"I thought when I walked in, I was just going to push a button and it was just going to go." -- Charlie Strong on the Texas job
Charlie Strong is the 29th Texas Longhorns head coach in the history of a program that dates to 1894. Of the 17 head coaches to last more than one season in Austin, Strong's current overall record of 10-13 through two seasons is worse than all but one -- Dana X. Bible, who went 3-14-1 in 1937 and 1938.
Incidentally, 1937 was the last time that the Longhorns didn't have a player taken in the NFL Draft until 2014.
The most interesting thing about the Bible comparison, though, is the fact that Bible went on to finish with a 63-31-3 record at Texas, meaning that he won 60 of his final 69 games roaming the sideline at Texas Memorial Stadium.
Just as there were reasons why Bible struggled to start his career and then turned it around, there are a number of reasons why Strong's rebuild isn't progressing as quickly as many fans would like, even though most rational members of Longhorns nation knew that it would take some time for Strong to fix the systematic issues plaguing the program.
Despite the fact that former head coach Mack Brown doesn't want to take responsibility for what is happening right now on the field, much of the blame rests on him, according to numerous coaches who have faced the Longhorns and spoke with Sports Illustrated:
They point the finger at Brown and his former staff for the lack of talented upperclassmen and an attitude of entitlement that's resulted in public clashes with younger players recruited by Strong.
"In two years, Charlie could not have f----- that place up," a coach tells The Inside Read. "It was already f---- up before."
However, Strong has also made several decisions that have made his rebuild more difficult, while attempting to succeed under an athletic director more concerned with the bottom line than supporting his head football coach.
Lack of a winning culture
On the list of Texas senior classes with the most losses, three of them have come in the last three years and the 2015 class has a chance to tie the 1989 group as the worst in program history in that ignominious distinction if the Horns drop the last two games.
So the current seniors learned from the 2014 seniors that ranked No. 4 on the list, who learned from the No. 5 group on that list. Is it any surprise, then, that each group merely passed on a losing culture as the program sunk more deeply into the post-2009 malaise?
Part of the problem was the atmosphere that former head coach Mack Brown fostered around the program. No, not the family atmosphere that he so often pitched on the recruiting trail -- the atmosphere that created a culture of entitlement.
This excerpt from an SI piece in the dark days of 2013 is typical of the way that outsiders perceived Brown's program:
Multiple scouts interviewed by SI.com mentioned a "spoiled mentality," a "country club" atmosphere and a chronic failure to take advantage of local talent resources.
Like how Kansas State linebacker Tre Walker said of Texas in 2013, "They kind of laid down a little bit... That's just what they do."
Remember how often the Horns looked soft and unprepared against the Sooners during those four Cotton Bowl blowouts in the Mack Brown era? Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops had a certain ability to expose Brown's teams as exactly what they were before he decided to stop gameplanning for the annual grudge fest.
Here's how Scipio Tex summed up Brown's leadership after he lost The Rationals in the 2012 Cotton Bowl blowout:
I love watching the Longhorn Network, but the most disconcerting element of practices and team meetings is Brown's constant, unceasing chatter - a nattering chorus of self-talk disguised as motivation where he gives voice to his doubts and angst by nervously negating them in front of the team, a constant dilution of his voice, thanking his players for irrelevancies and false achievements; treating the "sudden change" of a pre-game hotel move that didn't affect the players one bit with the same gravity as preparation for Oklahoma State. Repeating the word toughness over and over as if verbal repetition imbues it instead of letting his team light up the walk-ons and scout team with full tackling and letting 1's go against 1's.
Every time a leader uses his voice for inanity, the power of that voice is diminished. Eventually, no one hears him at all.
Kind of like how Brown said that he was scared to death of everything, all the time.
The end result of the dysfunctional culture created by Brown was a team that didn't know how to win, that didn't understand what it meant to be tough, and didn't understand what it meant to work hard.
Poor recruiting and development under Brown
How did the 2013 senior class end up losing all those games at Texas? The 247Sports Composite team rankings slotted it as the No. 2 class nationally. How did the 2014 senior class end up losing all those games at Texas? The 2011 class finished No. 4 in the recruiting rankings. What happened with the 2015 senior class? In 2012, the class for the Horns finished No. 2 nationally.
Part of the answer may lie in the recruiting services doing a poor job in those particular years and some is probably a result of some bad luck having players wash out at a high rate. But not all of it, as recruiting rankings are truly an indicator of future success for programs not helmed by incompetent head coaches and good coaching and development can overcome some bad luck.
