COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 02 Big 12 Championship Game - Texas vs Oklahoma State
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NEW ORLEANS -- Texas is "back." Debates have raged at various times over the last decade whether the Longhorns are "back" and what "back" entails for a program that is rich with tradition and resources, but the program's first-ever College Football Playoff appearance puts those conversations to rest. 

As No. 3 Texas prepares to compete for a national championship, beginning with Monday's Sugar Bowl semifinal against No. 2 Washington, what's become more apparent is how coach Steve Sarkisian and this 2023 Longhorns team has reached the status of championship contenders -- which, to be clear, is "back" for Texas football. 

It all started when Sarkisian arrived in 2021 and conducted a diagnostic test, of sorts, for a program that had gone more than a decade without winning a Big 12 title and had just one 10-win season over the prior 11 years. 

"We have an adage that culture beats talent. But culture and talent combined is extremely dangerous," Sarkisian said earlier this week. "So when you take over a program, you're trying to figure out where are your issues, what are the issues. I don't think anybody ever felt like our issue was a lack of talent or lack of resources."

The issue, Sarkisian explains, was culture. It was the need for the Longhorns to feel connected as players and coaches to the point they're playing for each other. One approach Sarkisian took to address that was to push the program to a point of honesty. He was able to set the standard from the top. 

"I've always given my story every year," Sarkisian said. "Where I'm from, how I was raised, where I went to school, where I worked, why I went to rehab, all the things that has transpired in my life to get me to this point so that they could get to know Steve [Sarkisian], the man, as well as the coach. 

"And I was hopeful that that would open the door to them to want to become vulnerable, to want to be honest with one another so that they could have some empathy for one another for what someone has been through to get to this point in their life. And that just started it."

Culture is a buzz word used in nearly every introductory press conference for an incoming coach, but Texas has invested in making it part of every single week. Culture can't just be a sign in the weight room, a slogan on a t-shirt or one day during training camp if it's going to stick for maximum impact. It has to be something that grows and evolves with a team every single week. 

And Sarkisian believes that commitment to culture has played out on the field, with the impact made obvious in how Texas has improved on the margins every single year of his tenure.  

"I believe [culture] does relate to football," Sarkisian explained. "I believe that it equates to getting a fourth-down stop against Kansas State. I believe it relates to a third-and-12 conversion against TCU. I believe it relates to a fourth-and-1 stop against Houston. In those tough moments that you can count on one another, rely on one another, that it's not just about me. It's about everybody doing their part." 

Credit has been given to players from prior teams for setting the standard -- players like Bijan Robinson, Roschon Johnson and D'Marvion Overshown taking to the coaching of culture and accountability. Johnson and Overshown were in attendance for the Big 12 title game win, and Sarkisian said it was important for them to share in that championship as they were instrumental in turning the program around early.

In 2023, that sticky culture has created an environment where the list of team leaders extends far beyond a small circle. 

"The biggest change on our team, Sarkisian explained. "is that we don't have 115 guys looking at three to lead them. I feel like we've got 30 to 40 true leaders on this team now that's kind of spread throughout. And guys are holding each other accountable on a much different level than we were a year ago at this time." 

One of those true leaders is senior defensive tackle T'Vondre Sweat. The Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year was part of that 5-7 season in 2021 and described a hungry team that is "never going to let that happen again." Sweat also points to the attitude shared by the team's younger players who weren't a part of that 5-7 season but have taken to the culture in a way that's helped power the Longhorns success.   

"What really stands out is the young guys. I give all kudos to the young guys. They came in hungry," Sweat told CBS Sports this week. 

Sweat mentioned freshman defensive back Malik Muhammed, sophomore defensive back Terrance Brooks, freshman wide receiver Johntay Cook and freshman running back Cedric Baxter in particular. 

"They're stepping up, playing a big role on this team, they're hungry. I think the young guys, coming in, ready to play, want to win." 

Texas has a roster that has been built to contend for championships, but that's been the case before. Getting the Longhorns "back" required adding culture to that talent, and getting that accomplished has made Sarkisian's program one of the most dangerous in college football.