Washington, Texas meet in Sugar Bowl CFP semifinal behind coaches with very different career paths

FILE - Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian talks to his team during the first half of an NCAA college football game against TCU, Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023, in Fort Worth, Texas. No. 2 Washington and No. 3 Longhorns meet Monday, Jan. 1, 2024 in the Sugar Bowl in a matchup of offenses known for aggressive and creative play calling. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File) (Julio Cortez, Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

NEW ORLEANS – Wearing matching smiles and dark blue suits, Washington coach Kalen DeBoer and Texas’ Steve Sarkisian shook hands and posed for a photo with the Sugar Bowl trophy their teams will play for Monday night.

They are newcomers to this stage, with career paths that could not be more different: DeBoer methodically climbing from the lowest levels of college football; Sarkisian, the prodigy whose meteoric rise was waylaid by personal demons.

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For both, there were times when leading a team to the College Football Playoff hardly seemed like a realistic goal.

“We don’t have to stay where we are in life,” Sarkisian said Sunday.

That goes not just for the coaches but their programs. Three seasons ago, Washington and Texas combined to win nine games. Last year, they faced each other in the Alamo Bowl. On New Year's Day, the second-ranked, Pac-12 champion Huskies (13-0) and third-ranked, Big 12 champion Longhorns (12-1) will play for spot in the national championship game.

“It’s going to be a great game. What a setting for college football, prime-time Monday night with all eyes on us,” Sarkisian said.

Sarkisian, the former BYU quarterback, has spent most of his coaching career in the spotlight. At 27, he was quarterbacks coach for Pete Carroll at Southern California. After briefly jumping to the NFL with Oakland, he was a candidate to become the Raiders' head coach in his early 30s before taking the Washington job in December 2008 at the age of 34.

The Huskies were coming off a winless season. Sarkisian went 34-29 over five years, before going back to USC as head coach.

“I think it shaped who I am today for those five years that I got a chance to have there,” Sarkisian said.

In 2015, barely a season and a half into his USC tenure, Sarkisian was fired for cause because of a drinking problem and ended up in rehab. He wondered if he had thrown away a promising career.

"I was out of work. Couldn’t get an interview, never mind a job, never mind thinking about the College Football Playoffs," Sarkisian said. “I think that’s what makes part of this journey with this team this year probably so gratifying.”

He was fortunate to get an opportunity to be an off-field analyst at Alabama, where his longtime friend, Lane Kiffin, was offensive coordinator. Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban's stamp of approval helped Sarkisian get back on the fast track.

Sarkisian became offensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons for two years before returning to Alabama as offensive coordinator and helping the Crimson Tide win the national title in 2020.

Texas came calling after that, giving Sarkisian, now 49, a chance to be a head coach again.

“So it’s fascinating to think of the journey ... I’ve been on, to get to this point. But I’m hopeful that my story can serve as some sort of motivation to others,” he said.

While Sarkisian was entertaining NFL offers, calling plays for a dynasty and becoming a Pac-12 head coach in his 30s, DeBoer was busing to games, coaching in blizzards and building an impressive resume about as far away from the big time as one can get in college football.

DeBoer became head coach at Sioux Falls (South Dakota), his alma mater, in 2005 and over five seasons went 67-3 with three national championships. It wasn't that DeBoer didn't aspire to do more. He felt he had it good where we was.

“I started at the NAIA level, that was all I knew, right? So I think it was just all about enjoying coaching, enjoying competition, working to win national championships and be the best at the level you are at,” he said.

“You always kind of looked at these moments, these games when it came to New Year’s Day, and I never felt like there was something I couldn’t do. You wonder what that road is going to look like for you to go from small-college football to getting to this point at Power Five-level?”

The road included five stops in 12 seasons, taking a small step up each time. DeBoer got his first taste of Division I football at Southern Illinois, in the lower-tier Championship Subdivision, as offensive coordinator. Then it was two seasons at Eastern Michigan, two at Fresno State and one at Indiana before returning to Fresno as head coach in 2020.

Washington lured him to the Pac-12 in 2021 and in two years there he is 24-2. DeBoer, the AP's coach of the year for 2023, is 103-11 in nine seasons as a head coach, heading into the biggest game of his career.

"There should be a few butterflies and probably more of an excitement to get to kickoff," he said. “I think having done this for so many years, you get to that first snap, that first play, and then you just kick into coach mode, player mode, and you’re back to doing what you’ve done for hundreds of games."


Washington and Texas have played five times previously, the last three in bowl games — and most recently just a little more than a year ago.

The Huskies won the Alamo Bowl 27-20 last season, with Washington jumping out to a 27-10 lead early in the fourth quarter and then holding off the Longhorns.

Both quarterbacks are back from that game. Texas' Quinn Ewers threw for 369 yards and a touchdown and Washington's Michael Penix Jr. went for 287 and two scores. The difference was the Huskies running for 158 yards to Texas' 51.

A year later, the Longhorns are one of the toughest teams in the country to run against at 80.5 yards per game. Their defense is anchored in the middle by All-American T'Vondre Sweat and second-team All-American Byron Murphy II.

"You can just see the growth and development of the football team (Sarkisian is) overseeing, and the staff’s obviously done a great job there," DeBoer said.


Follow Ralph D. Russo at https://twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP and listen at http://www.appodcasts.com.


AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/college-football

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