Liberated by a Texas Longhorns bye week, I found myself glued to ESPN on Saturday evening watching the LSU-Auburn game, captivated by the madness of watching two coaches cling to their jobs.
As the game unfolded in the bizarre, twisted fashion that only an Auburn-LSU game could, it left one coach standing on the sideline for another week and another without a job, allowing me to discover a universal rule in the world of college football head coaching — perception is reality.
The firing of Les Miles reveals a lot of things, but none more important to Longhorns fans than the fact that no matter the past record or recruiting victories, a coach’s job security comes down to fan perception.
That’s why this week’s trip to Oklahoma State marks one of the most important games of Charlie Strong’s tenure on the 40 Acres.
Just three short weeks ago, it felt like Tyrone Swoopes’ game-winning touchdown against Notre Dame sent the Texas football program into a new stratosphere, but those aspirations crashed and burned just about as quickly as they took off following a loss to California.
In addition, the Texas non-conference opponents have looked even worse since facing the ‘Horns, including former 10th-ranked Notre Dame falling to Duke at home this past weekend.
Now, Strong faces the public perception that his team may be just another dud, doomed to fade into irrelevance when his team faces its conference schedule. While that assumption may seem off base, it’s rooted in a troubling reality.
To his critics, Strong is a defensive coach who actually fails to understand how to stop successful offenses, and that point is hard to argue. In 28 games as head coach at Texas, Strong’s teams have given up 31 or more points on 11 separate occasions, a surprising fact for a head coach who prides himself on past defensive success. What’s more frustrating is that the defensive output seems to stem from poor coaching with defensive backs failing to cover zones, poor tackling technique, etc.
Besides the defense, other problems still linger. Fans continue to see signs of poor coaching, including regression among certain players, poor in-game management, and reckless penalties — problems that have plagued Strong’s tenure in Austin and are usually signs of bad coaching. In fact, the ‘Horns rank No. 123 nationally in penalty yards per game.
To Texas fans and outside observers, 2016 feels like more of the same from Charlie Strong, but with offensive fireworks produced by Sterlin Gilbert, and perhaps that’s what stings the most for the Longhorn faithful.
Prior to Gilbert’s hiring as offensive coordinator, Strong’s supporters always said he was a successful offensive coordinator away from finding success in Austin. After a demoralizing loss to Cal that featured little inspiring defensive play and critical mistakes, it’s hard to continue to make that argument.
Now, the Longhorns head to Stillwater with a completely different feeling surrounding the team comparing to the trip to play the Golden Bears — this team doesn’t radiate swagger or confidence anymore, but rather uncertainty.
While this game would be monumental to Texas constructing a Big 12 title run, it’s more important to see how the Longhorns respond.
Can Strong inspire his team to battle adversity on the road, something he hasn’t done well so far in Austin? Will we see a dramatic reduction in penalty yardage? With Strong vowing to be more involved on the defensive side of the ball, will we see proof of his defensive genius that he showed while at Louisville and Florida?
For the Texas football program, Saturday isn’t just about winning a game, but changing perception. Again, the ‘Horns will need to prove they are a different team than years prior, but this time with higher stakes. For better or worse, the future of the Texas football program will change on Saturday afternoon. We’ll see if that future includes Charlie Strong.