Among the multitudes of coaches who wanted to land quarterback Arch Manning, the top 2023 recruit who committed on Thursday to Texas, A.J. Milwee had a workaround.
When coaches were allowed to be on the road for the six-week spring evaluation period, the 36-year-old Longhorns quarterbacks coach would arrive at the weight room of Isidore Newman School in New Orleans before anyone else. He’d even beat Manning’s coach, Nelson Stewart.
“When A.J. came down this spring two times, he turned the lights on in the weight room,” Stewart told The Athletic this week. “That’s how early he got there.”
Texas and second-year coach Steve Sarkisian won Manning’s commitment with a relentless effort in building the relationship, on top of making a strong first impression and selling a promising vision for the future. One of the most closely watched recruitments in history culminated when the grandson of Archie, son of Cooper and nephew of Peyton and Eli, announced his decision on Twitter.
— Arch Manning (@ArchManning) June 23, 2022
Coming off a disastrous 5-7 season, the Longhorns pulled off a recruiting win that may be as meaningful and consequential as landing Vince Young, who was also the No. 1 overall recruit in the country, in the 2002 class. The Longhorns outlasted SEC powers and recent national champions Alabama and Georgia in the process, with Manning taking official visits to all three programs this month.
Stewart detailed to The Athletic this week an inside look at the efforts Sarkisian and his staff put in to earn Manning’s pledge.
Building an ‘authentic’ relationship
When Manning made his first visit to the Texas campus last June and met Sarkisian for the first time, Stewart said, it was as if the pair already knew each other. At that time, Stewart said, “no staff, no coaches have worked harder than Coach Sark” in building a relationship with Manning.
Over the course of the past year, the relationship was maintained. Sarkisian and Milwee found the perfect balance of staying in consistent contact and showing Manning that he was a priority while also giving him the space to make a defining decision.
— Texas Football (@TexasFootball) June 23, 2022
Stewart said he heard from Milwee often, whether the coach was in another part of the country recruiting, stuck in an airport or making a long drive. He joked that he talks to Milwee more than his own wife and called him “a star who will only rise.”
Milwee and Sarkisian spoke with Manning weekly. The demeanor of Milwee, a former QB at North Alabama, analyst at Alabama and offensive coordinator at Akron, earned trust from the Mannings.
“He is as real and authentic and regular as possible,” Stewart said. “We don’t just talk about football. … The way that he carries himself, everybody likes him. There’s no ego with A.J.”
Sarkisian prioritized Manning. He was the only quarterback the Longhorns offered, while Alabama took a commitment from fellow Louisianan Eli Holstein and Georgia had offered others as well. Sarkisian had no public backup.
When asked how long he was willing to wait for a quarterback commitment in May, Sarkisian said “I don’t panic,” indicating he’d wait as long as necessary, even if that meant into the fall, which is well after most power programs secure a quarterback commitment.
“We pride ourselves on the ability to develop the relationships with the kids, their families,” Sarkisian said then. “You earn trust. If I didn’t feel good about a situation, I would go in another direction.”
Stewart said it spoke volumes of Texas’ commitment to Manning that they put all their chips in with him. And there was never a push from the Longhorns for Manning to decide within a particular timeline.
And it wasn’t just Sarkisian and Milwee doing the legwork. Stewart said special teams coordinator and tight ends coach Jeff Banks and secondary coach Terry Joseph also put in a lot of work.
“I really admire and respect the way they’ve gone about this,” Stewart said. “They really are about the kid and the relationship. There’s never negative recruiting. It’s all about positive experiences and what they’re doing. They’re really special.”
Texas made a terrific first impression. After the 14-month pandemic-induced dead period lifted last June, Manning hit the road to visit multiple campuses. When he visited Texas, the Longhorns wowed him.
Sarkisian and Milwee dialed into Manning’s football acumen by talking about the offense and going through details of the offensive installation. “Arch is a football junkie,” Stewart said. “He loves it, he loves consuming it. The presentations have to be clean, the language, all that.”
