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Charlie Strong wants Texas Longhorns players leading culture change

The new head coach can't do this all himself.

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Through the course of Texas Longhorns head coach Charlie Strong's first few months on the job, there's been a lot of focus on moving players into the dorms, which happened several weeks, ago, roping off the logo in the locker room, and removing logos from the helmets, among other initiatives.

But in the end, however, the impetus ultimately rests with the players the spur the type of culture change that will be necessary to once again raise Texas into the upper echelon of college football programs.

No amount of prodding, motivation, oversight, and appeals to the pride of the players can force them to take pride in their history-rich program, can force them to have the toughness to show up to class, or make the sometimes difficult decision to do the right thing.

They have to own it.

And a large amount of that will come from the players themselves taking ownership of the program, something that didn't happen often in the last year of Mack Brown's tenure in Austin, though Strong would never come out and say as much.

"It's all about each and every day just getting better and working hard," Strong said last Friday. "Just staying hungry and staying humble. That's what we have to do. That whole attitude has to change, we know that, as a football team."

"This program will never change, the culture won't change until the attitude of the players change. That's what we're seeking to do each and every day."

Unfortunately, the process is still ongoing for the Longhorns, as the players haven't yet taken that crucial step into ownership. It was apparent from the dismissals that happened recently -- part of taking ownership is inculcating the set of core values that Strong preaches.

"As far as leadership, our guys know, our seniors know it's got to come -- right now it's coming from the coaches," said Strong. "I told them yesterday at some point they have to buy into it, and the seniors have got to take over the leadership of this football team."

Strong is quickly developing a reputation for candor among fans and writers -- his answers don't come across as pre-rehearsed, he's not relentlessly positive about where his team is when it's clear that the process of culture change continues, and he's specific when referring to needed areas of improvement.

Since the new Texas head coach is extremely careful not to make any statements that could come across as critical of Brown, he demurred when asked to describe the culture of the team he inherited back in January.

"I don't know," said Strong.

But he really does know, as he quickly demonstrated.

"The culture that you step into was you look at a team and look at a group of seniors that hasn't had a double-digit winning season since they've been here, and then you just look at some things that we had to do academically, where a lot of guys had to get on board academically. Once you change it in the classroom, then you'll be able to change it on the football field."

Aside from the possibility that some of dismissed senior running back Joe Bergeron's problems were in the classroom, most of the academic issues have been from younger players. Since the start of the summer, the new academic team has combined with the new staff to attempt to enforce a greater level of accountability with players attending class, with Strong asking players to sit in the front row without headphones or anything else that might distract them from the task at hand.

It's one step in developing the toughness that it takes to succeed as a football team. And for Strong, toughness is hardly just about specifically football-related matters.

"When I talk about toughness, a lot of times, it's not always the physical act of it," said Strong. "Sometimes we just have to have a mindset and just toughness is just go do the right thing. How hard is it? Some guys don't have that type of toughness, from the mental side and the physical side. Just toughness to go to class. Toughness just to do what we ask you to do within this program."

"You have core values that are sitting there. Do you have the toughness to do what we ask you to do with the core values? And then we get on the football field, when you talk about toughness. I'm not someone who's just going to go out there; it's all about going all out each and every play. We're not trying to just see if we can physically beat our football team down. It's not very smart, and we will never do that."

But part of the point of moving the players into the dorms together is to ensure that the older players both know and police the younger players through both action and advice.

With little experience in that regard, and perhaps not enough strong personalities, the team appears to have some room for growth in that area, as Strong essentially called out the players expected to be the senior leaders -- cornerback Quandre Diggs, safety Mykkele Thompson, defensive end Cedric Reed, defensive tackle Desmond Jackson, linebacker Jordan Hicks, center Dominic Espinosa, and wide receiver Jaxon Shipley.

Diggs definitely isn't afraid of being a vocal leader, but some of the others don't seem to have the same natural tendency to step up. And Strong believes that the lack of success has hurt, too, not only in keeping those players from knowing what it takes to win, but also in reducing their own ability to simply believe in themselves.

But even Diggs has gone through a growth process since he thought about entering the NFL Draft last spring, according to Strong, and now he's taking an active role in coaching the younger players, exactly the type of ownership that the Horns need.

"When you get to the senior year, it becomes more meaningful to you also because you want to leave out the right way. I think that's the attitude that they're developing," said Strong. "The leadership role is they've never been placed in that position for. So now it's just so hard that you're so inspired to go motivate because, when you really have developed it and they haven't been developed and they haven't had a season that they've been looking for."

"So now some don't feel like they can just step out and go lead when I tell them all the time, just because of what you've done, you're our leader. So now it's all about you."

Now Strong has made the expectations clear, so it's left up to the players to take the next step. And it was a difficult one for the players to achieve during the spring as they made the adjustment to a new staff with vastly different expectations.

Not to mention the added pressure of learning new schemes on both sides of the ball.

"You would like at some point that they realize this is their football team, and then they start taking over this football team. I think it eventually will happen," said Strong. "I told them that now that you know what to expect from us as a coaching staff, because you know who we are now. So it's not like you're trying to read us, and we're trying to read you. Now it's out there, so you know exactly what we expect from you. So now I'd like to see you expect it from yourself and from your teammates."

Having set the tone for what the coaches expect, now the players can move on to actually leading.

"As a coaching staff, yes, it's our responsibility to drive them, but some of them step up and say, you know what, guys, it's time for us to start going to work and not worrying about heat as we're speaking of earlier. It's going to be there. Heat's going to be there. Or how long we're going to be at practice or how we're practicing. Those things should never become a factor now. It should be more now, how can we get better, Coach? What do we need to do to make this team the best it can possibly be?"

When the players are truly driving the team to become the best it can be, the culture change by Charlie Strong at Texas will be complete.