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Being a Good Man Wasn’t Enough to Save Charlie Strong at Texas

Three thoughts on the end of the Strong era and the beginning of Tom Herman’s tenure

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

At the beginning of September, the Texas Longhorns beat Notre Dame in double overtime, announced their re-emergence to the world, and saved head coach Charlie Strong’s job. At the end of this week, Texas had become college football’s face of institutional incompetence, fired Strong, and hired Tom Herman. How did we — I write as a Longhorns alum — get here? I have three thoughts.

1. To understand what Charlie Strong wanted to do at Texas, read what the old Longhorns safety Freddie Joe Steinmark wrote about former head coach Darrell Royal: He “taught conservative, errorless, basic football and let the other guys strangle themselves by their own mistakes.” This is what Strong set out to do. Instead, he wound up strangling himself with his own mistakes.

Charlie Strong (Getty Images)
Charlie Strong (Getty Images)

In the end, Strong was basically a brand — a surname that became destiny. Where his predecessor, Mack Brown, was pillow-soft, Strong would be iron-tough. Texas fans had once bragged about Brown’s huggable “family atmosphere.” After Strong was hired in 2014, they bragged about how injured players were sent to a dungeon-like “pit,” that Strong made players walk to practice rather than riding in an air-conditioned bus. As Orangebloods’ (now Horns Digest’s) Chip Brown wrote at the time, “Let me tell you why Charlie Strong is the perfect hire for Texas right now: because he eats, drinks, and breathes TOUGHNESS and is now at a program starving for it.”

There were a couple of problems with this idea. One, Steve Patterson, the athletic director who hired Strong, did so without consulting the school’s big donors. Partly because of this estrangement, Patterson was fired after less than two years on the job, leaving Strong without an administrative lifeline. (As the first black coach at Texas, Strong also got a sorry, racially tinged welcome from Texas booster Red McCombs.)

The other problem was that Strong’s toughness — hewn by years of being denied jobs he was more than qualified for — became entangled with his self-sufficiency. It was as if he wanted to go it alone. Given the ability to hire any coordinators in 2014, Strong brought both of the guys he worked with at Louisville. The offensive coordinator, Shawn Watson, was a failure after a year — yet Strong waited one week into the 2015 season to demote him. The defensive coordinator, Vance Bedford, was a failure after two years — yet Strong waited until this October to demote him. (He took over the defensive duties himself, and the unit improved.)

Strong went it alone in personnel, too. His defenders said he could hardly be judged on his third-year record because his players were so young. In fact, Strong wanted to have a young roster that was filled with guys whom he, not Brown, recruited. In 2014, he ran off seven of Brown’s players for minor offenses. A center, Jake Raulerson, transferred to Arkansas after a conflict with the coach. That left Strong, in a season in which his career hung in the balance, starting a true freshman center (Zach Shackelford) in front of a true freshman quarterback (Shane Buechele).

Moreover, Strong made no effort to charm the media. This isn’t mandatory — watch Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh’s weekly, tight-lipped concerto. But unlike Harbaugh, Strong had no Twitter doppelgänger, no identity outside of the grieving figure that appeared behind a podium after each loss. A Twitter impersonator named Chuck F’n Strong was probably better known to Texas fans than their actual coach.

This week, you probably heard “Charlie Strong is a good man.” This was the part of Strong’s identity that was knowable: He was a moral figure in an immoral universe. Strong’s “core values” became the tenets upon which many a magazine feature was written. Even at his final press conference, after a 31–9 loss to TCU had sealed his fate, Strong insisted, “I came here to change lives.” When Texas A&M suffered a rash of arrests and Baylor covered up various acts of sexual assault, Strong’s message paid off in recruiting. He was the Pope Francis of the Big XII.

Whether Strong’s claim to greater morals was real — and not a brand — depends on how you define morality. In college football, I think of it as treating your mostly unpaid workforce with respect. I remember the Brown players Strong disappeared at the beginning of his tenure. In his final two games as coach, Strong gave running back D’Onta Foreman 82 carries — which had the odd effect of making fans on the message boards root for Foreman to leave for the NFL.

