It has become the prevailing notion that when it comes to your favorite sports team, you need to be patient with the coaching. It seems that sports fandom culture has morphed into two categories; intelligent knowledgeable fans who know better than to call for a coach’s head (generally this is the type of person who values advanced metrics when thinking about football, loves betting on home underdogs, might wear prescription-less glasses, and probably wear skinny jeans) and impatient moronic unknowledgeable fans who want to fire a guy at the first sign of struggle (this type person values how much “heart” a team displays, blames refs for being biased against his or her team every game, might watch games at their neighborhood Chili’s, and probably wears a T-shirt that’s tucked into jorts). However, what if there are shades of gray? What if one blanket notion isn’t correct in every instance?
After Charlie Strong’s first season when the Longhorns went 6-6 at the end of the regular season (6-7 after the humiliating loss in the Texas Bowl to Arkansas where the Horns’ offense amassed a measly 59 yards of total offense) every Texas fan I know, including myself, cited how Nick Saban went 6-6 his first year at Alabama (the Tide finished 7-6 with a six-point victory over Colorado in the Independence Bowl). The fact that Strong and Saban finished the regular season with the same record gave the fan base hope that soon, just like Alabama, Texas would be back to prominence. Hope was alive and patience was preached and accepted.
Then the 2015 season came and with it was the much anticipated opener vs the Fighting Irish in South Bend. With the entire country watching the Horns were blown out of the stadium only conjuring up 3 points and 163 yards of offense. Afterwards, Charlie Strong removed play calling duties from Shawn Watson, a man who most Texas fans didn’t want Charlie to bring over with him from Louisville. The rest of the ’15 season was a fiasco with few wins but more losses. The next blowout loss came just four weeks later when TCU stomped Texas 50-7. The Horned Frogs were up 47-0 at the end of the 3rd quarter before taking their foot off the peddle. That was the first time I, an unabashed Charlie apologist, began to doubt if he was the right choice for Texas. I didn’t feel good about it because I genuinely admire and like the guy. However, the evidence was mounting that our football team was not well coached. We were making special teams mistakes every game, the penalty yardage was accumulating, and there didn’t seem to be improvement in any phase of the game. Then when all hope was seemingly lost, we beat OU. It was Charlie’s signature win and I was extremely pleased I didn’t voice my inner doubts about him being the man to get Texas back. Seeing Charlie smile wearing the Golden Hat was a moment I’ll never forget. We followed it up with another win vs Kansas State at home, a team that Texas has struggled with since the inception of the BigXII. It seemed like things were heading in the right direction and that our patience was paying off. Unfortunately, the 2 game winning streak snapped the following week in Aimes, Iowa. Texas lost 24-0 to a team with significantly inferior talent and finished the season with a 5-7 record.
Charlie was now 3 games under .500 in his 2 years at Texas. However, uncharacteristically Texas fans were demanding patience with Strong. Everyone understood that Mack Brown left the program devoid of talent and in a state of disrepair. Everyone understood that it would take time for a team littered with underclassmen in the 2 deep to play consistently well. Strong and Texas closed the recruiting season with an emphatic bang heard over the college football world. Texas was again winning recruiting battles with Baylor, the Aggies, and out of state poachers like Stanford. Longhorn nation was optimistic that soon the recruiting victories would turn into on the field victories.
The 2016 season started as did the 2015 season, with a matchup vs Notre Dame. This time it was at the friendly confines of DKR Memorial Stadium and the home crowd was abuzz with the thought of a program turning victory in the national spotlight on a Sunday night when no other team was playing. Texas pulled out a thrilling double overtime win and most proclaimed Texas was back. It had happened. Texas was a national power again. I definitely fell into that camp. Notre Dame was terrific last year and they were preseason number 10. Yeah Texas gave up 444 yards to them but who cares? We won! Aggies complained about how UT went from unranked to number 11 in the polls. However, it made all the sense in the world to Texas fans. Notre Dame was a good team, our offense looked great, Charlie is a great defensive mind so no worries on the 444 yards given up, and our recruiting classes were proving their mettle. Our patience was rewarded!
It’s hard to believe that was just 5 weeks ago. Since then (when playing power 5 conference teams, so excluding the UTEP game) Texas has given up exponentially more yardage to opponents each week. 507 yards to Cal, 555 yards to Oklahoma State, and 672 to Oklahoma. Charlie’s overall record at Texas now stands at 13-17.
Red McCombs, one of Texas’ most high profile boosters, made his feelings on Charlie clear when Texas hired him in January of 2014. He said the decision to install Strong as the head coach was a “kick in the face” in a radio interview. He didn’t think it added up that Strong was our head coach but thought that he was “a fine coach” and “would make a great position coach, maybe a coordinator.” Many deduced that McCombs’ thoughts and feelings were racially charged as Strong was the University’s first African-American head football coach. It made the majority of the fan base like Coach Strong even more.
The issue of patience came to a head last Saturday on College Gameday when Kirk Herbstreit said the environment at Texas was a cesspool while referring to the boosters and fan support. He said Texas’ culture chased away Mack Brown and it would chase away the next guy too. Herbstreit even went on to say that he didn’t know who would even want to coach at Texas. I honestly believe that he said those comments because he was pandering to the Aggie faithful in College Station, because his remarks have absolutely no basis in reality. The program is in the state it’s in because UT didn’t fire Mack Brown soon enough. When it was clear the game was passing him by, Texas stuck by Mack and in doing so the program suffered. That’s when it was a cesspool. When UT hired a qualified Black head coach and Red McCombs said his demeaning feelings about it, that’s when it was a cesspool. When Strong had to come into a scenario where he had to kick many players off the team for various behavioral issues, that’s when it was a cesspool.
Longhorn nation’s issue with Charlie has never been an issue of support. We love the guy. No one is on Red McCombs side when it comes to Charlie Strong, and McCombs certainly doesn’t speak for the whole fan base. Are Texas fans happy with Charlie’s 13-17 start? Hell no. In episode 5 of Longhorn Leap (subscribe on iTunes!) my cohost, Chris Myrick, told me some troubling stats about Charlie’s first few seasons on the 40 acres. In Strong’s first 29 games at UT (through the OSU game this year), he lost 10 of those games by 15 points or more. For context Myrick stated how Mack Brown didn’t lose his 10th game by 15 or more until the 2009 National Championship, which was his 154th game. So the issue is not just the record. Sure the record is bad; however, the main problem is in the details. The special teams have been a mess for 3 years now, the defense is giving up yards at an alarming rate, and fundamentals like tackling and committing penalties have all been long standing issues under Strong. I have been a Charlie Strong apologist for years but I don’t want to turn into the emperor with no clothes who doesn’t acknowledge the current state of things.
Charlie has been told by the administration that he will not be fired during the season. He’s earned that through his hard work in what was probably a no win situation taking over the mess Mack left behind. Hopefully he earns the opportunity to continue as head coach after this season. However, if he does not it won’t be because the fan base didn’t support him. It won’t be because we think like Red McCombs and believe he shouldn’t have been hired in the first place and it definitely won’t be because we didn’t have patience. I think of myself as the “intelligent” fan who preaches patience, but there are always shades of gray, and hopefully burnt orange. Hook’Em.