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HOUSTON — Steve Sarkisian normally plays it safe when he's speaking to the media or doing fan events. Not on Wednesday, though.
The Texas football coach who showed up and spoke at the Houston Touchdown Club got Longhorns fans worked up and ready to run through a brick wall.
“The path in which we’ve taken was not the chosen one,” Sarkisian told the crowd. “Five-and-seven is 5-7. That sucks. I’ll call it like it is.”
When one fan asked how Texas would fare against Oklahoma, Sarkisian lamented his disappointment about last season’s 55-48 loss in the Cotton Bowl.
“I mean, I wish we would have got another crack at ’em last year. We screwed it up,” he said. “But we played really good football for three quarters, and we screwed it up completely.”
What about this year against the Sooners?
“I'm tired of them putting on the freakin’ (Golden) hat, man,” Sarkisian said. “I want to wear the hat. So yeah, we’ll be ready to go this year.”
What about that Alabama matchup in week two?
“They’ll be prepared,” Sarkisian said of his previous school. “They’re a good football team. They’re well-coached. I’ve got a great deal of respect for them. But one thing I know about us, we'll be prepared, we'll be organized. Our fans will be there.”
The Alabama game is expected to be an 11 a.m. kickoff on Fox. That means it’ll be a scorcher.
In a salty tone, Sarkisian said he didn't care what time kickoff will be. “Y'all just show up,” he told them.
For once, Sarkisian didn’t give a bleep about optics. Didn’t give a bleep about offending anybody, either. This was the candid, unfiltered, fire-breathing coach that reporters have heard roams the practice field and meeting rooms but never see standing behind the microphone on Mondays.
“You choose to accept the standard and the expectations of what is bestowed upon you when you become the head coach at University of Texas. So, I don’t shy away from that,” Sarkisian said. “I didn’t come here for a paycheck. I can give a crap about that. I came to hoist trophies. That’s why we’re here.”
Most Texas fan events are somewhat scripted, like a show. On the Texas Fight Tour, the host — either Longhorn Network’s Lowell Galindo or radio voice Craig Way — will ask each coach a couple of easy questions. The coaches can answer those queries directly, go off on tangents or talk about whatever they like.
On Wednesday, there was no script and no host. This was an old-school coaching luncheon, the kind Mack Brown made famous. The coach has the stage and microphone all to himself for a half-hour or more. Sarkisian has done dozens of these events over the years throughout his career.
The end result is somewhat cathartic.
“We had double-digit second half, even fourth-quarter leads, and found a way to lose the game,” Sarkisian told the crowd of about 300. “So why is that? Was that scheme? Was that physical ability? Was that play-calling? Or was it a belief? Was it a mindset?
“Clearly, we were good enough to play to get those leads, and we can execute the game plan,” he continued. “We can execute the calls. We can make the adjustments, but somewhere in there we have a glitch in what we were doing.
“So like me as a coach, I evaluate every player in our program,” he said. “I evaluate every coach. I evaluate our scheme. I have to evaluate me first, OK? I missed the mark on something a year ago that I don’t think I gave it enough credit. I don't think we were close enough as a football team when the adversity struck in season.”
Sarkisian believes he underestimated how the pandemic and the Royal-Memorial Stadium south end zone construction project would alter basic things, like team meetings and daily functions. He was hired just after New Year’s Day, had to spend weeks in a hotel and could only talk to his new players via Zoom. Sarkisian and his wife even tested positive for COVID-19, too. So that was another week of isolation.
Along the way, Austin was swallowed by an ice storm, and linebacker Jake Ehlinger’s accidental death caught everyone by surprise.
When players were allowed to start gathering again, the team had to meet in the north end zone club. Sarkisian’s temporary office also was in the north end zone. “You needed a bit of a roadmap if you wanted to come find me in that meeting with our defensive staff,” he said. Position meetings were held in the suites that fans use on gamedays.
“We had no gathering area, nowhere for our players to connect,” he said.
Sarkisian is quick to say “that’s not an excuse.” Still, every single day was a new adventure and new challenge for a first-year coach and his new assistants.
“In the midst of the ice storm, in the midst of all the crap that was going on when I first got here,” Sarkisian said. “I didn’t do enough to connect our football team to where they can be accountable to one another.”
The end result was a disjointed 5-7 season marked by incredible second-half meltdowns. Texas had double-digit, second-half leads against three ranked teams and lost all three games. A six-game losing streak ensued, and the final gut punch was an awful 57-56 overtime home loss to Kansas.
Not everything can be blamed on meeting rooms. Sarkisian was the one who chose to start quarterback Hudson Card over the more-experienced Casey Thompson against Arkansas. He also green-lit that disastrous, game-changing fake punt against Baylor.
“And inevitably when adversity struck in season in the fourth quarter, we didn’t know how to respond because we had nothing to fall back on,” Sarkisian said. “We had no ‘why.’ Our ‘why’ was, man, I’m just working hard, it’s supposed to work.
“So for us, philosophically, this is a big part of our offseason right now,” he added. “It started in winter conditioning. It went through spring ball. It’s going to be a huge component of what we do in the summer and into fall camp to make sure we are a really tight football team.”
The Horns moved back into their south end zone building as soon as it was finished last fall. Everything has been under one roof ever since. Now, they have on-field issues, like needing to find a quarterback, build an offensive line and find defensive playmakers. But team chemistry, or the lack thereof, cannot be an excuse for a disappointing 2022 season.
“Why is it so important for us this year?” Sarkisian said. “I’m going to add 36 new scholarship football players on this team, maybe 37. I only get 85. So nearly half of our football team is going to be new faces this fall when we run out of the tunnel against (Louisiana) Monroe. So as quickly as I can get this team connected, that’s the key to the drill.”
And Sarkisian left no doubt as to his ambitions.
“We’ll be plenty talented, but it’s the team that plays together that wins championships,” he told the crowd. “And that's the goal, right? That’s the goal. Come Dec. 5, I want to be in Arlington hoisting the Big 12 championship. That's it. That’s all I want.”
Texas fans in the Bayou City Event Center broke out in spontaneous applause.
This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Texas football: Steve Sarkisian gives candid speech to Houston fans