After offseason of change, Charlie Strong and Texas ready for results
AUSTIN, Texas -- By now, you’ve read about the buses. When Charlie Strong arrived at Texas, he eliminated the air-conditioned buses that ferried the Longhorns somewhere between a quarter- and a half-mile from the Moncrief Center to the practice field.
From a writer’s standpoint, this is an excellent anecdote. It perfectly encapsulates one of the major perceived issues -- softness from being pampered -- that required the Longhorns to make a coaching change in the first place. It also shows how the new coach is working to correct that issue. Buses? To the practice field? Was Texas running a country club?
Except that’s not exactly what Strong said, and it isn’t entirely why Strong made the change. (Though it was certainly part of it.) Strong saw an inefficiency. It took longer to load and unload the buses than it took for players to simply walk to the practice field. Meanwhile, Strong, whose previous stints at South Carolina and Florida also featured short hikes to practice, knows that an extended saunter back to the training complex has potential benefits. For example, if offensive coordinator and line coach Joe Wickline chewed out a guard for placing his head on the wrong side on a zone play, Wickline can calmly -- outside the moment -- discuss the issue and reinforce the lesson on the walk back. Or maybe coach and player will just talk about their families. This humanizes each to the other. The time on the buses was time that Texas coaches could have been using to address individual issues.
Plus, the walk wasn’t as long as everyone made it out to be once Strong realized he could cut time by unlocking a gate that had remained locked for as long as anyone could remember. Why wasn’t the gate unlocked before? No one thought to ask. That’s not a knock against the old staff. That’s human nature. We all get caught up in routines until someone with a fresh set of eyes comes in to question them. “You just walk a block,” Strong said, laughing. “Take a right. Walk two blocks. You’re on the practice field.”
Walking to the practice field won’t bring Texas back into the national title conversation. Neither will removing helmet logos until the players “earn” them. But they are good examples of how a new coach attempts to change a program's culture by shaking up routines. The Longhorns had grown quite comfortable with their place in the college football world. The balance sheet said Texas remained No. 1, but the standings indicated the Longhorns were a slightly above-average Big 12 team. That isn’t good enough, given the school’s massive resources and excellent recruiting base. Texas needed fresh eyes, and Strong provided them.
With less than two weeks before his team takes the field, Strong seems at ease with his attempts to change Texas’ culture. He reports little resistance from the players -- at least the ones still on campus, anyway. In the past month Strong has dismissed five players from the team and suspended three others. Two of the dismissals were Kendall Sanders and Montrel Meander, who are facing sexual assault charges. That choice probably didn’t require much contemplation. Three of the dismissals (tailbacks Joe Bergeron and Jalen Overstreet and defensive back Chevoski Collins) stemmed from what Strong termed as repeat violations of team rules. Every new regime must establish its authority over the governed, and those three dismissals -- along with game suspensions of unspecified length for offensive tackle Desmond Harrison, receiver Daje Johnson and safety Josh Turner -- are Strong’s attempt at establishing order.
"You never walk into a situation where you’re looking for issues and you’re trying to get rid of guys,” Strong said. “It’s more about developing players. But when you set rules and say this is the way things are going to be done and then guys continuously challenge you on those policies, then something has to be done. If you talk enough and you do nothing about it, then other players are going to eventually say, ‘Hey, why is he even standing there saying it? He’s not going to do anything about it.’”
Strong shouldn’t feel any competitive pressure to keep players who can’t follow the rules. Given its resources, history and academics, Texas remains attractive to plenty of quality players. Strong will have to make up some recruiting ground on Texas A&M, Baylor and Oklahoma, but Texas is still going to be on the short lists of most of the prospects he targets.
Having covered Strong when he was a coordinator, some of those factors that make Texas so attractive -- the huge fan and donor base that expects to hear from the coach and the Longhorn Network regularly -- made me curious as to whether he’d want to work there relative to other elite programs with fewer demands on a coach’s time. Like predecessor Mack Brown, Strong is one of the best one-on-one communicators in the business. He has that gift of making the person he’s talking to feel like the most important person in the world. This has allowed him to excel as a recruiter. His manner helps earn the trust of players and parents quickly.
|Aug. 30||North Texas|
|Sept. 13||UCLA (in Arlington, Texas)|
|Sept. 27||at Kansas|
|Oct. 11||Oklahoma (in Dallas)|
|Oct. 18||Iowa State|
|Oct. 25||at Kansas State|
|Nov. 1||at Texas Tech|
|Nov. 8||West Virginia|
|Nov. 15||at Oklahoma State|
Unlike Brown, however, Strong is not a natural when it comes to speaking to huge groups. His tenure as Louisville’s head coach suggested he probably wouldn’t want a TV network following him around. Texas athletic director Steve Patterson alleviated those fears from the beginning. During the hiring process, Patterson worked with Strong to ensure that Strong’s ancillary duties would be limited to what made the coach and the school comfortable. Strong’s job is winning. If he does that, the Longhorn Network should receive a natural viewership bump. “From the outside, you’d say it’s a lot of stuff,” Strong said. “But once you get inside the job, I don’t think it’s really different than any other major college program.”
Can Strong win right away? He took heat in April for saying the Longhorns won’t be in the national title game. That’s just realism. What Gus Malzahn accomplished at Auburn last year is the anomaly. Remember, Nick Saban lost to Louisiana-Monroe in his debut season at Alabama. Right now, Texas players are trying to learn assistant Shawn Watson’s offense, which is schematically versatile -- mixing West Coast concepts with spread and zone-read concepts -- but also a lot to assimilate. “It’s been a little bit like drinking out of a fire hose,” quarterback David Ash said. “But at the same time, these guys have really gotten a handle on it.”
Defensively, the Longhorns still have many of the same players who got steamrolled in a 40-21 loss at BYU last September. Of course, they’re also the same defenders who shut down Oklahoma in Dallas just over a month later.
The Longhorns will know fairly quickly how far Strong and his staff have come and how much work they need to do. Their Week 1 opponent (North Texas) won seven of its final eight games last season. BYU comes to Austin in Week 2 with the same running game that prompted former defensive coordinator Manny Diaz’s firing last year. On Sept. 13, Texas faces trendy College Football Playoff pick UCLA in Jerry Jones’ Football Emporium in Arlington, Texas. The Longhorns will get their acid test before Big 12 play even begins.
If Strong and staff have done what they claim this offseason, fans should be able to see the difference in the way the Longhorns play. Strong’s defenses at South Carolina, Florida and Louisville played fast and tough. His offense at Louisville was deliberate and opportunistic. If Strong has Texas heading in the correct direction, that should shine through even if the scoreboard doesn’t entirely reflect it.
Until they get a chance to play, Strong and his players will discuss these changes on their walks to and from practice. They’ll plan for the season as players in the weight room chide Strong while he settles in under a bar holding 225 pounds. “It’s a little light to him,” defensive end Cedric Reed cracked.
That’s fine. The real heavy lifting begins soon.