The end comes for Charlie Strong: What went wrong for the Texas coach; Punt, Pass & Pork
He said he had no idea, but of course he knew.
With his wife shedding tears not far away and support personnel consoling one another, Charlie Strong almost certainly knew what his future held in that moment after the unthinkable happened in Lawrence, Kan.
He's a smart guy, and he'd seen this movie before as an assistant. But when he took the Texas job in January 2014, he probably never thought it would happen to him.
Most of us who'd covered him couldn't have imagined it, either. Here was a man who had succeeded as a defensive coordinator at South Carolina and Florida, who in his first head-coaching job had made Louisville the best team in its conference and ripe to be plucked from its league by the ACC. Given the keys to the Cadillac of college programs, how could he not succeed?
Except, unfortunately, he didn't.
The Austin American-Statesman reported Sunday night that Texas officials had decided to fire Strong. SI's Pete Thamel confirmed the decision Sunday night, but it remains unclear when Texas will make an official announcement.
Texas athletic director Mike Perrin released a statement Sunday night saying that the school's leadership won't make the decision until after Friday's regular-season finale against TCU. That statement was believed by exactly zero people, and all Perrin succeeded in doing is giving Strong an awkward final few workdays before he can collect his $10.7 million buyout. Other schools have managed to fire coaches and let them finish the season with grace—see Florida and Will Muschamp in 2014 or Iowa State and Paul Rhoads last season—but as usual, Texas thinks it's too good for something almost everybody else does.
Saturday's 24–21 loss to Kansas dropped Strong to 16–20 at Texas. In truth, the decision probably was finalized the moment Kansas kicker Matthew Wyman's field goal sailed between the uprights in overtime. A coach cannot go 16–20 in three seasons at Texas. There are too many advantages in terms of recruiting base, resources and history to start mediocre and stay mediocre. Yes, Mack Brown left behind a poorly evaluated roster. A season or two of struggle was acceptable. But to lose to Kansas at the tail end of year three to guarantee no better than a .500 regular-season record? That's not good enough. Strong knows that. The Texas administration knows that.
There will be suggestions that this is about something other than wins and losses. That's simply not true. Yes, there were some—including mega-booster Red McCombs, who said it publicly—who did not want Strong to be hired in the first place. But Strong's support within the university once he was hired was solid. There's a good reason for this. People who spend time working with Strong like him and want him to succeed. So many people wanted this to work. But for whatever reason, it just didn't.
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Strong never wanted to be a cause. He should have been a head coach long before Louisville hired him, but hiring season after hiring season came and went. The knock was he interviewed poorly, but how serious were some of those interviews? Still, Strong didn't complain publicly. He figured his body of work would earn him a job eventually, and it did. When Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich went to Gainesville, Fla., in 2009 to meet Strong, Jurich offered him the job before he began the interview.
Strong rewarded Jurich's faith. After going 7–6 his first two seasons, the Cardinals went 11–2, won the Big East and crushed Florida in the Sugar Bowl. After that game, Florida players waited until Louisville's celebration ended to get a hug from Strong and his wife, Vicki. The next year, Strong's Cardinals went 12–1. Then he got hired at Texas.
Perhaps Strong was too loyal to the assistants he worked with at Louisville. Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson was a poor fit for the wide-open Big 12, and instead of making a coordinator change after year one, Strong promised to change the offense. When the Longhorns got drubbed at Notre Dame in the season-opener, it was clear the offense hadn't changed at all. So Watson got demoted early in the 2015 season, essentially creating a lost year on that side of the ball.
This past off-season, Strong brought in Tulsa's Sterlin Gilbert to run the Baylor offense. That worked better, but suddenly Vance Bedford's defense was faltering. Strong demoted Bedford the week the Longhorns played Oklahoma. At that point, the next logical demotion would take place one spot higher on the organizational chart.
