With right support, Charlie Strong will find success at Texas
Sure, it looked uncomfortable.
Take it from someone who personally takes up a lot of space. It's never wise to squeeze three large men behind one tiny table the way Texas did Monday with president Bill Powers, athletic director Steve Patterson and new football coach Charlie Strong. It leads to awkward hug/handshakes such as the one between Powers and Strong at the five-minute mark of this video of Powers introducing the man who will take over for Mack Brown.
This stuff shouldn't really matter. It doesn't have anything to do with whether Strong will compete for Big 12 and national titles. But unfortunately it does. The prevailing stereotype concerning Strong is that he hates dealing with the media, hates gladhanding boosters. Basically, Strong despises all the things Mack Brown did exceptionally well. Because of this, people in my business have wondered aloud whether Strong is the proper "fit" for Texas.
"I was hoping if I brought this cold weather with me that it would block a lot of this media coming here today," Strong said early in his press conference. "But I see that didn't work." Strong was kidding -- poking fun at his image as a coach who would rather barricade the football complex and keep prying eyes away. But that image exists because it's true. Strong doesn't like dealing with the media. He isn't a huge fan of spending time with boosters. Neither of these groups ultimately impact the way his team plays, so he'd prefer they not waste his time. I covered Strong as the Tampa Tribune's Florida beat writer from 2004-07. We got along well, though when Strong didn't want to talk, a crowbar wouldn't get his mouth open. He's always been better off the record than on it. In other words, he's the opposite of Mack Brown.
Does that make Strong a poor fit for a football program that plays the biggest role in the athletic department's ESPN-partnered television network? Not necessarily. The most common comparison is to Rich Rodriguez's hire at Michigan. Rodriguez is clearly an excellent coach. He proved that at West Virginia, and he has proven that again at Arizona. At Michigan, he was a bad fit. That's a tidy narrative, but it isn't true. Rodriguez failed at Michigan because the administration saw fit to hire him and then inexplicably declined to support him. Had Rodriguez been given essentially a blank check to hire a defensive coordinator -- as successor Brady Hoke was -- he'd still be at Michigan, and he'd be doing quite well.
If you win, you fit. Strong won big at Louisville, going 23-3 the past two seasons. He succeeded as a defensive coordinator (South Carolina and Florida), and he succeeded everywhere he worked as a defensive line coach before that. Will he win at Texas? In a vacuum, absent the meddling millionaires who chased off Brown and former athletic director DeLoss Dodds and the school-branded TV network, Strong might have been the best possible candidate. He may look uncomfortable in a press conference, but he's magic in a recruit's living room. He's unflappable on gameday when he needs to help his defense adjust to a formation his team didn't see on film. He's at home in his office when a player comes in with a family or a football problem.
So why not let Strong coach Texas in something close to a vacuum? Sure, those boosters will want their egos stroked, and the Longhorn Network will need to fill the hours, but just because Brown did those things doesn't mean Strong has to. Let Patterson deal with the boosters and be a presence on the network. Maybe the coordinators will see the value in having their own shows to prepare them for their own turns as a head coach somewhere. There are ways to keep Strong in his comfort zone and allow him to do what he does well. If Patterson and Powers want to win, that's what they'll do.
The hiring of Strong suggests a few things. First, it seems Texas might be willing to drop the holier-than-thou attitude when it comes to NCAA issues. Strong, after all, is the head coach who kept assistant Clint Hurtt at Louisville after the NCAA slapped Hurtt with a show-cause penalty for recruiting issues at Miami. The Texas of a few years ago would have crossed Strong off the list after that. This one hired him. Also, Strong's hiring suggests Texas leaders did not place Longhorn Network concerns ahead of football ones. That bodes well for people still learning to navigate the intersection of running an athletic department and a media company.
There aren't many coaches better at dealing with the football side. Strong may want to take a cue from Alabama's Nick Saban -- who never met an ESPN interview request he couldn't turn into an infomercial -- and learn to stomach the obligations that can help recruiting. But Strong's new bosses should work hard to make sure he can minimally deal with everything else and concentrate on what makes his football team better. Because if he wins, they all win.
I don't worry too much about how coaches treat the media. They don't have to be nice to us. I worry about how they treat their players. And while a few Louisville players are upset at the way Strong left, it's tough to forget the scene after the Sugar Bowl at the end of last season. On the floor of the Superdome, nearly half of Florida's team -- players who had just gotten their butts kicked on national television -- waited for Strong to celebrate with his team so they could give their former defensive coordinator and his wife a hug. Back in 2004, after Florida had fired Ron Zook and hired Urban Meyer, Strong was the only Zook assistant Meyer kept. Yes, Meyer and Strong had worked together at Notre Dame. But a big reason Meyer wanted to ensure Strong stayed in Gainesville is that the players might have revolted had he left.
Strong's long search for a head-coaching job is well documented, and the reasons schools avoided hiring him seem sillier with each passing year. One popular trope was that he didn't interview well for jobs. Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich had heard this, so when he went to Gainesville to interview Strong in December 2009, he had plan. Jurich drove to Strong's house and started the interview by offering Strong the job without asking a question. According to someone present for the interview, Strong put his head down. When he looked up, he had tears in his eyes. Jurich -- who is one of the best athletic directors in the business -- clearly chose wisely. More important, he customized his approach for the man he hired and then gave that man exactly the right kind of support he needed to succeed.
If Texas expects another Mack Brown, these next few years will look as uncomfortable as Monday's press conference. If Patterson can support Strong the way Jurich did, Strong will fit just fine.