Politics

Texas Longhorns Football Is in Free Fall, and It Still Hasn’t Hit Rock Bottom

Say this for the Texas Longhorns: no one does a dumpster fire of a football season as spectacularly as UT. Once allegations of racism were injected into the conversation last week—along with bumbling administrators, overbearing boosters, soft players, and the longest losing streak since the Eisenhower administration—practically every box had been checked.

The way the wealthiest and arguably the most arrogant and entitled program in college sports has become an absolute clown show has been a work of art on multiple levels. In this awful sense, no team in college football is more entertaining, and trust me when I tell you that dozens of coaches and administrators around the country are enjoying the spectacle.

Remember when Texas A&M bolted for the Southeastern Conference in 2011 after the school lost trust in its longtime rivals from Austin because of the creation of the Longhorn Network? UT officials privately disparaged both the Aggies and the SEC at the time, saying that if the Longhorns ever jumped conferences, UT would consider the Big Ten or Pac-12 because of stronger academics.

But the SEC? UT officials sniffed that they would never jump in with those hillbillies. A&M officials never forgot those comments and were furious earlier this year when SEC officials happily accepted Texas’s and Oklahoma’s requests to join the league by 2025.

Didn’t Texas boast about having more power than anyone? Didn’t Texas say it could join any conference it wanted? So why leave the conference that tied so many other Texas schools together? Texas officials knew that leaving the Big 12 might leave Texas Tech, Baylor, and TCU with no major conference affiliation. And if UT wanted out of the Big 12, why leave for the conference it once disparaged?

Whether Texas officially departs the Big 12 after three months or three more years, the discord between UT and the state’s other major-conference schools will be more intense and more personal than ever before.

Seething that the SEC had happily accepted its most bitter rival over its objections, A&M officials have watched with glee this season as the Longhorns football team (4–7) has imploded, with a six-game losing streak and no bowl eligibility as it enters Friday’s season finale against Kansas State.

Where’s the bottom? It wasn’t losing to a Kansas team that had lost 204 of its last 211 Big 12 games before the Jayhawks swooped into Austin two weekends ago and beat the Longhorns 57–56 in overtime.

Texas has perfected the art of losing a certain way. The Longhorns blew double-digit leads in losses to Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Baylor. Then came three ugly defeats against Iowa State, Kansas, and West Virginia. ESPN’s College GameDay crew piled on too, pointing out that Texas had spent $24 million to get rid of former head coach Tom Herman and his staff after the 2020 season, then dropped another $34 million on Steve Sarkisian and his new staff.

“What’d they get for $58 million?” chortled ESPN’s Lee Corso. “Texas got a five-game losing streak for the first time in 65 years. Holy mackerel!”

Last week, between the Kansas and West Virginia losses, UT’s free fall reached a new low. Athletic director Chris Del Conte issued an awkwardly timed “vote of confidence” in Sarkisian after the Kansas loss, despite being well aware of all the ways his words could come back to haunt him. He apparently decided that silence would be even worse. Then Kevin Eltife, chairman of the UT System Board of Regents, attended practice on Wednesday to tell Sarkisian that the administration remained supportive, according to the Austin American-Statesman.

Del Conte couldn’t leave well enough alone and made matters worse by sending an email to fans in which he claimed that Texas lacked talent. Of all the hundreds of things that have been said about Texas football through the years, lack of talent has almost never made the list. Nor should it. UT’s last four recruiting classes were ranked fourteenth twice and fourth twice by Rivals.com. In that same span, Kansas hauled in classes ranked forty-fifth, forty-ninth, seventieth, and forty-eighth.

Del Conte wrote in the email that nearly half of the players from the 2018 and 2019 recruiting classes—25 of 53—were no longer in the program. He offered those numbers to explain why Texas had little depth and not enough talent, and suggested this was the cause of so many blown leads. He offered zero context, and, upon further inspection, his numbers don’t hold up. For instance, Oklahoma has seen 21 of its 47 recruits from the same two classes depart—almost the same rate as Texas. Say what you want about the Sooners’ national championship chances, but UT fans would surely take an arguably overrated 10–1 season over a historic losing streak topped off with a home loss to Kansas.

