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Here Lies Charlie Strong

The embattled Longhorns coach has either been fired, or is about to be, depending on whom you trust. It’s hard to say we didn’t see this coming a long time ago.

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

Nowadays we tend to put reverent epitaphs on gravestones — “beloved mother,” or “devoted husband,” maybe a nice quote or Bible verse, something to positively remember the deceased. But in the days when medicine was scant and death was lurking around every corner, gravestones used to indicate how a person died on the rare occasions that a bane was so uncommon that it was cause for alarm. A study of Irish graveyards says this was reserved for “violent and sudden” deaths; an article about New England epitaphs considers these stones “a warning to people who were still alive.”

And so, when Charlie Strong’s currently rumored firing becomes official, we’ll know what the engraver will write on the tombstone of his Texas tenure: TEXAS LOST TO KANSAS.

Of course, that’s not the only reason Strong is presumably getting fired. One loss couldn’t justify Strong’s firing, the same way Strong’s various upset wins apparently aren’t enough justification to keep him. But they didn’t write, “WELL, OUR MEDICINE IS PRETTY BAD SO WE COULDN’T STOP HIS INTERNAL BLEEDING” on the tombstone of a dude who died from getting kicked in the stomach by a mule. Texas lost to Kansas.

For now, Strong remains in Austin — we think. The timeline of the last 48 hours in Austin is tough to keep track of. Some have already reported his firing. Some have reported the school will wait until the season is over before moving on. Players have begun to mourn his leave, and yet he gave a press conference Monday announcing that he’d like to coach Texas next year, which ended with the players cheering for him. It’s tough to tell what’s happening. But Texas lost to Kansas.

It was the Longhorns’ first loss to the Jayhawks since 1938. They’ve been in the same league for over 20 years now, and never once had Texas been bad enough, nor Kansas good enough, for this to happen. And this year Kansas was abysmal: Prior to Saturday’s game, it was 1–9 on the season, with its only win against Rhode Island, one of the worst teams in the FCS.

Sure, Texas’s loss was flukey. The Longhorns had six turnovers and a double-digit fourth-quarter lead, but lost in overtime on the road. But THEY LOST TO KANSAS. But Texas has all the advantages a college football program could ask for, and Kansas runs a football team with what’s left after paying for a top-tier hoops program. Texas is the big meal you’re gonna have this Thursday, and Kansas is re-microwaving some slivers of turkey Saturday after you’ve finished off all the leftover mashed potatoes and stuffing.

Charlie Strong never got Texas even close to where it needs to be. In 2013, Mack Brown resigned, the result of a years-long standoff between an apathetic, aging coach and a school that loved the Longhorns legend too much to fire him. That year they won eight games, the year before they won nine games, the year before that they won eight.

In three years, Strong has never won more than six. His peak was below the lowest threshold Texas seemed willing to bear before him.

I like Charlie Strong. He’s kind and charismatic, a man whose players love him more dearly than I love anything. He succeeded masterfully at Louisville, building a powerful program in the dying days of the Big East and through the maelstrom of confusion that is the AAC. We all saluted Louisville’s accomplishments this season with Lamar Jackson’s furious scoring flurries, but this year’s team isn’t as good as Strong’s final two Louisville teams, and, in any case, it probably owes some of its success to the groundwork Strong laid.

But he has accomplished none of the same things at Texas. At Louisville, Strong landed Teddy Freakin’ Bridgewater, an elite recruit from Florida who had no business choosing to play for a Kentucky school in conference chaos. At Texas, he’s never found a Teddy, despite having resources in a state full of football-throwing youngsters with dreams of starting in Austin. He missed on players he should have landed, like Kyler Murray and Jarrett Stidham, who both committed elsewhere and then transferred without considering Texas. He failed to develop players he did land, like Jerrod Heard, now playing wide receiver, and Tyrone Swoopes, who is better at running into stuff than throwing. This season he started true freshman Shane Buechele, who looks great! But Texas shouldn’t stumble onto good quarterbacks; it should stockpile them.

