrade from both Charlie Strong’s 43% win percentage and better than Mack Brown’s final four seasons at 30-21 (58%).
Herman’s demise was a mix of uninspired football, extreme personality clashes and ego. The egos in Texas won out like most clashes of egos — those with the purse strings got their wish and Herman didn’t play enough politics. Or at least the proper politics. One thing Del Conte is learning through this is what a lot of Texas athletic department officials have learned over the years: The big decision comes from those with the big paychecks. And it’s up to the athletic director to own the results.
Their big wish hints at a compelling next few years. They have to deal with any backlash in Austin, where the idea of spending $24 million to pay coaches not to coach might not be welcomed.
And they’re likely choosing somebody with a middling history as a head coach and one glaring self-inflicted career implosion to push the lagging Texas brand into the sport’s top echelon.
Everything will once again be bigger in Austin, including both the stakes and the intrigue.
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