Stewart said Milwee’s football IQ is “off the charts. He has a beautiful football mind.”
Like most top recruits, Manning got a golf cart tour of campus and a hard-hat look at the $175 million end zone facility, which was still two months from completion. He performed in a camp with some of Texas’ top receiver targets, including 2023 receiver Johntay Cook, and exclaimed afterward that those were the fastest receivers he’d ever thrown to.
Manning and his family loved Austin, Stewart said, and Arch even said it reminded him of his hometown, New Orleans. “That was the first thing that resonated,” Stewart said.
There were multiple Texas legends on campus during the visit, including Young and Heisman Trophy winner Earl Campbell. Arch met Campbell, a Pro Football Hall of Famer who was NFL teammates with Arch’s grandfather, Archie Manning, in the early 1980s. Campbell called Archie about it after the visit.
Every time Arch called Stewart on FaceTime during the visit, “he always had a smile on his face,” Stewart said.
Everyone in the Manning clan came away impressed.
“You could tell Sark and A.J. put a lot of preparation into making it a special experience,” Stewart said. “Texas certainly lived up to the expectations.”
‘It’s all about the future’
With Alabama and Georgia being the other top contenders, it’s sensible to ask, why Texas? Compared with the Bulldogs, who are coming off a national title, and Alabama, which has double-digit national titles and Nick Saban, why bet on the team that lost to Kansas last season, has just one double-digit win season since 2010 and has had three head coaches since pushing Mack Brown out in 2013?
Sarkisian sold Manning on his long-term vision. Sarkisian’s first full recruiting class at Texas ranked fifth nationally. It heavily addressed an area of major need in the offensive line, with the Longhorns signing seven at the position. They signed eight defensive linemen, a nod to Sarkisian’s preparation for Texas’ move to SEC football in 2025 (or sooner).
Even when the Longhorns were in the midst of a six-game losing streak last year, Stewart said Sarkisian and Milwee maintained a positive outlook, both privately with Manning and publicly.
“The thing I was so impressed with, was even when they were going through the toughest streaks last year, Sark and A.J. were still calling and texting,” Stewart said. “They were still positive. They never dipped. Even in their press conferences, (Sarkisian) just conveyed that energy and positivity and belief. I think kids see that.”
Sarkisian, a former college quarterback at BYU, has a documented history of working with accomplished quarterbacks. From Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart at USC to Tua Tagovailoa and Mac Jones at Alabama, and even Matt Ryan during Sarkisian’s brief time with the Atlanta Falcons, he has a long resume.
“Sark is universally respected across college football and professional football, and his work speaks for itself,” Stewart said. “I understand the business of winning, but there’s an understanding about the build. … It takes time.”
Sarkisian’s offensive repertoire is something Stewart even adapted for his team at Isidore Newman. He designed his offense to be “pretty close” to Sarkisian’s, with the mix of run-pass option plays, downfield passing and multiple motions and personnel groupings.
It helped Manning and his teammate, tight end Will Randle, who committed to the Longhorns on Sunday, prepare for their possible futures at Texas.
“(Manning) will have an array of knowledge (in this offense), so hopefully he can get right in that room and understand some things and put his best foot forward,” Stewart said.
Last season was rough for Texas quarterbacks, with Sarkisian starting Hudson Card for the first two games, then benching him for Casey Thompson, who started the last 10 before transferring to Nebraska after the season. But Sarkisian responded by getting a similarly touted blue-chip quarterback, former No. 1 overall recruit Quinn Ewers, who transferred home from Ohio State.
Amid all the struggles, Sarkisian struck a tone that resonated with Manning.
“They’re building it,” Stewart said. “To me, it’s all about the future. When he says it’s All Gas No Brakes, it’s always moving forward.
“It really just has been all about the relationship and the vision for Texas long term.”
(Photo of Newman quarterback Arch Manning in 2019: Michael DeMocker)