Defense had always been Strong’s forte, as he coordinated several stout SEC defenses before turning Louisville into one of the nation’s best, no. 2 in scoring defense in his final season there. Hoo boy, he hasn’t even come close at Texas. Every season, the defense got worse and worse. This year, the Longhorns are 92nd in scoring defense. It allowed 672 yards to Oklahoma, 624 to Baylor, and 500-plus to Oklahoma State and Cal. I know, this is the Big 12, land of high scores and hypothetical defense. But if the Longhorns wanted to play shootouts every week, they would’ve hired a quick-draw expert who could win those. Instead, they opted for a man known for sturdy defenses, hoping he could succeed by putting a damper on the free-for-all, and it failed pretty miserably.

Texas is more or less the ideal situation for a college football team. The school has so much money, enough to buy smaller colleges wholesale. And it’s got some of the richest recruiting turf in the nation, fertilized by the depth and quality of Texas’s obscene high school football scene. It’s got one of the largest, most passionate fan bases around, a huge state whose football-crazy populace defaults toward Longhorns fandom (except for people born in a few specific college towns where that is DISTINCTLY NOT THE CASE.)

Sounds great, right? Until you’re actually the head coach at Texas.

All those fans? They can sour on you quickly. They’ve got pretty high expectations, and Strong missed those quickly. Then the bashing began: He wasn’t nice enough to Texas’s high school coaches, he was too nice to players that needed a stern leader, and maybe his accent was a little too Arkansas and not enough Texas. (Somehow, Mack Brown got by, even though he’s from a place that puts vinegar-based sauce on its barbecue.)

Most coaches trying to rebuild a program get a two-year grace period before serious public outcry — one season because your team is just the old coach’s team, and the next to see how good you can actually be. It took about 1.25 seasons before Texas fans were so vehemently calling for Strong’s firing that even people with very good reasons not to tweet about firing Charlie Strong were accidentally tweeting about firing Charlie Strong.

All those recruits? Mess up a little bit, and they’re all playing for your fiercest rivals. Strong’s last Texas recruiting class was seventh in the 247Sports composite team rankings, which means six teams did better than he did, often by grabbing players out from under Texas.

And all that money? It can buy anybody — well, anybody except Nick Saban, which is pretty much anybody. And at the instant the Longhorns realize they’d rather have somebody else, they can get him.

They will now probably try to nab Houston’s Tom Herman, who has no demerits on his résumé. He’s an offensive whiz who built a scheme strong enough to win a national title after losing two quarterbacks at Ohio State in 2014. He’s a program-changing head coach, turning Houston into a team capable of beating the Big 12’s best in just two years. And he’s a recruiting superstar, getting five-star defensive tackle Ed Oliver to commit to Houston even though Herman was virtually guaranteed to leave the school within a few years. (Herman did what Strong couldn’t in landing Oliver, and, dammit, Strong tried.)

Texas should get Tom Herman. If it cannot get Tom Herman, it should continuously offer him more money until he says yes.

And the Longhorns will probably be better off. Herman has been more successful as a head coach in Texas with less money, program prestige, and time than Strong has had. It stands to reason that he’ll be great in charge of the Longhorns. Of course, it once stood to reason Strong would be great in charge of the Longhorns. But booster pressure, high program standards, and a lack of time turned out to be his enemies.

Until Texas fires Strong and hires Herman, we’re stuck in an awkward moment, when Strong is both Texas’s coach and not Texas’s coach. It’s a confusion befitting Strong’s time in Austin. There have always been reasons to keep him, wins that hinted at competence, recruiting victories that promised future success. But Texas was never good, and in three years’ time the team far exceeded the level of failure it could tolerate.

And so here we are, wondering how to handle the subpar present if we’re going to get to the promise of a beautiful future. Maybe the Longhorns should just keep him through the week, if they haven’t already decided to. The players will be upset if he’s fired, and you’re not going to hire a new coach Thanksgiving weekend, anyway.

But then again, they lost to Kansas. Kansas.