During the annual hate week pitting the Texas Longhorns against the Oklahoma Sooners, I had two ideas for articles that I did not get to. One was to write another brazenly confident hate post against OU like I wrote in 2013, when we also upset the Sooners (and I now wish I did so I would have sounded smart). The other was to come out in defense of Charlie Strong and address what I perceived to be the best arguments for doubting his future success.
After TCU took Texas to the woodshed, the Longhorn interwebs were full of, uh, tense feelings, and I thought it might be helpful to sift through the vitriol and find not-so-crazy arguments against Strong and then reply to them as a Charlie Strong supporter. It is always better, after all, to address the best arguments for a particular position.
Too much of the conversation, in my view, was outright irrational anger towards Strong and, on the other side, reactionary defense of Strong such that any slight criticism against him or his staff was demeaned as nutty and stupid. I decided to hold off until after the OU game and for the bye week, even though my personal opinion on the matter was not going to change substantially regardless of the outcome (and my expectation was that we were going to lose).
Well, what a difference a week makes. The Strong-doubters have mostly gone silent after a key win over our rivals. It may seem pointless to write this article now, but it's the bye week, so why not? Also, the Strong doubters are still around. To be fair, one big win does not necessarily save the season: We've had disappointing teams win big games in both 2013 and 2010. Just as one game wasn't going to change my opinion that much, it may not have changed people's views on the other side.
I have always thought that people who seemed invested in Strong's failure to be a small but very loud minority, and they not only have shouted down Strong-optimists but also drowned out an even smaller minority of people who don't hate Strong but are iffy about his future chances of success. They may like the guy and they certainly want him to succeed because that means Texas succeeds. They may even understand that, given his buyout, firing him right now is just not feasible. They just don't think he is likely to be a winner here at Texas. I want to provide a place for them to be heard, even though I still disagree with them.
These will be the best arguments that I have come across and I will try to answer them. None of this is going to be new to people who have been following the team closely; it'll be more of a consolidation of reasons why we should be optimistic about Charlie Strong despite some very real mistakes that he and his staff have made. If I miss any arguments, please inform me in the comments. However, because I know how out of control such a topic can get, I will be rather less than tolerant on personal attacks and angry rants. Cool? Cool.
Argument #1: Charlie Strong came in to instill toughness, yet we've been blown out multiple times in embarrassing fashion.
Losses are understandable and, in this case, even expected, but HOW they happened is alarming even with concessions made for roster deficiencies. We slammed Mack Brown for embarrassing losses, yet Strong is racking them up at a fast rate.
Reply: I think the first thing to concede is this -- not all of the blowouts can simply be chalked up to roster problems caused by Mack Brown or to youth. The staff laid an egg against Arkansas; I think they also laid an egg against Notre Dame, and going down 30-0 in the first quarter shouldn't really happen to a program like Texas. Repeated humiliating losses have a way of diminishing fan and player morale and affecting recruiting. Those are legitimate data points that have to be considered.
I simply think that the blowouts, while concerning, are still outweighed by the fact that we have often been blown out by teams who are a lot better than us and because we have also had performances that exceeded expectations, which should not be ignored. Furthermore, the team has shown improvement, even though it is non-linear. Nobody likes getting crushed on national TV, but that shouldn't make us lose sight of other evidence of the trajectory of the program.
I personally gave up on Mack Brown after Taysom Hill looked like a mixture of Hercules and Hermes against us (unlike others, I held out hope as long as I could even after that beatdown from OU the season before), but it was not merely that game; it was also looking at overall the state of the program and realizing that it was stagnant. I do not think it is stagnant now by any means.
Argument #2: Strong has made serious errors on his offensive staff, similar errors that eventually got Will Muschamp fired despite good recruiting and good defenses.
As others have noted, Muschamp's tenure at Florida is kind of like seeing a possible world where Charlie fails at Texas. Strong has had to fire Bruce Chambers (whose retention made Longhorn fans laugh) and Les Koenning while demoting Shawn Watson, a man that he brought from Louisville much to the disappointment of seemingly everybody. Watson's hiring and retention in particular is a special point of criticism because it makes it look like Strong wasted an entire offseason and was clueless about Texas HS football. The argument is that this shows very bad decision-making that makes future success doubtful.
Reply: I disagreed with Strong bringing in Watson, but I don't think Strong was being an idiot. To be fair, he tried to hire Tom Herman but was turned down. Regarding Watson, we have to remember that Strong knew nothing but success with Watson over several years. It is easy for people detached from that experience and well-versed in Texas high school football to criticize the decision, but when people take new multi-million dollar jobs, I'll venture to guess that it is not unusual for them to bring people that they know and trust.
