To say that tomorrow’s game at the Cotton Bowl between Texas and Oklahoma is an important one for Charlie Strong is like saying Bevo’s trainers might pop him a tranquilizer or two prior to kickoff. Understating the obvious I believe is what they call it.
The Longhorns come into the game against the 10th ranked Sooners reeling after last Saturday’s debacle in Ft. Worth, a 50-7 thrashing at the hands of the 2nd ranked Horned Frogs. Now sitting at 1-4, the Horns are a 17-point underdog to Bob Stoops’ squad, who would love nothing more than to put a similar whipping on Charlie’s boys as the Frogs did last weekend.
What I witnessed first hand in Ft. Worth last weekend was no doubt embarrassing to Strong and his coaching staff. Giving up 30 unanswered first-quarter points is unacceptable to any head coach, but especially so when you’ve worked your way up the coaching ranks on the defensive side of the ball as Strong has done. Flip it over to the offensive side and things were no better for the Longhorns, where Texas’ 2-headed QB of Tyrone Swoops and Jarrod Heard combined for just 13 of 28 and 122 total yards passing.
So what exactly has gone wrong in Austin over the past season and a half? Did the man who turned around the Louisville program suddenly forget how to coach overnight? That seems unlikely. What about recruiting? Did he fall flat on his face with his first Texas recruiting class this past off-season? That also doesn’t seem to be the case, as most recruiting services had the Longhorns freshman class ranked anywhere from 9th to 12th best in the country.
So what’s really up here? Well first off, Strong’s predecessor Mack Brown left the proverbial cupboard so incredibly bare of quality players it will take Strong more than one or two recruiting classes to restock it. On paper Mack’s guys had all the athletic talent in the world when they signed on the dotted line to play for the Longhorns, but talent alone doesn’t cut it when you get to this level of competition. Character, work ethic and pride come into play too – and that’s something the current upper classmen on this Longhorn team seem to be in short supply of. Remember, Strong cut nine of Brown’s players when he first arrived in Austin in 2014– not for lack of talent – but for lack of discipline.
Secondly, Charlie Strong has found himself in a circus environment that would have been impossible for him to prepare for. He’s surrounded by meddling trustees and donors, unstable leadership and completely unrealistic expectations given his circumstances. As of now, by all reports, the people that matter in Austin (i.e. the ones who ran off athletic director Steve Patterson just three weeks ago) have given Strong the dreaded “vote of confidence.” But we all know that can change faster than Ahmed Mohamed can book a world tour.
Since memories seem to be short when it comes to matters of college football in this state, I want to refresh everyone’s about Strong’s coaching record. He didn’t splash onto the scene when he first arrived at Louisville, he rebuilt a faltering program. His first season he went 7-6, his second season….7-6. It was his third season as head man, when HIS players began claiming the starting positions on both sides of the ball that he turned the Cardinals around and went 11-2. His fourth and final year he bumped it up one game more to 12-1 – and the Longhorn brass came calling with a five-year $25 million plus contract.
Perhaps the worst thing that has happened to Charlie Strong this season hasn’t taken place here in the Lone Star State, but rather up north in the Great Lakes State (that’s Michigan for those of you born south of the Mason-Dixon line). Jim Harbaugh has somehow managed to turn around what was last year a similarly dismal Wolverines team into what looks to be a possible top 20 squad (currently ranked 18th) in just a few months on the job. Whether or not Michigan can hold up through the end of the season we’ll find out, but regardless, what Harbaugh is doing is the exception to how this normally works, not the rule. Still people will compare.
Now back to Dallas and Fair Park this weekend. The Eyes of Texas are no doubt squarely on Strong and the Longhorns as they face off against their most hated rival. Texas put up a valiant effort last year against an Oklahoma team that was ranked 11th at the time of the game, before finally succumbing 31-26. But I’m not sure moral victories will do Charlie Strong much good any more at this point.
Do I think Charlie Strong can turn Texas around given another year or two? I do, but I also admit there is a lot more competition in Texas now then there was just three or four years ago with the emergence of TCU, Baylor, and Texas A&M as national powers. Do I think Longhorn Nation will be patient and give him the chance to do so? Of that I’m doubtful, especially if he’s unable to pull out a “W” tomorrow. But in the long run the might be the luckiest break Charlie ever gets.