A big smile broke out on Texas Longhorns head coach Charlie Strong’s face as a reporter from the Big 12 Digital Network attempted to ask a question.
In the following moments, his rich chuckle punctuated his exchange with sophomore defensive end Breckyn Hager, who was sweaty and ecstatic after becoming the first Longhorns player to defeat freshman quarterback Shane Buechele in ping pong.
“This means a lot to me!”
So much that he couldn’t help but interrupt.
Ping Pong legend @Breckyn44 in action pic.twitter.com/radrgtmH1L— Bryan Hill (@Coach_BHill) August 18, 2016
A year ago, such a scene wouldn’t have been possible, as the Texas players’ lounge was a fancy wasteland that ESPN described as looking like a “business titan’s vacation home.” Unfortunately, it received about as much use.
As a result, the Longhorns head coach made some changes:
So in June, Strong began serving lunch to the players in the lounge. He also had the lounge upgraded, adding a pingpong table, a second pool table, a foosball table, an air hockey table and even an old-school arcade game. The change came almost overnight.
Buechele’s competitiveness and aptitude for just about any game helped spur the massive change in the team. Suddenly, everyone was around the football facility.
In addition to the epic ping-pong battles, the team has watched the Olympics together and discussed putting together a race between the fastest players on offense and defense. They’ve watched senior offensive guard Kent Perkins crush out nearly 40 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press.
During the summer, the “Battle for the Belts” pitted players against each other in three divisions, but the victories were celebrated together.
They’re challenging each other and pushing each other to be better, but just as importantly, they’re getting to know each other and breaking down some barriers.
"What you see now is that they are around each other more,” Strong said last weekend. “Usually if you don't know someone, you can't really play with them in a playful way where you're joking with them, but guys do that now and guys don't get upset because they're around each other so much more and they respect one another.”
As the upperclassmen have started to supplement the voices of Strong and his staff, the team has begun to develop the missing chemistry that resulted in some extremely public blowups last season, including senior safety Dylan Haines calling out the freshmen last season during a press conference. Several freshmen then responded on social media.
It was an ugly scene.
But don’t expect a similar occurrence this season, in part because of the changes to the players’ lounge that Strong made in an effort to bring his team together.
“The players’ lounge kind of used to be a spot where people would go and take naps, people would go and relax,” Haines said. “And now we've added all these different games and stuff and it just provides more areas for competition for the players and it gets us all in there and all involved with talking to one another. So I think it's just a better team-building aspect now than it has been before.”
These days, Haines is just extending a little friendly trash talk to Hager about being better at ping pong.
Of course, this chemistry talk all sounds rather familiar, as every offseason beats a similar refrain. This year, though, there’s something different about the tone — Hager breaking into Strong’s office presented a remarkable and unscripted look at the current state of the team.
However, it doesn’t mean anything without translating to the field, but graduate transfer kicker Trent Domingue, who just arrived in Austin after the ‘Horns announced his addition to team in late July, sees the unity.
“Just being here for a week or so, I can tell that they are excited,” Domingue said in an interview with TexasSports.com. “When they make a big play, everyone gets excited. Everybody is pumped up and I can just tell by the demeanor of the team in the locker room, before practice or after practice, that they’re pretty excited.”
"Sometimes you feel like there's been a change," Strong said. "You feel it, and you see it. That's what you see now with the team. You see it."
Normally, it’s only the head coach and the staff and the team that see it. But this year, everyone saw it.
And in 15 days, the eyes of the college football world will be on Austin and the ‘Horns will have a chance to show it on the field at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.