Whereas Strong was Brown’s opposite, Tom Herman is now being sold as Strong’s. Herman knows Texas high schools and recruiting, where it took Strong a year or more to catch up. Herman was a Texas graduate assistant who learned under Brown, not a man hired to repudiate the M.O. of the old master. Already, there is speculation about a united fan base that will no doubt be preaching the restoration of the vaunted family atmosphere. It’s a handy reminder: As a college football fan, you are what your coach is.

2. The media coverage of Strong/Hermangate was one of the more interesting parts of the last two weeks. If you pay for any of the four main Texas subscription sites (I subscribe to all of them), you read a mostly gloomy story. UT’s administration was a bunch of amateurs who couldn’t decide whether to fire Strong; Strong pulled a bureaucratic power play to stay on after the 24–21 loss to Kansas, and then put on a defiant, heart-tugging Monday press conference; a mysterious “red flag” appeared during UT’s vetting of Herman, which might have scuttled a deal; and, while Texas slumbered, LSU had all but signed Herman to a deal Thursday night.

Tom Herman (AP Images)
Tom Herman (AP Images)

A person with a pre–Rivals.com media diet read a far happier story. Texas played its final regular-season game on Friday; it fired Strong on Saturday morning; and it installed his successor, the school’s top choice, a few hours later.

There are a couple of things to remember. The first, as one wise man on Twitter noted, is that coaches, not players, are often the sympathetic figures in college football reporting. Strong was very, very popular with the national media dating back to his time at Florida, as ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit’s twin interventions on his behalf will attest. Herman is popular with the media, as well. When you read an angry screed about Texas and LSU’s administrative incompetence, remember that you’re hearing the echo of text messages sent from coaches’ cell phones to the media.

Second, we have a lot more information about what happens in athletic departments than we did 20 years ago. Without media intervention, Herman’s “red flag” might have resulted in a handful of phone calls. Now, it became a national code red. Was the jockeying between Texas and LSU over Herman really absurd? Or was the absurd part the level of detail that fans were trying to process every day?

I don’t bemoan new media. Every reader, myself included, wants to know more rather than less. But our thirst for inside dope isn’t just a quest for information; it’s because we are — to use the favorite recruiting epithet of the message boards — drama queens. No reader really wants an orderly transition of power. They wants secret handshakes, double-crossings, and Hail Marys. They want the Rivals.com proprietor to wink and tell them, “Trust me, the next few days are going to be unpredictable.”

3. A final note: Beware of any story about Texas returning to its “rightful place” atop college football. (Or the story’s first cousin on its mother’s side: How could mighty Texas have fallen so far?)

D’Onta Foreman (Getty Images)
D’Onta Foreman (Getty Images)

Here’s my theory of college football: There aren’t great programs. There are only great coaches. I know this because I spent most of my childhood watching crappy Texas football teams. They got better when Brown was hired during my junior year at UT. When Brown’s spell wore off, Texas sunk back to a spot in the pecking order behind Texas A&M and Houston, plus Baylor and TCU. This was treated as a historical quirk; in fact, it was a restoration of the Reagan-era prime of the Southwest Conference.

Magical thinking about indomitable programs is rampant across college football. You hear all the time that LSU is a powerhouse. Maybe I’m old — I remember Curley Hallman. I remember what happened at Alabama between 1983 and 2007, minus a few seasons of Gene Stallings. I remember Gary Moeller. Hell, I remember Brady Hoke.

Texas has the kind of resources — whip-out money, boosters, a fertile recruiting ground — that are necessary to power an annual winner. But having these things doesn’t mean you get a berth in the College Football Playoff every year. Texas’s ability to return to its “rightful” spot atop the heap depends, as it always has, on whether it picked the right coach. Just ask Charlie Strong.