Should Strong have gone with someone else after Herman said no? I think so. But he wasn't being an irrational doofus for taking Watson with him, so I don't see how this is evidence of alarmingly bad decision-making. More importantly, he rectified these situations pretty quickly, so he clearly wasn't going to sit on his hands and do nothing.
As far as retaining Watson, I think evaluation was simply difficult because of all the injuries and dismissals. Should he still have been let go? Maybe... probably. But again, keeping him wasn't insane given the situation. Of course, the dismissals bring us to our next argument.
Argument #3: Strong's rules and subsequent dismissals seem heavy-handed and pretty silly in the context of college football.
Nobody is saying that the players should be allowed to run roughshod over campus, but they also don't need to be choir boys who never skip class. It's not like Mack Brown wouldn't have kicked Kendall Sanders and Montrel Meanders off the team, and he certainly didn't check out like Urban Meyer did at Florida, so the narrative that Strong needed to come in and clean out all sorts of horrible, immoral people is false. This not only cost Texas good players in the present but can also affect recruiting.
Reply: I think a couple of things need to addressed in this argument. First, Strong does take chances on non-choir boys and he also does not immediately kick them off the team (unless, of course, they are charged with sexual assault). Based on what we know, he grants multiple chances to get with the program. Second, the rules are not simply to help these young men become more mature (which is frankly good enough itself) but to measure commitment to the program.
None of Charlie's rules are all that difficult. The fact that many players repeatedly ignored them shows that they were not interested in buying-in to the team as a whole. I agree Mack Brown did not run a program full of prison inmates, but there was a definite problem of entitlement that even players mentioned.
And if other schools use this for negative recruiting, so what? There isn't any evidence that that's the real reason why recruits pick other schools, and this kind of recruiting only makes these coaches look stupid. If a player or his parents fall for that crap, that's probably a good sign that we don't want him representing the University of Texas.
Argument #4: Strong came from a weak conference and rarely played ranked opponents, and even when he was a DC in the SEC, he did not face offenses like he will see in the Big 12 on a regular basis.
During his four years at Louisville, Strong faced only two ranked opponents in the regular season, and they were at the very bottom of the Top 25. Yes, he knocked off No. 4 Florida in a bowl game, but the Gators were probably overrated and obviously featured bad offense. This step up in competition seems too much for him, so it's no surprise that we get staff problems and blowouts.
Reply: There is no doubt that Strong comes from a weaker conference, but many good coaches do. This argument seems to be saying that Strong needed to face a slew of ranked opponents every year and beat them regularly to show that he was ready to coach at Texas, but how many coaches outside of the top schools do that? And when they're already at top schools... they're probably not leaving. Most of the time, when a coach faces a bunch of ranked opponents, he loses many of those games, and then what? He should be criticized for not winning enough? This argument seems to be wanting it both ways.
In addition, while it is true Strong has not ever faced the kind of offenses he sees now regularly, he still has a good track record overall against them. Florida performed fairly well against OU in 2008, and he and Bedford already proved that they can field a pretty solid defense at Texas last season. Most of those losses and blowouts were the fault of the offense. I really don't see how one can question Strong's defensive aptitude at this point.
Argument #5: Strong and his staff are slow-playing it way too much on the recruiting trail. There are big holes, such as at defensive tackle, and opposing schools have a lot of momentum that we simply don't have. A long-term strategy like this will likely doom his chances.
Reply: Admittedly, Strong's preferred style of recruiting has drawn criticism from guys who follow recruiting closely, such as Wescott, Scipio, and Eric Nahlin. Apparently, he is rather confident in himself in closing out the recruiting season well with late flurries, which might bite him in the behind. Also, there seems to be legitimate criticism that not everyone on the staff is pulling their weight on the recruiting trail, and positions such as defensive tackle are a concern.
Still, we are a long ways from February, and our last class, overall, was excellent. Strong also did a good job holding together Brown's last class. Strong himself seems to be an excellent recruiter, and there is plenty overall evidence that he is not complacent: If he thinks staff members are being lazy, he addresses it, and I think he can adapt some of his methods to deal with the realities of recruiting in the state of Texas. Given that his first full class was a top-10 class that has already given us productive freshman with high promise, this criticism is clearly way too premature.
Obviously, nobody knows the future, and for all my optimism, Charlie Strong may fail here. However, the question is this: Is it more reasonable to think that Strong has the program on the right track to get to 10 win seasons and conference title contention? I think the answer is yes right now, and I think it would have been yes even if we lost to OU as expected.
Strong is neither immune from mistakes nor criticism, and we want this forum to be a place where that criticism can be expressed, but not only does the weight of the evidence easily refute the knuckleheads who seem to have something personal against Strong, I think it easily addresses the concerns of the more level-headed skeptics. Coaches should always be re-evaluated and the calculus may change for Strong at some later date, but right now, I think the most reasonable position is to be pretty optimistic about what he is doing at Texas.