This didn't feel like a fait accompli until that Kansas game. In fact, after the Longhorns' 24–20 loss to West Virginia on Nov. 12, it seemed the winds had shifted. Yes, Texas had lost. But the Longhorns had fought back from 14 down and had a chance to win on the final play against a team that had come in 7–1.
But then two things happened. First, Tom Herman's Houston team thrashed Louisville and Heisman Trophy frontrunner Lamar Jackson on Thursday with the entirety of the college football-loving world watching. That reminded everyone in burnt orange why they'd been intrigued by Herman for a year. Then Kansas happened. The Jayhawks broke a 19-game Big 12 losing streak that stretched back to 2014. Kansas was supposed to be one step up from a bye. To lose to the Jayhawks was unforgivable.
What happens next? Texas will hire another coach. Herman will be the frontrunner, and it will be a shock if he doesn't wind up coaching the Longhorns. Strong worked on the 2004 staff at Florida under Ron Zook. When Zook was fired, Strong was the only assistant Urban Meyer retained. That team won a national title in Meyer's second season with a group of starters mostly recruited by Zook. Will Strong be the Zook to Herman's Meyer? Everyone in Austin hopes so.
As for Strong, he won't lack for work. The only question is will he be a head coach or a defensive coordinator next season? Strong has built enough goodwill in the business to be in the mix for head-coaching jobs this off-season. But he'll also be in high demand as a defensive coordinator for his Xs and Os prowess and for his recruiting ability. If Arkansas or Florida State decide to make a change, Strong would be a great fit at either place. If Dave Aranda doesn't wind up sticking with the new LSU staff, SEC offensive coordinators would be terrified of the idea of Strong in Baton Rouge.
Strong will get through this fine, even if Texas officials want to drag out the inevitable. Texas probably will be fine, too—partially thanks to the roster Strong has built for his successor. It's a shame it didn't work out between the two parties, but they'll likely both be better off as soon as they're separated.
A random ranking
For this week's ranking, Jeremy Ford has asked me to address one of my biggest musical pet peeves. Alanis Morissette`'s Jagged Little Pill is an excellent album. "You Oughta Know" changed the way I watch Full House reruns. "Hand In My Pocket" offered plenty of helpful advice about what to do with the hand that isn't currently in one's pocket. "Head Over Feet" is just plain great.
But one of the more popular songs on that album always stuck in my craw. Reader Jeremy is familiar with my rants on the subject, so he asked me to take a closer look at this song.
Here's how this will work. The closer a line gets to No. 1, the less ironic it actually is.
1. "It's like rain on your wedding day."
This is just bad luck.
2. "It's the good advice that you just didn't take."
This is just bad judgment.
2. "It's like 10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife."
This is just poor planning.
3. "It's a black fly in your chardonnay."
This also is bad luck. Maybe don't drink your wine on the porch.
4. "Mr. Play-It-Safe was afraid to fly/He packed his suitcase and kissed his kids good-bye/He waited his whole damn life to take that flight/And as the plane crashed down he thought/'Well, isn't this nice.'"
Also bad luck. Also terribly depressing.
5. "It's a death row pardon two minutes too late."
This guy just needs a better attorney.
6. "A traffic jam when you're already late…"
Also poor planning.
7. "A no-smoking sign on your cigarette break"
See above. Also, you work at this establishment. How do you not know where smoking is prohibited?
7. "An old man turned ninety-eight/He won the lottery and died the next day."
This actually is somewhat ironic.
8. "It's meeting the man of my dreams/And then meeting his beautiful wife."
This line in the original isn't particularly ironic. Either the guy is a jerk who doesn't wear his wedding ring and leads on single women or Alanis is very poor at picking up on context clues. When Morissette released an acoustic version of Jagged Little Pill in 2005, she changed the word "wife" to "husband," rendering the scenario ironic. Still, that guy probably should be wearing his wedding ring.
9. "It's a free ride when you've already paid."
If this describes a scenario in which a person buys a bus token and drops it in the slot just before noticing a "Free Rides Today" sign, it is indeed ironic.
