The Pac-12’s talent pipeline has been under siege for years, but a new threat orchestrated by an old friend is rapidly emerging — and it could make the ongoing challenges seem harmless by comparison.
Within weeks of being named head coach at Texas on Jan. 2, Steve Sarkisian made his intentions clear in triple-whammy fashion.
He hired Jeff Banks, a former Washington State punter with recruiting ties throughout the Pac-12 footprint.
A few days later, he hired Pete Kwiatkowski, the highly respected Washington defensive coordinator.
Then Sarkisian delivered a gut punch, securing a commitment last weekend from the top quarterback on the West Coast in the class of 2022: Maalik Murphy, the five-star prospect from Serra High School in Gardena, California.
As if the Pac-12 doesn’t have enough trouble keeping top prospects at home, it now must deal with a threat uniquely qualified to plunder.
Sarkisian, the former Washington and USC head coach, will pursue the best West Coast recruits with insider knowledge of the terrain, a massive budget, unlimited resources, nonstop flights to Austin and a campus culture compatible with the California ethos.
“It’s almost like he’s preparing to coach in the Pac-12 with the (assistants) he’s bringing in at Texas,’’ 247sports national recruiting analyst Brandon Huffman said.
“It’s clear he’s out for blood with USC and Washington, and Oregon, too.’’
Sarkisian left Washington for USC in 2013, then was dismissed by the Trojans two years later during a battle with alcoholism.
He declined to discuss the specifics of recruiting against his former employers Monday in an interview with the Hotline.
“I’m just trying to recruit in a way that’s best for us here,’’ he said. “The key component for us is to take care of home, and that’s the state of Texas. That will always be our focus.
“But history tells us that Texas has done well on the West Coast all the way back to Ricky Williams. And clearly, I have a connection to the West Coast.
“When I look at the West Coast and California, it’s really about what impact the player can have … To maybe put it a different way, the potential to be a first-round draft pick.”
For example: Murphy. The six-foot-five Pro Style quarterback from Serra had scholarship offers from at least seven Pac-12 programs, according to 247sports, plus Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia and LSU. Last weekend, Murphy became Sarkisian’s first five-star commitment since his arrival in Austin.
Serra is located in Gardena, a city of 60,000 jammed between the 405 and 110 freeways, just a few miles up Western Avenue from Sarkisian’s hometown of Torrance.
“Sark understands this area really well — he knows what to look for and where to look,’’ said Serra coach Scott Altenberg, whose program produced former USC stars Robert Woods, Marqise Lee and Adoree Jackson.
“It helped him when he was at Washington, it served him well at Alabama, and it will help him at Texas. It certainly did with Maalik.”
The Pac-12 has been fending off marauders, with varying degrees of success, since well before a mega-prospect named Ricky Williams left San Diego for Austin in 1995.
For the most part, however, the recruiters were based in South Bend and Lincoln, Columbus and Ann Arbor.
But in recent years, with the Pac-12 struggling to compete for College Football Playoff berths, the plundering has increased. And it’s not just the traditional Midwestern powers with alumni bases on the West Coast and ties to the region through the Rose Bowl.
Now, the blue bloods from the SEC and ACC are targeting coveted prospects like tailback Najee Harris (Alabama) and quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei (Clemson).
“It’s all changed,” Banks, the UT assistant, told the Hotline two years ago while at Alabama. “It’s a little weaker, a little more (opportunity) for national people to come in and take guys.”
The perennial playoff contenders aren’t focused solely on California — the expanding talent pools in Seattle, Phoenix and Las Vegas have forced the Pac-12 to defend multiple fronts.
In 2019, five of the top-10 recruits in the conference footprint signed with programs in other leagues.
In 2020, six of the top eight prospects in the footprint — all of them carrying five-star ratings — signed elsewhere, including tailback Bijan Robinson (Tucson), who picked Texas.
“Kids are a lot more comfortable getting on a plane,’’ Sarkisian said. “Why that is, I don’t know, but they’re doing it. There’s a comfort level. One kid goes, then two kids decide to, and then 10 kids decide to take the step. It makes it more attractive.
“I remember when we were at USC” — during his years as an assistant coach under Pete Carroll — “and Florida State came in and signed Lorenzo Booker (Oxnard). And Notre Dame got Jimmy Clausen (Thousand Oaks).
“So it’s not abnormal (for players to leave), but it seems more frequent right now, for whatever reason.
“We have to take care of home first. But we’ll take advantage of our strengths, and history shows West Coast kids like coming here.”
Sarkisian recruited the West Coast during his tenure as Alabama’s offensive coordinator, luring away Mater Dei (Santa Ana) quarterback Bryce Young after the five-star prospect had committed to USC.
“That was huge for Sark, and it made you think, ‘Uh, oh. What would he do if he had his own program,’’’ said Huffman, the 247sports national analyst who’s based on the West Coast.
“He’s such a familiar face. He’s still known out here by a one-syllable name.”
The one-syllable name now commands a football program that’s the pride of an athletic department with a $200 million budget, which is second nationally to Ohio State, according to USA Today, and 50 percent more than the largest budget among the Pac-12’s public schools (Washington).
Sarkisian can dangle nonstop flights to Austin from the West Coast in front of parents and pitch the culture of a progressive city to recruits.
“ (Sarkisian) was recruiting Maalik hard at Alabama,” Altenberg said, “but I didn’t think Maalik wanted to go. Alabama was far, and it was different.
“Texas is far, too. But the city of Austin feels like California, much more than Tuscaloosa or Clemson does. It has a different vibe. They can do well with California kids.”
The Pac-12 is doing its best to counterpunch. USC, Arizona State and Cal all signed four-star projects from Texas in the class of 2021, and the Trojans just added Bryan Carrington to their staff.
Carrington “played a crucial role for the Longhorns’ recruiting efforts,” according to the 247sports site that covers Texas recruiting.
But the Pac-12, which has struggled to keep pace with the Power Five and patch its leaky pipeline, now must deal with one of its own.
And when he touches down at LAX or SFO or SeaTac and checks his list of five-star targets, Sarkisian won’t need GPS to find their front doors.
“Not all of our resources will be spent on the West Coast,” he said, “but they’ll be allocated in a way that fits our program.”