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Strong is trying to change the culture in Austin.
Player after player rotated through Charlie Strong’s office at 15-minute intervals. It was mid-January, and the dead period for recruiting was about to end.
Strong was about to leave Austin to crisscross the state and try to salvage Texas’ 2014 recruiting class, some of whom he’d never met — with three weeks left until Signing Day. But before he left, he wanted to make a personal connection with each of his players. It was critical in Strong’s mind, not only for first impressions, but also because he knew they were about to be subjected to the grueling workouts of his hulking strength and conditioning coach Pat Moorer.
“When a young man knows you care about him, then he’ll do everything that you ask of him,” says Strong, who went 23–3 the past two seasons at Louisville.
Much like a military officer conducting basic training, Moorer’s job would be to break down players and rebuild them while Strong was out selling recruits on helping to “Put the ‘T’ back in Texas.” In Strong’s mind, that ‘T’ stands for toughness, trust, togetherness and teamwork.
“Those things have to happen,” Strong says.
To make those things happen, Strong outlined his expectations for the players, most of which he learned coaching under Lou Holtz at Notre Dame and South Carolina: Live on campus the first three years; go to class every day and sit in the first two rows; no texting in class; no hats, headphones or jewelry in class; no drugs; no stealing; no guns; and treat women with respect.
Players were told coaches would be checking on them constantly to ensure compliance.
The consequences for violations:
A first offense would result in the player running.
A second offense would involve that player’s position group running.
A third offense would involve the position group and position coach running.
A fourth offense would involve the whole team running.
Strong also suggested to his new players they not throw their horns up — the hand gesture that has become synonymous with the Longhorns — until they earned that right and truly appreciated what it meant.
Gone, too, were the air-conditioned buses that used to take players the half-mile from the football complex to the practice fields.
Then, Strong introduced players to Moorer, who never smiles, and puts injured players in “the pit,” where they often work out harder than the healthy players.
Two players — safety Leroy Scott, who expected to be in the two-deep this season, and backup fullback Chet Moss — were dismissed from the team before spring ball. Others were told to pick it up.
When Strong wrapped up recruiting on Signing Day, he said his top priority was getting to know his players.
“For right now, I just need to find out who this football team is without distraction,” Strong said at the time.
Strong doesn’t sleep much, usually five to six hours tops. He gets up every weekday morning at 4:30 a.m. and runs five to six miles. It’s when he clears his mind and sets his priorities for each day. It also allows him to show his players that they are not outworking him.
“Every time we work out at 5:30 a.m., he’s already full of sweat,” says Texas offensive coordinator Joe Wickline. “Whatever he’s going to ask a player or a coach to do, he’s going to do more, and that’s an unbelievable mark of leadership.”
Strong, a former walk-on at Central Arkansas who can still bench 350 pounds according to friends, spends a lot of time in the weight room with his players. He talks trash, stirs them up, challenges them to bench-press contests and constantly pushes them.
“Don’t let this 53-year-old man outwork you,” he yells.
And while several Texas players say they’ve never worked harder than they have since Strong arrived, they say it’s what was needed.
“I’m sure everybody, at some point in their career, has had hard coaching,” says junior defensive tackle Malcom Brown. “When the new staff came in, I just felt like everybody knew by the way Coach Strong was talking he was serious about what he was going to do. And everything he said he was going to do, he has done.
“He outlined the punishments for us, and if you mess up, you’re going to get in trouble. They’re on that. So I feel like everybody knows we have to stay in line. If we do, we’re going to get it right.”
Strong knows the key is getting close to his players. So he took the electronic key card locks off the coaches’ offices. He invited players to come hang out in his office or do their homework in his conference room. If they didn’t show up, he reminded them until they did.
“He’s always visible, always around them,” says assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson. “He shows the demanding side and shows the humorous side. He does a great job from a fathering aspect. We’ll go to class. We won’t go to interrupt things. We’ll go to make sure the guys are there.
“Charlie raises these guys,” Watson adds. “And it’s the same way with the assistants. We want the players around us. They’re starting to be up around our offices now, which is really good. We’re going to be in a foxhole together. The more you get to know each other, the closer you are, the faster you get through issues.”
Texas athletic director Steve Patterson has said he narrowed a list of 30 candidates to six to replace Mack Brown. Those finalists included James Franklin, now at Penn State, UCLA’s Jim Mora, Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio and Baylor’s Art Briles.
In the end, Patterson says he was struck by Strong’s desire to have the interview in the kitchen of his Louisville home with Strong’s wife and two daughters sitting there with him.
Strong stressed to Patterson that he was relentless about his players going to class and graduating, because he knows it’s the ticket to a better life for many kids who couldn’t otherwise afford an education. And he’s all about building toughness and togetherness through discipline and structure, because he knows kids need it and respond to it, even though they may think otherwise at first.
“He’s a tireless worker,” says Wickline, who coached with Strong at Florida under Ron Zook in the early 2000s. “He’s unbelievably organized.
“The players see that. The morals he stresses and the fact that he truly cares about them graduating and being a successful human being — you can’t fake that. And it pours out of him.”
While Strong was the defensive coordinator at Florida, where he helped win national titles in 2006 and 2008 under Urban Meyer, he recruited quarterback Chris Leak.
Leak says Texas will never have to worry about being labeled soft again under Strong.
“It’s the mindset he brings,” Leak says. “You see it reflected in the program. You’ve seen it at Louisville. They bought in. Everyone there. Charlie’s been through a lot of adversity in coaching, getting passed over for a bunch of jobs, and all he’s done is prove himself over and over.
“As a team, you take on the personality of your coach, and his toughness is one of the biggest things you see reflected.
“He’s had that drive to succeed from Day 1. That’s who he is. He’s goal-oriented and has his priorities straight. He wants to win it all, and he has a plan. Charlie always has a plan. He’s always prepared. He wakes up thinking about every detail.”
Written by Chip Brown (@ChipBrownHD) for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2014 Big 12 Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2014 season.