After all, program depth is the solution to that issue and the Horns should have had it based on the recruiting rankings.
Looking back, it's incredible that Mack Brown could make so little of so much.
Another telling excerpt from that SI piece about how Brown undermined his own strength and conditioning program, which didn't even have a football-specific strength and conditioning coach until 2011 when Brown hired Bennie Wylie:
People familiar with the team describe a lack of urgency and accountability from Brown to enable Wylie's program to work. This has led to undeveloped prospects, unfulfilled potential and a high transfer rate.
Then there were those evaluation problems, which may have partly been a result of Brown being slow to adopt a legitimate player personnel program designed to take pressure off of the assistant coaches and other administrative staff by allowing that department to handle the logistics of recruiting. And laziness by assistant coaches and Brown. And the desire to lock up classes 11 months before National Signing Day.
As mind-boggling as it is that nationally elite classes could eventually produce the most sustained losing in Texas history, the 2013 class is when it all fell apart for Brown, as he only signed 15 prospects. Seven of them have already washed out and only two have emerged as starters.
The result is a senior class that doesn't have a single draftable player, the second time in three years that has happened after 76 straight years of having at least one player taken in every draft. Thanks, Mack!
The wave of dismissals caused short-term issues
As Srong entered his first season as the head coach, he faced a moral dilemma -- he could allow a group of players who weren't following his rules to get away with what amounted to insubordinance or he could stand behind his core values by trading some short-term success for long-term culture change.
He chose the latter and ended up dismissing several players who could be starters or important contributors this year, ultimately banishing nine players from the program and suspending several others.
Most notable among those players was offensive tackle Kennedy Estelle, a talented player with All-Conference potential who started nine games at Texas and would almost certainly still be in the starting lineup as a senior if he had managed not to violate Strong's core values.
Safety Chevoski Collins could be a starter now, displacing former walk on Dylan Haines or Jason Hall. Even though Collins didn't play a single snap for the Longhorns to provide evidence of his athletic ability on the field, the Livingston product has six interceptions this year at Scottsdale CC, as well as a fumble recovery.
Then there's linebacker Deoundrei Davis. Like Collins, he never played a down at Texas and may not have had the right mentality to ever succeed given the rumors that he was kicked off the team for stealing, but the fact remains that he was a talented consensus four-star prospect with remarkable athleticism. Had he remained focused in Austin, he almost certainly would be in the rotation right now, likely in place of athletically-limited junior Tim Cole.
Perhaps the presence of those players on the team would have been the difference in close losses against UCLA and Oklahoma in 2014 and the heart-breaking finishes against Cal and Oklahoma State this year.
In retrospect, however, Strong still made the right decision by declining to compromise his values, even as Texas fans begin to question it, as Scipio Tex noted:
Strong decided to perform a complete gutting. A process that the fanbase largely accepted in concept. A funny thing about concepts. They're somewhat conceptual. Texas fans began to have second thoughts when they learned that a new kitchen meant that they'd be eating spam off of a hot plate under a dirty tarp for a while. Isn't this all a bit too drastic, they muttered into their canteens. Was the old formica really that bad?
Yes, the old formica was really that bad.
The Big 12 and recruiting landscapes are more competitive
During most of Brown's tenure, programs like Baylor represented an easy win on the Texas schedule. So did Iowa State. Texas didn't lose to Oklahoma State under Brown under 2010. Colorado was a poor program for years before leaving the conference and Texas was a constant foil for Nebraska. Brown didn't lose to Missouri until 2011.
With the rise of Baylor, the addition of a West Virginia team that is 2-2 against Texas in the Big 12, and a TCU program that has blown out Strong's team in each of the last two years, the easy conference wins just aren't there as in the past.
Then there's recruiting, where the Bears and Horned Frogs are making things difficult, with Baylor's high-powered offense stealing skill position players away from Texas and Gary Patterson's early evaluations putting pressure on his counterparts in Austin to effectively make quick decisions without the benefit of being able to easily flip those early pledges later.
All that isn't even mentioning the bludgeoning that Texas A&M has put on Texas through most of three cycles now and the increased foothold for the SEC in the state of Texas as the ESPN hype machine mythologizes the conference.
Combine all of that with a non-conference schedule that has produced two losses in each of the last three years and it's clear that Strong is operating on a different playing field than Brown during the golden years.
Steve Patterson didn't fully support Strong
One of the many people the former Texas athletic director seemingly went out of his way to alienate was, remarkably enough, his first and most important hire on the job.
