Texas Longhorns head coach Charlie Strong is rapidly approaching two years on the job in Austin, but in an increasingly competitive in-state recruiting landscape, there's increasing evidence that he and his staff are in the midst of making a critical miscalculation.
Texas high school football coaches are as important to the recruiting process as the recruits themselves, often acting as a buffer of sorts between college coaches and their players. But Strong and his staff are seemingly less concerned with building relationships with the high school coaches than with communicating directly and sometimes exclusively with the prospects.
The tactic didn't really receive much, if any, attention during the last recruiting cycle, but an article from Grantland in early October shed some light on what was happening when the author spoke with several high school coaches he described as "Texas guys":
The other coach told me that when Texas recruited one of his players, Strong's assistants funneled their communications through the recruit rather than the coach. This was the case even when the Texas assistants came to watch the recruit at high school practice — entering the high school coach's domain, as it were.
Some high school coaches might even consider the complete circumvention of their authority as disrespectful -- the Texas staff is essentially saying that the prospects are the only ones who matter to the process, not the coaches who will remain at the school or somewhere else in the state long after the recruits have come and gone from the respective colleges of their choice.
It's a dangerous tact and one that apparently was not exclusive to that particular recruitment, as the AP recounted a similar story in looking at the difficulties the Horns are currently facing in recruiting:
In Texas, high school coaches control the recruiting process, Buchanan said. When he was coaching current Texas running back Johnathan Gray, recruiters first had to speak with him, then Gray's parents.
Buchanan, now the school's AD, said he never talked to Strong as Texas recruited receiver Ryan Newsome. Texas coaches directly communicated with Newsome through social media, which led to a scheduling mix-up.
Ultimately, the relationship that Strong was able to build with Newsome was enough to flip the dynamic wide receiver from his short-lived pledge to UCLA, but what does Buchanan, a prominent and longtime Texas high school football coach, privately say to other coaches about his exclusion from Newsome's recruitment?
How do the Texas coaches vet prospects without communicating with the coaches? Do they base their character evaluations exclusively off their own gut feelings from their interactions with the prospects? At the least, Strong and his staff must communicate with the people who are around the players every day and have the credibility to assess whether they have the mental and emotional tools in place to succeed in college.
It's also worth pointing out that these coaches are opinion-makers for their players. The coaches will always have longer and more intensive relationships with their own players than those players will ever have with college coaches during the recruiting process.
Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin understands that reality.
"They are part of (the player's) lives from sixth, seventh grade to graduation," Sumlin told the AP. "At the end of the day I've heard a lot of coaches tell me, 'Look Kevin, I'm not going to tell him where he's going to go, but ... if he asks me I'm going to give him my opinion' — which is the same thing, by the way."
In fact, communicating at all with high school coaches doesn't seem like a big priority for Strong and his staff, which does not have the deep ties to the state of Texas. From the Grantland piece again:
Neither coach had ever met Charlie Strong, nor talked to him on the phone, nor exchanged emails with him. One coach told me he'd been in the same room with Strong at a local coaches' meeting, but Strong left after giving a speech without sticking around to shake hands.
How hard is it for Strong to ensure that he's sent out a form email to every high school coach in the state? And even if he had a tight schedule to follow, that schedule should allow for time to make those coaches feel appreciated, to exchange a few words with them and introduce himself. Despite all of his flaws, it's hard to imagine former head coach Mack Brown leaving such a meeting without taking the time to speak with the coaches.
These high school coaches don't know Strong because he hasn't recruited the state extensively prior to arriving in Austin. If they know what he's about, it's largely from second-hand sources. To succeed in Austin, Strong must market himself directly and because the Longhorns continue to do that poorly on social media, the weight of that burden falls directly on the head coach to convince coaches and prospects that he sincerely cares about the kids, values education, and will provide the necessary discipline that will serve as a foundation for their adult lives.
The fact that all of those things are true and that Strong does a good job selling those aspects with parents should allow Strong to accomplish those goals with some effort.
The second-year head coach was able to produce a remarkable signing class in 2015 that lost some significant luster with several non-qualifiers and the quick defection of linebacker Cecil Cherry seemingly without putting a premium on building relationships with the high school coaches.
But believing that such an approach is optimal or sustainable is a fallacy that could come back to haunt the Longhorns if flat-out ignoring or otherwise excluding high school coaches from the process eventually produces a predictable backlash against a program that is undergoing one of the most difficult decades in its history.
In looking at the 2017 recruiting class, much of the success has come from the East Texas ties of new tight ends coach Jeff Traylor, who has been personally responsible for landing three of the four commitments, including star Liberty-Eylau defensive end Lagaryonn Carson. Traylor's reputation with the recruits and relationships around the region have been crucial to his quick success, but there are people in the lives of those kids who are talking up Traylor and the Longhorns to them.
Many of those people are likely coaches.
Call them on the phone. Send emails. Go to their schools, even when they don't have any Texas-quality recruits. Look them in the eye and shake their hands and tell them that they matter. Keep them included in their players' recruiting process.
The potential consequences of failing to do so are too high.