Projected College Football Playoff bracket
Perhaps the most discouraging indicator for Auburn's chances Saturday is Alabama slopping it up against Chattanooga. That leads to Nick Saban feeling this way.
That usually leads to the Crimson Tide smashing a team the following Saturday.
2. Ohio State
The Buckeyes didn't exactly inspire confidence with their 17–16 win at Michigan State on Saturday, but as several readers pointed out, Ohio State responded to a poor game against Michigan State last year with a great game against Michigan. The difference is this Michigan team isn't as banged up as that one was, and if the Wolverines can shut down the Buckeyes' rushing attack and force J.T. Barrett to beat them down the field, they have a shot.
Remember, this is a projection of what the rankings will be on Dec. 4 and not a prediction of the rankings that will be released Tuesday, so feel free to interpret me placing Ohio State here as a prediction that the Buckeyes will win. But if Michigan wins, the Wolverines will be in this spot on Dec. 4 as long as they hold serve in the Big Ten title game.
The Tigers jumped to a 28-point lead at Wake Forest and then cruised to a 35–13 victory. The first quarter and change is what Clemson can be when fully engaged. That's what would make the Tigers dangerous in the playoff. But their lack of consistency also could lead to an ACC title game loss that keeps them out of the playoff. Clemson eventually has to decide which team it wants to be.
Placing the Badgers in the playoff assumes one of two scenarios. In the first, Ohio State beats Michigan, gets shut out of the Big Ten title game and Wisconsin beats Penn State for the conference crown. The other is that Michigan beats Ohio State and Wisconsin avenges its loss to the Wolverines by beating them in Indianapolis. In that second scenario, the Badgers might wind up a higher seed. Of course, none of it matters if Wisconsin doesn't beat Minnesota on Saturday. If Nebraska beats Iowa on Friday and the Badgers lose Saturday, the Cornhuskers go to Indianapolis.
Big Ugly of the Week
Cal didn't beat Stanford. In fact, the Bears lost 45–31. Perhaps they would have won had they targeted 300-pound fullback Malik McMorris more. (I realize fullback is officially a skill position, but the job description in most offenses makes these guys honorary Big Uglies.) McMorris finished with two catches for 26 yards, but look at this wiggle. Clearly he needs more touches.
1. Oklahoma's 56–28 win at West Virginia and Oklahoma State's 31–6 win at TCU have turned Bedlam into the de facto Big 12 championship game. As fate would have it, that game is already on Championship Saturday. If this were next year—when the Big 12 will bring back its championship game—the teams would play the Saturday after Thanksgiving and then play again the following week in Arlington, Texas. (I don't necessarily think this is bad. If they play a fun game the first time, I'm not going to complain about getting to see another one.) This year, each team will bring slim playoff hopes into the game, and chaos in other leagues could vault the winner into the national semifinals.
The situations for Oklahoma and Oklahoma State are complicated. A win would make the Sooners 10–2, but it's possible the teams they lost to (Houston and Ohio State) could also be 10–2. That isn't such a big deal with Houston because the committee could explain away a higher ranked Oklahoma by pointing to strength of schedule and by comparing the quality of the losses. (With wins at West Virginia and against Oklahoma State, Oklahoma's best wins wouldn't be quite as good as Houston's victories against Oklahoma and Louisville, but they'd be close enough.) The problem is Ohio State. The Buckeyes played a more difficult schedule overall, clobbered Oklahoma in Norman and also have a win at Wisconsin. The committee is supposed to reward teams that schedule difficult out-of-conference games. Oklahoma and Ohio State each did that. But Ohio State won, and shouldn't that count for more?
WEEK 12 TAKEAWAYS: Eight biggest things we learned
Meanwhile, Oklahoma State has two losses because the MAC officiating crew on the field and the Big 12 replay crew in the booth blew it at the end of the Central Michigan game and allowed the Chippewas to run a final play that should never have been run. Should the Cowboys have been further ahead in that game? Sure. But had the game been officiated properly—both crews were suspended by their respective leagues—Oklahoma State would have only one loss.