It started with Patterson reportedly refusing to pay the $5 million buyout of offensive coordinator Chad Morris at Clemson. On the surface, it's understandable, as paying that much money for essentially a one-year rental doesn't make a great deal of business sense -- the buyout was basically a poison pill in his contract.
Much less excusable are the other myriad ways in which Patterson undermined his head coach for little to no reason, according to Horns Digest's Chip Brown, including declining to intervene in the Joe Wickline lawsuit, declining to increase the pay of the quality control assistants, firing longtime football SID John Bianco, and wanting to cut the $20,000 budget for the coats, ties, and pants that players wear on game day.
Strong eventually rebelled against the last assault on his autonomy and forced Patterson to relent by saying that he would pay the yearly cost himself.
The antics by Patterson weren't as harmful to the on-field product as Strong's bad decisions on offense, but they surely didn't help.
Strong made poor hires on offense
From the universally panned decisions to bring play caller Shawn Watson with him from Louisville to the decision to retain the worst assistant on Brown's final staff, Strong has made a number of mistakes on the offensive side of the ball that have severely hampered the upsides of both of his teams.
Going back to his ouster of Mike Sanford early in the 2011 season, Strong has had to remove his offensive play caller during the season twice in five years. While he is decisive correcting mistakes once he identifies them, Strong has a disturbing penchant for making bad offensive decisions, driving largely by his reflexive conservatism in wanting to protect his defense and, in the case of Watson, misplaced loyalty.
Let's put this bluntly -- the belief that Strong could achieve success in the Big 12 in the same manner that he did in a much weaker conference without the same number of spread, up-tempo offenses was silly. Making similar decisions didn't work out especially well for Brown over three seasons and two coordinators following the 2009 season, though Bryan Harsin had the most notable success of the post-2009 stretch before he took the first opportunity to bail on Brown's cratering regime.
Yet Strong made that ill-fated decision anyway, despite having enough latitude to go out and try to hire almost anyone in the country. He didn't end up doing that, for a variety of reasons, as one of Brown's most dangerous traits -- that of excessive loyalty and a desire for familiarity around him -- manifested itself in Strong as well.
Strong had a chance to fix his error of hiring Watson as the play caller following the disastrous Texas Bowl, but declined, instead firing two other assistant coaches who were inconsequential and perhaps even detrimental additions to the staff from the start.
It's even arguable that Texas would be in much better shape if it hadn't hired Joe Wickline as the offensive coordinator/offensive line coach. There wouldn't be an embarrassing lawsuit hanging over the university, talented linemen like Rami Hammad might still be in the program, and the other offensive line coach might be experiencing more success on the recruiting trail, an area Wickline doesn't really care to focus on.
The counterpoint is that Wickline has done a commendable job with the offensive line this year, but there are peristent rumors that he won't return next year, which would seem to make his hire a failed experiment in and of itself.
Now Strong may have to let go of running backs coach Tommie Robinson, too, as he hasn't been a particularly successful recruiter at a position that demands a strong recruiting presence, replace Watson, figure out what to do with current play caller Jay Norvell, and decide whether to try to retain Wickline. If Robinson, Wickline, and Watson all depart, Strong will have retained zero assistants from his original offensive staff after two years.
A 100-percent failure rate is abosolutely unacceptable -- it's cost Texas games and hurt the Horns on the recruiting trail due to sub-par recruiters filling key positions and the on-field results. Despite all the other factors working against Strong, if there's one thing that brings him down that he unquestionably has to own, it's the choices that he's made with his offensive staff.
Now, instead of having margin for error built up by better decisions, he's likely down to one year to make the right hires and demonstrate improvement.
In sum, Brown left Strong with startlingly little to work with and a culture that wasn't ready to foster winning teams. With increased conference-wide pressure on the field and nation-wide pressure on the recruiting trail, the new Texas head coach entered perhaps the most competitive era of the Big 12 and did so with an offensive staff that was doomed for failure from the start under an athletic director seemingly intent on needlessly making things more difficult for Strong.
Few programs these days are able to demonstrate the willingness to allow a head coach the time to rectify previous ills and make advancements if the the progress isn't quickly and readily apparent. By reducing his margin for error with dismissals and crucial hiring mistakes, Strong put himself in an even more perilous position and has already lost a segment of the fan base that believes he'll never successfully help the Horns recover.
Patience isn't in the vocabulary of those fans any more after all the blowout losses in the worst stretch of Texas football history, but it probably should be, because things were definitely pretty f----- up when he arrived and two years and one excellent full recruiting class was never going to be enough to fix that.