Texas Longhorns put their trust in offensive guru Steve Sarkisian

Steve Sarkisian's patience as an offensive playcaller was surpassed only by his patience over the past year when other schools would come calling.

After being hired at Texas to replace Tom Herman, who was fired on Saturday, Sarkisian's patience will be tested by a job that's often defined as much by its off-the-field challenges as the ones it faces on Saturdays.

"The X's and O's part is a minor thing at that place," a former Texas assistant coach said Saturday. "Most everybody that walks in there are good football coaches. It's the rest of the stuff that makes it hard."

Sarkisian has taken an already explosive Alabama offense to another level. The Crimson Tide averaged a school-record 47.2 points per game in 2019 in Sarkisian's first full season back as Alabama's offensive coordinator. This season, Alabama topped that mark with an average of 48.2 points per game to rank second nationally.

As Alabama coach Nick Saban told ESPN recently, good defense doesn't beat good offense anymore, and Sarkisian's offenses the past two seasons have been a stark reminder of that -- making him one of the hottest commodities in college football and ultimately the coach Texas zeroed in on to steer the Longhorns back to an elite level.

"There's a lot of talent on this team," Sarkisian told reporters Saturday night. "I think there's championship talent on this team. Clearly, there's work to be done or a change wouldn't be made."

Herman went 32-18 in four years at Texas, including a 10-4 record in 2018. Overall, he is 54-22 as a head coach, including two seasons at Houston. Sarkisian is 46-35 as a head coach in five seasons at Washington and part of two seasons at USC. His best season as a head coach was going 9-4 at USC in 2014 before his career was derailed by off-field issues. In August 2015, Sarkisian sought treatment after he said he mixed alcohol and medicine before a school event. In October of that year, he took a leave of absence after sources said he arrived at the team facilities appearing to be intoxicated. He was fired later that week.

But after an education in the Saban coaching school while rewriting the record books at Alabama, Sarkisian was at the top of several schools' search lists a year ago and turned down the Colorado head-coaching job. He had SEC suitors, as well, a year ago, and declined overtures from Auburn about its head-coaching job last month.

A former head coach at USC and Washington, Sarkisian could afford to be selective. After all, he was making $2.5 million per year as Alabama's offensive coordinator, coaching great players and playing for championships.

In a word, Sarkisian was waiting on a big one before he ventured back down the head-coaching path again, and Texas qualifies as a big one.

While the resources and recruiting base in Texas make the job alluring, those factors don't always translate to success. Since winning the first Big 12 title in 1996, the Longhorns have won just two more, in 2005 and 2009. Oklahoma, meanwhile, just won its 14th, including its sixth in a row, one of the reasons the Longhorns are hiring their third head coach since the resignation of Mack Brown in 2013.

Charlie Strong went 16-21 in three seasons and was fired in 2016. Herman won more frequently, but his 32-18 record included a 1-4 mark against Oklahoma and home losses this season to TCU and Iowa State.

"We all want Texas to be back," Sarkisian said. "We all believe Texas should be back. That's why I'm taking this job. But the reality of it is we have to put in the work. And then when you put in the work, then you get the outcomes that you desire."

Off the field, controversy around football players staying on the field for "The Eyes of Texas" threatened to overshadow their season, particularly after the loss to Oklahoma, when quarterback Sam Ehlinger was the only player who remained on the field for the singing of the alma mater. Athletic director Chris Del Conte issued a statement not long after that he expected players to stand together for the song.

For years, coaches from Darrell Royal to Brown have talked about the importance of keeping all the boosters aligned, with both repeating a favorite Royal analogy of opening a box of BBs and having them scatter all over the place, then scrambling to trying to get all the BBs back in the box.

It's easier said than done.

"The BBs were out of the box when we got here," Brown told a UT publication in 2018. "We got them back in the box. Then they got back out of the box, and this place is so crazy with attention and rumors, some people don't necessarily want you to make it, so it's much more difficult."

The dysfunction returned this season with a very public flirtation with former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, followed by reports that Meyer had declined the job. On Dec. 12, Del Conte released a statement saying that he wanted to "reiterate that Tom Herman is our coach," before firing Herman three weeks later following a 55-23 victory over Colorado in the Valero Alamo Bowl as Texas finished 7-3 on the season.

Sarkisian's résumé suggests that the Longhorns can expect to see the kind of explosive offense that has defined the Big 12.

One rival SEC defensive coordinator told ESPN that Sarkisian's penchant for creating mismatches is one of the things that separates him as one of the top offensive minds in football.

"He's a great formulator of mismatches, whether it's creating mismatches with personnel or maybe something as simple as motioning one way and getting everybody sucked in and then running play-action," the defensive coordinator said.

"It might be schematic or just creating an actual physical personnel mismatch and then setting that up. He's a master at that."

Another defensive coordinator said Sarkisian's patience as a playcaller is a lost art.

"Most people get ahead of themselves and they can't set it up, but [Sarkisian] is very methodical in the way he dissects you," the defensive coordinator said.

One of the things all programs are looking for, especially in this age of high-octane football, is a coach who can develop quarterbacks. Mac Jones, once an afterthought at Alabama while waiting his turn behind Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa, led the country in passer rating this season while throwing 36 touchdown passes and just four interceptions. Jones is a finalist for the Heisman Trophy.

For years, Texas struggled at finding the next great quarterback. Ehlinger, who has started for four seasons at Texas, stabilized the position and allowed the Longhorns to rebuild the quarterback room but has since announced he is heading to the NFL draft. He has the option to return in 2021 under a blanket waiver that the NCAA provided to all players, which allows them to compete this season without it counting against their eligibility because of circumstances stemming from the coronavirus pandemic.

His backup, sophomore Casey Thompson, played a nearly flawless game in relief of an injured Ehlinger on Tuesday night in the Alamo Bowl, completing 8 of 10 passes for 170 yards and four touchdowns. Hudson Card, a sophomore next season, was a highly touted recruit who was No. 40 in the ESPN 300.

While Ehlinger has been good, he hasn't been Colt McCoy or Vince Young. Southlake (Texas) Carroll quarterback Quinn Ewers, the No. 1 recruit in the 2022 class, was committed to Herman at one point but decommitted and is now pledged to Ohio State. One of Sarkisian's challenges will be trying to flip Ewers back to Austin or find another elite quarterback recruit.

"One of the things he's so good at is that he's had three quarterbacks that played their best when they played for him, and that's hard to do," the first SEC defensive coordinator said.

Granted, Sarkisian has had elite talent on offense at Alabama, as evidenced by two of the Heisman Trophy finalists this season -- DeVonta Smith and Jones -- being a part of that Crimson Tide offense.

"He does have some really good tools to work with, but don't take that away from him as a designer and a playcaller," the SEC defensive coordinator said. "It's not his fault he's got all those players, because that dude can call a game."

Sarkisian's playcalling prowess is documented. But Herman's offenses as a coordinator at Ohio State and head coach at Houston were prolific, too. Herman also had a decade of recruiting experience at smaller schools in Texas, and had been a graduate assistant at Texas under Brown, and it still wasn't enough.

What Sarkisian has learned about managing a program at Alabama since his tenure at Washington and USC will be the biggest factor.

When Brown was hired in December 1997, then-Longhorns athletic director DeLoss Dodds spoke about the need to unite the fractured fan base.

"We need to put our alumni constituencies back together," Dodds said. "They need to pull for the University of Texas during good times and in bad times. They need to understand how important it is that we all be together behind the football coach and team because that means something to us in recruiting and to the players on the field."

That's Sarkisian's biggest challenge.

Sam Khan Jr. contributed to this story.