When Texas beat Notre Dame to open the 2016 season, head coach Charlie Strong appeared to have secured his future for several more years at one of college football’s best jobs. The Longhorns beat a team expected to contend for the College Football Playoff with a true freshman quarterback, a revamped offense and an electric home atmosphere. It even prompted ESPN play-by-play commentator Joe Tessitore to bellow “TEXAS. IS. BACK!” after the ‘Horns polished off their 50–47 win over the Irish.
That would turn into the most misleading result of the 2016 season. Notre Dame’s porous defense and inconsistent offense has left it at 4–7 with losses to NC State, Navy and Duke. Texas, meanwhile, just put its bowl hopes in jeopardy by losing on Saturday to Kansas, a six-turnover debacle that ended with delirious Jayhawks fans tearing down the goalposts. It was a stark reversal from the Longhorns' raucous celebration following their triumph over the Fighting Irish in Austin earlier this year.
The Longhorns’ 24–21 overtime loss to the Jayhawks, a 1–9 team that has lost four games by at least 36 points in 2016 and has resided near the bottom of the Power 5 totem pole since coach David Beatty took over in 2015, is not just the nadir for Strong and the Longhorns. It’s the worst loss that any Power 5 coach can suffer.
The result? Strong will likely lose his job by the end of the season—and it wouldn’t be surprising if it happened this week. (On Sunday evening, the Austin American-Statesman indeed reported that Texas had decided to fire Strong, and that the official announcement could come Monday morning.) At his postgame news conference, the third-year head coach could barely choke out a response to a question speculating about his future, and athletic director Mike Perrin refused to talk to reporters. Sitting at 5–6 with a game against TCU remaining, the Longhorns will be eligible for a forgettable bowl at best, ineligible for a second consecutive season at worst. That won’t fly at Texas, where national title contention is expected and visions of the 2009 national championship game are still fresh in the memories of most fans. Losing to a Kansas team that the program hadn’t lost to since 1938 is never acceptable at one of the nation’s premier jobs.
“It’s gonna hurt,” Texas safety DeShon Elliott said after the game. “Nothing against Kansas … but it’s Kansas.”
Strong could hardly offer that much.
Firing any college coach after three seasons is rash. It’s usually good institutional practice to let a coach fill a team with his recruits to determine his vision and future for the program. History is full of coaches who won with other coaches’ recruits before losing with their own (Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis did it in consecutive cycles at Notre Dame). Others need to survive three years of losing before the coach’s program is ready to win. Colorado’s Mike MacIntyre won 10 games in his first three seasons in Boulder and entered 2016 as a hot seat candidate. Now, the Buffs are one win away from clinching a spot in the Pac-12 championship game. Recruiting is a vicious and thankless endeavor, and when a coach inherits a program in shambles, the results don’t come quickly.
Several different accounts indicate that Strong inherited that kind of program from Mack Brown in 2014. Texas won eight games in 2013 and lost in the Alamo Bowl in Brown’s final season, but reports of an increasingly soft and entitled culture hounded him after his dismissal. Some thought Strong would get extra leverage after taking over a program that had apparently lost its way. Austin was no longer a key destination for NFL draft scouts, and the Longhorns program that boasted Ricky Williams, Vince Young and Colt McCoy lacked a notable superstar during Brown’s final seasons. Strong, who recruited and cultivated a host of future NFL talent during his time at Louisville (Teddy Bridgewater, Calvin Pryor, Lorenzo Mauldin and DeVante Parker among it), was expected to overhaul the culture and assure that the Lone Star State's best high school talent arrived in Austin, not College Station, Lubbock or Fort Worth. Strong did that last February, but he needed wins to make sure he got the chance to develop that talent.
But then Strong lost to Cal and Iowa State last year. He lost to Cal again this year, and was routed by Oklahoma State. Even after Strong secured a blue-chip recruiting class this past February, it felt as if he was coaching for his future every time he took the field. Losses were always met with further speculation, while wins were reason to exhale. The defense was ill-equipped to stop Big 12-style spread attacks early in the season, so Strong demoted defensive coordinator and longtime colleague Vance Bedford so he could call the defense himself. The offense wasn’t modernized enough last season, so the Longhorns (eventually) poached Sterlin Gilbert from Baylor to run former coach Art Briles' trademark, up-tempo attack and slotted true freshman Shane Buechele in the starting QB role. He’s received a Heisman-caliber season from running back D’Onta Foreman, a two-star recruit when he arrived in Austin in 2014. It all seemed to come too late for Strong. He may have recruited the talent necessary to propel Texas to the playoff two years from now, but there’s virtually no chance he’ll be coaching the players he signed.
Good programs typically keep coaches for at least four years to avoid constant turnover and recruiting lapses. The difference is that most of those coaches asked to rehabilitate programs don’t make over $5 million. They also don’t exist at one of the meccas of college football. When the wins don’t come consistently by year three in Austin, the seat heats up.
And then Charlie Strong lost to Kansas. What was speculated for months now feels inevitable.