Charlie Strong and the Road Forward
I write this the day after Kansas beat Texas 24-21. As everybody knows, this marks the end of Charlie Strong's tenure at Texas. It's all just a formality at this point.
- The last time I wrote about the 'Horns, I praised their heart this year. Boy was I wrong on that one. Never judge a team based on their performance against preseason cupcakes. Of course, at the time nobody knew Notre Dame was a cupcake; everybody thought they were a top-10 team.
- What Texas really didn't need was a controversial coach firing. And with the Kansas game we thankfully don't have one. Going into the game, Kansas was 1-9, had lost 19 consecutive Big 12 games, hadn't beaten an FBS team since 2014, and hadn't beaten Texas since 1938. Yes, 1938. It was truly an historic loss and getting beat by Kansas tipped the scales unambiguously. That is one good thing to come of this loss - it's made the firing decision obvious and unarguable to rational people.
- I've been a Charlie Strong supporter from the beginning. I like many aspects of the way he runs the program, especially off-field. But I mentally detached from him after the Oklahoma State game. We had just lost to Cal. In that game, the offense was clicking but Cal exposed our weaknesses on defense. However, I figured Strong would fix it because he's a defense-minded coach and we had an extra bye week to work on it. I thought the next game, Oklahoma State, would be telling. They're a prototypical, pass-heavy Big 12 team. I thought the game would be a good indicator of whether he could fix our defense as well as how the season would play out in general. Well, it was in fact a great litmus test. We lost 49-31, the Cowboys put up 555 yards on us, and 2016 has been another miserable season. But the worst part of that game was this: We made zero progress on the obvious problem areas. Our issues were laid bare in the Cal game, so what the hell had they been doing for two weeks? Squandering improvement opportunities has been a recurring problem under Strong: We did it in the summer of 2015 when Shawn Watson put together the most pathetic attempt at a HUNH offense I've ever seen. We did it in the off-season of 2016 when a defense full of physically talented but inexperienced personnel made no improvement. And we did it during the bye week before the Oklahoma State game. At that point I disengaged from the Strong camp. I didn't necessarily want him to get fired, but I wasn't going to argue that he shouldn't any more.
- Talent-wise, I think Strong leaves the program in better shape than he found it. Somehow, despite the mounting losses, he pulled in terrific recruiting classes. Which is a big part of why the losses and lack of progress are so frustrating and ultimately unacceptable. The next coach has a lot to work with and it wouldn't surprise me if he looks like a freaking genius very quickly due in large part to inherited player talent. On the other hand, with a few notable exceptions, it's talent that has largely under-delivered. It's probably more accurate to call it "potential" than talent, and "potential" is of course a loaded word.
- I hope the AD and the Board of Regents don't fuck up the hiring process. They made an absolute goat rope of the baseball coaching hire, although they did get nice raises for the country's best college baseball coaches. They run a leaky and undisciplined ship over at Belmont and frankly, I think Mike Perrin is in over his head. I'm praying they learned something from that debacle. [11/23/2016 Update - Not off to a good start. If they already intend to fire Strong, by not doing it immediately following the Kansas game, they set up a messy PR situation if the Longhorns beat TCU and get a bowl game.]
- And it won't be easy. There are no sure-fire candidates that we actually have a chance to land out there. Tom Herman, the presumptive top candidate, has only been a head coach two years and his success is in no small measure thanks to players recruited by somebody else. Nobody knows if he can build a program of sustained success. And he's had mixed results (losing to SMU is almost as bad as losing to Kansas!) in 2016 - a year in which Houston had legit playoff aspirations. Despite the hype, there's a lot of risk in going with him, as there is with any candidate that we have an actual chance of getting. [11/23/2016 Update - I just read a journalist who believed that a bidding war for Herman could go to $8M-$9M per year. That's Harbaugh territory and significantly more than Saban - for a person with all of 2 years head coaching experience and one AAC championship. He did win a national championship as OC at tOSU under Urban Meyer, but still he has a paper thin resume compared to other coaches making anywhere near that amount of money. These are crazy times.]
- I also hope the big-moneyed, always-meddling boosters don't fuck this up. They certainly did in Strong's case; the guy wasn't even on campus before McCombs and company started sowing the seeds of discontent. That shit is not helpful. Unfortunately with no can't-miss candidates, it's probable that there will be dissension over whoever we hire.
- Finally, I hope the fans don't fuck this up. When Strong was hired, the level of fan scrutiny over the process was downright obsessive. The major Longhorns blogs were publishing all manner of rumor, innuendo, conjecture, pontification, and out-right bullshit about what was going on and the major players involved. It got to the point where people were tracking charter airplane flights into Austin to speculate about who was interviewing and what it meant. It was undoubtedly detrimental to the hiring process. And unfortunately I got sucked in and followed it way too closely. This time around, I know better.