So how does the committee treat that loss? "We treat it as a loss," committee chair Kirby Hocutt said last week. "It's not within the purview of the selection committee to determine wins and losses. We accept their record, which is 8–2. However, the selection committee is aware of what transpired in that football game." That last sentence calls into question the rest of Hocutt's answer, so perhaps we'll just have to wait and see what the committee does if Oklahoma State wins Bedlam.
2. The Pac-12 divisional races will come down to the final weekend, and Oregon's upset of Utah on Saturday will spice up the South. On Friday, Washington and Washington State will square off for the Apple Cup in Pullman. The winner will advance to the Pac-12 title game. Washington has a great shot of making the playoff as a 12–1 Pac-12 champion, but the Huskies will have to win two tough games in a row to reach that point.
In the South, the Ducks' win at Utah kept USC alive even though Colorado beat Washington State. The Utes held the head-to-head against the Trojans, but a third conference loss knocked them out of contention. The Trojans hold the head-to-head against Colorado, but the Buffaloes have only one Pac-12 loss to USC's two. USC is in the barn at 7–2 in conference play, so a Utah win at Colorado would give the Trojans the South Division title. A Buffaloes win would send Colorado to the Pac-12 title game.
3. Embattled Oregon coach Mark Helfrich really needed Saturday's 30–28 win in Salt Lake City. Watch here as Helfrich reacts to the replay as officials debated whether Darren Carrington was in bounds when he made an acrobatic catch in the end zone with two seconds remaining. (He was.)
4. It did not sit well with Florida players and coaches that some in LSU's camp insinuated the Gators were afraid to play the Tigers as the schools tried to figure out how to reschedule their game after it was postponed because of Hurricane Matthew. So the Gators had a lot of fun after they stuffed Derrius Guice on the goal line Saturday to beat the Tigers and win the SEC East.
Perhaps no one had as much fun as former Gators defensive tackle Tony McCoy. McCoy's son, T.J., is a redshirt freshman who as of two weeks ago was Florida's third center. Injuries pressed the younger McCoy into the lineup, and his play is a huge reason why the Gators are headed to Atlanta.
5. Meanwhile, here is a list of all the people who took major losses Saturday when LSU couldn't manage to run a red zone offense and wound up losing a game it should have won.
- LSU athletic director Joe Alleva: After Alleva complained enough to get the game, originally scheduled for Gainesville, moved to Baton Rouge following the postponement, he now has to send his team to Gainesville two years in a row.
- LSU interim coach Ed Orgeron: This might end Coach O's chances to get the permanent job.
- Tennessee coach Butch Jones: The Volunteers likely would have won the SEC East had Florida lost. The silver lining is that Tennessee might wind up in a better bowl by avoiding potentially getting creamed by Alabama for a second time. So as long as the Volunteers beat Vanderbilt on Saturday—not such an easy feat at the moment—this won't hurt too badly.
6. The rescheduling of Florida-LSU could result in a bowl bid for South Alabama. The Jaguars were supposed to play LSU on Saturday, but that game was canceled to make way for Florida. The Gators were supposed to play Presbyterian in Gainesville, but that game was canceled so they could go to Baton Rouge. Left without games, South Alabama and Presbyterian played one another Saturday. On Sunday, the NCAA approved a waiver that would allow the Jaguars to count a second FCS win for bowl eligibility.
It's possible the Jaguars wouldn't have needed the waiver or the makeup game. They could have lost to LSU and beaten Idaho and New Mexico State to reach six wins. But now South Alabama—which has beaten Mississippi State and San Diego State but gone 1–5 in Sun Belt Conference play—only has to win one of those games to reach bowl eligibility.
7. Meanwhile, former LSU coach Les Miles visited his alma mater Saturday. Angelique Chengelis of The Detroit News caught up with him.
