AUSTIN, Texas — Steve Sarkisian left his job as an Alabama assistant to be the head coach at Texas in January 2021 and quickly blazed a 735-mile trail from Tuscaloosa to Austin for others to follow.
The core of his offensive coaching staff made the trek and a handful of players looking for fresh starts or more playing time have been trickling in ever since. Sarkisian has three top assistants who were on the Alabama sideline when the Crimson Tide won the 2020 national championship.
Is he building Alabama West? The early returns – a 5-7 season in 2021 – have so far been rather un-Bama like.
Sarkisian and the Longhorns (1-0) have a chance to make a statement. The No. 1 Crimson Tide (1-0) play on the road against their future SEC opponent, which is hoping the success Sarkisian experienced in Tuscaloosa can finally rub off in Austin.
Sarkisian often credits Alabama’s Nick Saban as a major force in restoring his coaching career after he was fired at Southern California midway into the 2015 season and went into alcohol rehabilitation treatment.
Working under Saban first as an analyst in 2016 and then returning as Alabama offensive coordinator in 2019 and 2020 allowed Sarkisian an insider’s view of what Saban demands from his staff, as well as what he could demand from himself.
Sarkisian has said quite frankly that Saban saved his career.
“I owe so much to him, and I will never, ever forget that he and Ms. Terry have been tremendous in my life and my wife’s life and what they’ve done for us on and off the field, I owe them a great deal,” Sarkisian said at Big 12 media days in July.
The praise continued this week as Sarkisian prepared to face his former mentor for the first time from the opposite sideline.
“We could be up here for hours talking about things that I learned from him … and what he’s done for guys like myself,” Sarkisian said, also recalling the sting of Saban’s rebukes when something went wrong.
“If he’s yelling at you, you probably didn’t reach a level of expectation. When you can meet his expectations, you are doing something right.” Sarkisian said. “I loved my time with him.”
And when it was time to build his own staff, Sarkisian wanted assistants forged from the same fire that shaped him.
This group of coaches left a program that won eight Southeastern Conference championships in the 13 years since Texas last won the Big 12. Alabama has won six national titles since 2009.
Their first season in Austin produced the program’s first six-game losing streak in 65 years. “Patience” was the word around campus.
Saban this week praised his former assistant and has called Sarkisian one of the finest coaches he’s ever had on his staff.
“I think he’s a very bright guy, very well organized,” Saban said. “He did an outstanding job when he was here.”
Saban shrugged off a suggestion that having so many former Alabama staffers at Texas would give the Longhorns an advantage in drawing up their game plan.
“We’ve seemed to play several teams now that kind of know us, but you act like we don’t know them,” Saban said. “So just because somebody knows you when they play you, doesn’t mean they’re going to beat you.”
Texas has three former Alabama players on the roster this season. All were once highly-coveted recruits out of high school and Texas has proven an attractive landing spot, although none has made a major impact yet.
Tailback Keilan Robinson may be the fastest player on the team, but he’s third on the depth chart behind preseason All-American Bijan Robinson and Roschon Johnson. His biggest contributions so far have come on special teams, with a blocked punt last season and blocked punt return for a touchdown last week against ULM.
Billingsley caught 17 passes and three touchdowns last season, but he’s serving a six-game NCAA suspension for an undisclosed violation that Sarkisian said occurred while at Alabama.
Hall was one of the top receiver recruits in the country but caught just four passes last season as a freshman and was suspended by Saban in April. After a quick transfer to Texas, he was expected to be a feature player in the Texas passing game, but he ran into more trouble when he was arrested for misdemeanor criminal mischief and was suspended for the first game.
Hall has been cleared to play this week. but it’s unclear how much time he’ll see against his former team.
“It’s great to have him back and going with us and having him be part of our program,” Sarkisian said. “Proud of the work that he did to get himself back.”