The roster turnover numbers are indeed high, but that’s how college football works these days, with athletes using the transfer portal to shop around for the best opportunities for themselves. Besides, many of the Longhorns’ problems—especially missed tackles and blown assignments—have little to do with a dearth of talent. Such poor execution is on the coaches.

Soft? Oklahoma ripped through Texas for 339 rushing yards. Oklahoma State, Baylor, and Kansas all ran for more than 200 yards. Overall, the Texas defense is allowing 438.7 yards per game. Only two Big 12 schools, TCU and Kansas, have been worse. Only Oklahoma State and TCU have earned more penalties than Texas. Those factors reflect a lack of toughness, along with, perhaps, a lack of talent.

Still, to fire Sarkisian after one season would be ridiculous, to say nothing of the millions of dollars in buyout payments UT would still owe the coach. Despite this dismal season, Sarkisian will still get his share of top recruits because enough of them want to come to Texas. His larger challenge will be creating a culture of resilience, something that has been missing for a long time.

Perhaps Del Conte and the others should let Sarkisian and his players speak for themselves. They’ve offered not a single excuse, saying only that they can and must get better. To watch Sarkisian handle all of this is to believe he will turn things around. Perhaps talent isn’t the problem as much as a culture in which players have not been held accountable often enough.

Texas needs a housecleaning, and Sarkisian said he expects an influx of talent via recruiting and transfers in 2022. Unfortunately, the program’s three biggest areas of need are among the most difficult to fill—at quarterback, and in the offensive and defensive lines. One solution could be to get better quarterback play. A great signal caller can make up for plenty of sins elsewhere on the field. This season, neither Casey Thompson nor Hudson Card has been that kind of player. Texas has only one incoming quarterback recruit at the moment, a four-star commit from Southern California named Maalik Murphy.

But the transfer portal is likely to generate plenty of quarterback movement after the season. Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler has gone from Heisman Trophy front-runner to second string and is expected to continue his career at another school. How would he look in a Texas uniform?

Finally, on Friday, former Texas linebacker Brian Jones went on Austin radio and said he knows of five or six “heavy-handed donors” pressuring Sarkisian to play certain players based on their race. Asked to elaborate, Jones said: “I don’t want to be a detriment to that program, and therefore I’ve decided not to share that. At some point, I may be forced to put that out there. But I’m not going to do it.”

Del Conte and Sarkisian denied there’s been pressure from donors to field any players because of race. “That’s completely untrue,” Del Conte told the American-Statesman. “None of that’s true. That’s the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard. Absolutely absurd.”

Sarkisian addressed the issue on Monday. “It’s a little unfortunate,” he said. “I wish Brian would have reached out to me before making those comments. I can tell you guys, clearly, no donor has ever told me anything to do or suggested anything to do.”

As of now, there’s no telling if Jones’s comments will reveal an explosive controversy within the program or if they’ll be filed away with all the other rumored problems plaguing UT football. In the meantime, Longhorns fans are left wondering about the team’s situation: Why aren’t they winning? And why has the program’s swoon lasted so long? In twelve seasons since losing to Alabama in the 2009 national championship game, the Longhorns have only once finished a season ranked higher than nineteenth in the Associated Press top 25.

Texas is 52–46 in eight seasons since showing Mack Brown the door after the 2013 season. That’s eight seasons with an average record of 7-6. Jones, in his radio appearance, also said Alabama coach Nick Saban warned Sarkisian not to accept the UT job. This was the theme ESPN’s analysts echoed on Saturday.

“It’s gonna take time,” ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit said. “It’s a matter of does Texas have the patience it’s going to take.” He called Sarkisian “the right guy, in my opinion.

“He needs to chase away the players that don’t want to be part of his culture and go recruit players who want to be part of the foundation and get back to being Texas.”

Texas hasn’t been that for a long time. Or maybe that old definition of “Texas” has just been replaced with a new identity. Because for the past several years, the Texas Longhorns have been synonymous with dysfunction.



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