Charlie Strong, Texas prepared to escape the mire of Big 12 mediocrity
DALLAS — Taylor Doyle says “scared” is not the right word to use, but will admit, more than a year later, that he was nervous. Very, very nervous.
It was January 2014, and Doyle and his Texas teammates were “Googling whatever we could find,” on new coach Charlie Strong, worried about what might await them. The first piece they read did not inspire excitement: Texas players found information on “The Pit,” a “workout/torture regime” designed by Strong and strength and conditioning coach Pat Moorer for injured players sitting out at practice. The Pit consists of brutal, grueling workouts for anyone sidelined with an injury, lest players think about milking it for time off.
“People were, uh, nervous for the first meeting,” Doyle, a senior offensive lineman says now. “But once we met the staff, we knew they were the right choice for us.”
Doyle and his teammates had grown tired of the Longhorns’ “perceived identity” throughout college football. Once the standard that other programs measured themselves against, Texas had become soft, complacent and easy to beat. Forget competing for national championships, the Longhorns couldn’t even vie for their own conference title. Doyle and his teammates weren’t happy with “the popular opinion of Texas.” Enter Strong, who preached discipline, then practiced it. Publicly. By September, Strong had dismissed nine players. Often portrayed as a strict disciplinarian, players on Tuesday said in private Strong is warm and personable, a “players’ coach” through and through. He’s not the man whose patience you want to test.
“He is definitely not the person you want to make mad,” Doyle said, eyes widening.
Added running back Jonathan Gray: “You don’t want to see his wrath,” he laughed, “so you better stay on the right path.”
Strong says, and players agree, that some of the coverage about dismissals was overblown. None of the rules he laid out were unreasonable, and if everyone followed, there wouldn’t be a problem. They’ve got that part of the culture fixed, mostly. Now they’re addressing other issues.
Strong knew he’d encounter challenges in the first year of a rebuilding job. What he didn’t anticipate were players who acted as though just wearing a Texas jersey was enough to merit respect—or wins. Strong says Texas had become a “destination location,” with guys who were just “happy to be here.”
But that’s not the attitude that built Texas into a powerhouse, and it won’t help it climb back to the top of a Big 12 suddenly featuring more than just the Longhorns and Oklahoma; in the conference’s preseason media poll, TCU (32) and Baylor (10) received all the first place votes, with nary a mention of the Sooners or Texas.
To combat complacency, Strong talks about UT’s 31–7 loss to Arkansas in the Advocare Texas Bowl all the time, making sure his players remember the embarrassment. “I want it to burn,” he said. Asked Tuesday if he’d heard Arkansas coach Bret Bielema’s description that kneeling at the 2-yard line to end the game as “borderline erotic,” Strong gave a curt nod: “Yeah. Just walk into our locker room. They’re posted.” As for the players’ reactions, Strong said he didn’t wait around to hear it. “I showed them, ‘This is what they think of y’all’ and kept walking.”
In the off-season, as Texas readies to replace six starters on defense and searches for a starting quarterback (junior Tyrone Swoopes will take reps with the first string when camp opens Aug. 7, but redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard will battle him for the job), Strong continues to adjust attitudes. Recently he called “about 35” veteran players into his office for face-to-face meetings. What players didn’t know is that those meetings weren’t going to be just the individual and Strong. Instead, Strong brought the players into a coaches meeting, and had each player take a turn on “the hot seat” as Strong and his staff analyzed what they thought of that player and what changes needed to take place. He said so far, no player has said he want to leave or transfer as a result of harsh truths.
Some lessons are conducted publicly. In June, receiver Daje Johnson posted a song that he had personally penned and recorded on social media titled “Dealer.” The lyrics, predictably, told of illegal activities. Strong called up Johnson and told him he was disappointed to hear he was no longer on the team. Puzzled, Johnson said he hadn’t left. “Then why is this on your social media?!” Strong boomed. Johnson took it down, and apologized on Twitter … but not before a local radio station played “Dealer” for morning listeners.
Strong added Tuesday, with a roll of his eyes, that too many college athletes these days mistakenly think they’re professional rappers.
On the field, Strong acknowledged “a lot has to come together” for Texas to challenge for the Big 12 title. Players shoo away the underdog label—“we’re still Texas,” Gray says—and believe a renewed confidence will permeate the locker room this year.
“Now that everyone knows the offense and defense, we can all play faster, and I know we’re looking forward to that,” said Duke Thomas, a senior cornerback. “We’re still Texas, like Gray said, and everyone else knows that, too. We’ve got to get that confidence and swagger back, and then we can get back to the top.”
Still, there will be a learning curve. Strong said coaches will have to balance veteran experience with youthful athleticism, sometimes opting to go with a younger player more likely to make a mistake who can also make a big play when he gets it right. But Strong knows patience will wear thin quickly, and he won’t have long to fix things. A 6–7 record is not good enough in Austin, he says, and never will be. Players know it, too.
And after a year in a new culture, they know not to make him mad.