Sarkisian: Bama thoughts fleeting, Texas set for 'epic' run

Alabama begins new era under DeBoer with spring game (3:53)

Kalen DeBoer catches the Crimson Tide on the field for his first spring game, as LSU, Arkansas and Florida all spring toward next fall as well. (3:53)

AUSTIN, Texas -- Steve Sarkisian was still unwrapping Texas' breakthrough 2023 season and at the same time casting an optimistic eye toward the future when he heard the news Jan. 10.

Nick Saban, his former boss at Alabama, was retiring after a legendary career that saw him win six national championships in Tuscaloosa, the last one in 2020 with Sarkisian as his offensive coordinator.

And, yes, Sarkisian acknowledged Wednesday, the possibility of replacing Saban entered his mind.

"Naturally, I'd be lying if I said I didn't think about it," Sarkisian told ESPN. "But it took me all of about 60 seconds to say, 'Yeah, I'm not doing that.' I had an awesome two years at Alabama and loved my time under Coach Saban, but ultimately you want to reap what you sow.

"We've poured a ton into this program for three years, and we're on the cusp, I think, of going on a run that will be epic. I believe that. Our staff does, and our players do, too, just the support we have and the culture we've created here. Why leave something like that?"

Sarkisian joked that Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte was calling about the time those 60 seconds were over and added, "That's a story for another day." But it really didn't matter, because Sarkisian was right where he wanted to be.

That same goes for his Texas program, which is right where Sarkisian hoped it would be entering his fourth season on the Forty Acres and with the Longhorns making the all-important move to the SEC in 2024.

"We have to continue to build the team, and when I say team, I mean culture," said Sarkisian, whose Longhorns made their first College Football Playoff appearance last season and won their first Big 12 championship since 2009.

"We're going to be plenty talented, right? I'm not concerned about us being talented. It's making sure that we're playing at our best when our best is needed in the critical moments of games, and you play your best when you trust the guy next to you or when you can be accountable to the guy next to you and not feel like you have to go out on your own and do something out of character. We've got to live every day that way.

"I think that's something we've done a great job of over four years, and I'm not trying to be arrogant in saying that. I just believe that. I think we have the best culture in college football, but we have to recreate it every year. Culture doesn't just carry over from one year to the next."

Quinn Ewers, one of the top returning quarterbacks in the nation, said it was obvious when he transferred to Texas from Ohio State in 2022 that Sarkisian had a definitive plan for how he wanted to overhaul the roster. The Longhorns needed to add depth and skill, but more importantly, add players committed to playing for one another. Ewers said the brotherhood on last year's team was the best he has been a part of at any level of football.

"We had a lot of veteran guys, guys who had been on this team for three years, had been through the coaching change, had been through all the ups and downs," said Ewers, who will be in his third season as the Longhorns' starter. "Coach Sark came in and kept guys he wanted to keep around and said goodbye to others, but I could tell that he was building something special."

What has been noteworthy to Sarkisian this spring is that he has had enough depth to run team periods on both sides of the practice field, two-spotting as he calls it, with 1s and 2s on one end and the 3s and 4s on the other. Entering the 2022 season, 57 of Texas' 85 scholarship players were either freshmen or sophomores.

"We've never had the depth to do that the entire spring before, where you don't feel one side of the field is getting shortchanged," Sarkisian said. "Just to have the bodies to do that is different, especially when you don't feel there's a dramatic drop-off.

"Now, I feel like, 'Man, our young players might not know everything to do right now, but they're sure pretty talented,' and it shows not only on offense and defense, but really shows on special teams."

The Longhorns had a program-best 11 players invited to the NFL combine this year, another sign that Sarkisian is attracting and developing top talent. Even while losing as many as five players projected to go in the first two rounds of the NFL draft, Sarkisian has been able to restock the roster. Texas brought in several high-profile transfers, including receivers Isaiah Bond (Alabama), Silas Bolden (Oregon State) and Matthew Golden (Houston). The Longhorns' past two signing classes have been ranked in the top five nationally by ESPN.

And while Texas might not have Outland Trophy winner T'Vondre Sweat and projected first-rounder Byron Murphy II returning in the middle of that defensive line, Sarkisian thinks the Longhorns will be able to play more defensive linemen in 2024.

The Longhorns were one of only six Power 5 teams to finish in the top 15 nationally last season in both scoring offense and defense. Georgia, Michigan, Notre Dame, Oregon and Penn State were the others.

In the Sugar Bowl CFP semifinal loss to Washington, Texas rallied in the fourth quarter and had four shots at the end zone after getting to the Huskies' 12-yard line with 15 seconds remaining, but Ewers wasn't able to cash in after passing for 318 yards in the game.

"We kind of know what it takes to get where we want to go and what more we need to do," Ewers said. "Obviously, it wasn't enough, so we know we need to take that extra step whether it's on the field or off the field, but it definitely left a dry taste in our mouth."

Ewers, who prides himself on never getting rattled, said he never sweated whether his coach might be moving on when he heard about Saban's retirement. It only helped the vibe in Austin when Sarkisian sent out a social media post with a "Horns Up" image the next night, followed by reports that Sarkisian was nearing a deal for a contract extension that will pay him more than $10 million per year.

"It never crossed my mind," Ewers said. "I knew that he wanted to be here and knew he wanted to win here. He talks about it all the time. He tells us he wants to retire here and win a bunch of national championships here, and he's convicted when he says it."

That was pretty much Sarkisian's message to Saban when he told him he was leaving Alabama for the Texas job in 2020.

"I remember talking to him in his office and it was, 'Coach, I want to go build my own legacy. I don't want to just stay here to continue yours,'" Sarkisian recounted. "So those same thoughts came over me when I heard he was retiring. We're building something here that I think is going to be sustainable for a long, long time."