8. Western Michigan beat Buffalo 38–0 to remain undefeated and keep itself in contention to earn the New Year's Six bowl slot that goes to the highest rank champion of a Group of Five conference. Here's Pete Thamel's feature on Broncos coach P.J. Fleck, who may be headed to a much higher profile job after this season.
9. Speaking of that Group of Five spot, Boise State was the committee's highest ranked Group of Five team last week. Unfortunately for the Broncos, Wyoming's 34–33 win against San Diego State means the Cowboys are one win against New Mexico away from winning the Mountain West Mountain Division and shutting Boise State out of the title game.
10. Clemson celebrated its ACC Atlantic Division title in style on Saturday.
What's eating Andy?
This map assumes everyone serves mashed potatoes and stuffing/dressing. That's why those aren't listed. These are the most disproportionately common side dishes. What's amazing—and sort of life-affirming—is that the places where people care the most about college football are also the places that like the best-tasting dishes.
What's Andy eating?
I hate being called a foodie. That term implies a certain pretension I hope I never acquire. I simply like to eat things that taste good. These things can come from painstakingly sourced mom-and-pop shops or they can come from chains with 400 locations. That's the part the foodies usually forget.
While some chains do serve slop that only appeals to people whose tastebuds have ceased to function, many chains got so big because they were exceptional at serving good food at a decent price on a consistent basis. In 'N' Out, Five Guys, Panera Bread and Chili's are just a few of the chains on the latter list. But none of those occupy the place in my heart that the Roadhouses do.
I refer of course to Texas Roadhouse and Logan's Roadhouse, which are near carbon copies of one another and virtually interchangeable. Why do I love these places so much? It's not the steaks. While they're plenty good for non-aged beef, I could buy the same steak at the grocery store and cook it myself for cheaper. It's not the all-you-can-eat peanuts and the throw-your-shells-on-the-floor policy. That's why my 7-year-old and 5-year-old adore them. I love these places because of the rolls.
At either Roadhouse, every meal comes with a potentially endless supply of golden, piping hot yeast rolls. These nutritionally useless calorie bombs will enrage your doctor, but they'll wrap your taste buds in a soft, doughy embrace. To make your doctor even madder and your palate even happier, slather on some whipped honey butter (at Logan's Roadhouse) or cinnamon honey butter (at Texas Roadhouse). Afterward, please exercise. This sort of carbohydrate-based sinning requires atonement.
At Texas Roadhouse, you don't even have to wait to feel a roll's tender caress. On my most recent visit, a basket of rolls was placed before each party as it was seated. At either place, make sure to tip better if you send your server back to the kitchen for multiple roll refills. It's only common courtesy.
Why do these rolls have this effect, and why can't I stop at eight? For me, they conjure memories of the finest mass-market carb ever produced—the Quincy's Big Fat Yeast Roll. Loyal readers have reported that a few Quincy's Family Steakhouses still exist, but the chain has largely vanished. Places like Quincy's and Ryan's were early adopters of the buy-a-cheap-steak-and-get-access-to-this-even-cheaper-buffet concept that Golden Corral has elevated to a chocolate fountain-splattered art form.
When I was in high school in suburban Orlando, there was a Quincy's on U.S. Highway 17-92 in Sanford that made incredible Big Fat Yeast Rolls. When the Lake Mary High offensive line had a good game, no yeast roll was safe. More than 1,000 pounds of us would pile into my Toyota Corolla after Tuesday practice and head a few miles north. We would each order the cheapest thing on the menu and zoom to the buffet. Those who didn't put away at least 10 yeast rolls were shamed as thoroughly as the delicate snowflakes who felt it necessary to wash their practice jerseys.
The spirit of those rolls lives on today in every blessed calorie of the Texas Roadhouse and Logan's Roadhouse rolls. So if I opt for a Roadhouse over the newest, hottest pop-up, please forgive me. The rolls made me do it.