In the fraught afternoon hours of December 11, 2015, the future of the Texas Longhorns football program with Charlie Strong seemingly hung in the balance. The night before, Tulsa Golden Hurricane co-offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert had accepted the offensive coordinator position, according to widespread reports in Austin, then ultimately decided against it on Friday.
TCU Horned Frogs co-offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie had made a similar decision two days before, in part because he reportedly didn't get the answers that he wanted from Texas administrators about Strong's job security. After Gilber first turned down the job, a report emerged that miscommunication about his contract details sabotaged those negotiations.
With no legitimate back-up plan behind Gilbert other than distant third-place candidate Tony Franklin, the former Cal offensive coordinator who ended up taking the same position at Middle Tennessee State in January, the Texas football program looked like it was in shambles.
Most of all, there were serious concerns about the amount of support in the administration for Strong. After all, athletic director Mike Perrin wasn't tied to Strong in any way after replacing Steve Patterson.
Then, at seemingly the last possible moment, the huge news broke -- president Greg Fenves, tight ends coach Jeff Traylor, Perrin, and Strong were all getting on a plane headed to Tulsa to get Gilbert and his longtime offensive line coach Matt Mattox. It worked, as the four were able to assuage Gilbert's previous concerns and make the hire that could ultimately save Strong's job.
Suddenly, there was some evidence of alignment after a long stretch of dysfunction at Texas.
Sterlin Gilbert (right) with Charlie Strong and Matt Mattox (left) after their introductory press conference.
In a recent interview with Sports Illustrated's Campus Rush, Strong spoke about his relationship with the administration.
"With [athletic director] Mike Perrin, with our president, our chancellor, everyone's aligned," Strong said. "With the chancellor and president aligned with the AD, I can go to Mike and I can ask for things. [We] talk probably once or twice per week. We're always talking. If there's something he's uncomfortable with or something I'm uncomfortable with, I can make that phone call."
Having an open and direct line of communication is no small thing for Strong after Patterson fired one of his closet confidants in sports information director John Bianco last summer without consulting his head coach. Perrin ultimately re-hired Bianco.
Patterson also declined to communicate directly with Strong, who dealt primarily with executive senior associate athletic director Arthur Johnson:
Patterson, according to current and former UT employees, rarely met with Smart or Strong in face-to-face meetings and seldom had interaction with Strong at practices or games.
"You don't want your AD to be a jock-sniffer, but what AD doesn't come down to the locker room and talk to a coach?" a former UT employee said. "I think he thought he was a pro sports owner."
Strong often had difficulties securing small concessions like pay raises for his eight football analysts, causing six to leave before the 2015 season.
So the fact that Strong and Perrin speak several times a week is no small thing after the Patterson era. Likewise, Strong's ability to secure massive raises for Traylor and defensive line coach Brick Haley -- $365,000 combined, including more than doubling Haley's salary -- was a sign that Perrin is willing to help support Strong on key personnel decisions, as pointed out by Kirk Bohls of the Austin-American Statesman:
If anyone is still clinging to the notion that Texas does not support Charlie Strong and want him to succeed, forget it. The school is expected to approve big raises for two of his assistants despite back-to-back losing seasons that would hint that no one deserves raises. Brick Haley coached the defensive line, which was a clear team weakness last season, and he gets his salary doubled. It's safe to say the Texas administration is firmly in Strong's camp.
Strong admitted in the interview that he didn't always understand how to deal with all the different constituencies that need attention at Texas when he arrived, so there are a number of different forces that can pull against a head coach in Austin. In fact, former head coach Mack Brown acknowledged that such factors influenced his own decision to resign.
"It's been a wonderful ride," Brown said at the time in a statement released by the school.
"Now, the program is again being pulled in different directions, and I think the time is right for a change."
Brown didn't resign because he thought he was no longer the right person for the job. He resigned because he felt other factors were too far gone. And that puts into perspective how much that alignment matters -- not having it forced out the second-most successful head coach in Longhorns history. It was time, but short of achieving at the high standard set by Brown and Darrell K Royal before him, it's a compelling indication that there's nothing that can protect a head coach in at Texas when the powerful forces inside and outside the program start pulling in different directions.
Right now, however, things are coming together for Strong.
"So, the alignment is getting there," Strong told SI. "And the special people—I'm getting what I need. If I say, "Hey, I need this." Boom, O.K. If he says he needs it, let's get that done."
The players have been behind their head coach. Finally, so is the administration, it appears. Now the wins must follow or there will be misalignment once again in a program now infamous for it.