The hardest thing to do in this world is change. Change bad habits. Change jobs. Change locations. Change from one strategy to another. The hardest part about change is convincing everyone to do it, when NO ONE believes it is necessary or that it will even work.
The theme of change is the challenge that Texas Longhorns head coach Charlie Strong is facing, as he convinces a football-crazy culture, a rabid fanbase, enflamed boosters, and an endless media presence that this is the year things begin to come together. Strong has a strategy of turnaround that involved sweeping year one changes. Those changes included the exit strategy of ALL players that would not follow “The Strong Way” of doing things. This strategy worked extremely well at the Louisville, where football has the opportunity to be an “also ran.” But this is Texas.
To be clear, Charlie Strong was born and strengthened working in cultures like Florida, Notre Dame and South Carolina. He is no stranger to strong football cultures. But this is not just a strong football culture. This is a CRAZED football culture that is wondering if Charlie is STRONG enough.
Strong’s small sample size suggests that his strategy could prove very successful. In his first two years with Louisville, he led the program to back-to-back 7-6 seasons and bowl appearances. However, it was Year 3 that produced a BCS Sugar Bowl win over his former employer Florida, while developing several NFL Draft first-round talents in QB Teddy Bridgewater, S Calvin Pryor, and WR DeVante Parker. Strong then backed that season up with an equally impressive one season in which the Cardinals went 12-1 and dominated a talented Miami team in the Russell Athletic Bowl. However, the biggest factor to Strong’s success may not have been the coach himself, but his lack of outside pressure.
Louisville is and probably always will be a basketball school, where football success is the narrative that adds to the bigger story that Louisville is the better “Commonwealth” school overall. The football fanbase is pleased with bowl appearances, and winning records, because it has never tasted anything beyond it. Strong never had to face questions about his “Change” strategy, because the university, the administration, the boosters, and the fans welcomed a change from his inadequate predecessor, Steve Kragthorpe. Anything other than 5-7 and 4-8 seasons was a welcome change. He produced winning seasons, which is all, at that time, that anyone could hope for from a football program that had never built true consistency. Strong did it with a winning formula, a philosophy built on true emphasis in character and leadership. He convinced young men to believe in his philosophy of change and doing things the right way. And he did it NEVER having to worry about pressure from the factors that most top-level programs must deal with. Louisville’s football program is now one of the premier programs in the country. But it still does not offer the pressure that Texas offers.
Texas comes with ALL KINDS OF PRESSURE. There is pressure from the Board of Regents and boosters, who are agitated by athletic director Steve Patterson, who seems to have alienated them from the hiring process that brought Strong to Texas in the first place. There is pressure from the fans who simply could not understand why so many players where unceremoniously exited from the program because they simply couldn’t get on board with the changes, leaving the team with a 6-7 record in Strong’s first year. There is pressure from the 24-hour Longhorn Network and statewide team coverage to justify the coaching changes daily. Strong will never get a break from it. It will never stop. And he must produce results today, not tomorrow. Which begs the question….Is Charlie strong enough to handle it?
I had the pleasure of covering Strong his final two years at Louisville. The media there treated him very fairly, never really placing him under the scrutiny that his counterpart Rick Pitino faces, nor the microscopic evaluation of his successor, the infamous Bobby Petrino.
Now, Strong is under the microscope. He is the top coach at a football school, in a football state. He is sitting in the driver’s seat of a program that carries one of the richest traditions in all of college sports. His predecessor is a legend that competed for and won national championships and had one losing record in 16 seasons. He is the hire of an AD that has already had his job performance questioned after less than 24 months on the job. Strong is living the classic definition of a must-win season. He must show significant progress and real growth, using his “change” philosophy, or there will be MAJOR consequences. Texas fans want to win now. The boosters want to win now. The Board of Regents wants improvement now. They won’t wait until Year 3 like his previous school. The time has come for Strong to show Longhorn faithful that he knows how to carry on the Texas tradition of winning.
I believe Strong will win at Texas. I believe he is more than capable of placing this team back on the national stage and competing for titles once again. But time is a factor. Texas may not be ready to make that leap in year two, but they will make that leap in a year’s time. But there is one question Strong faces now that will define his future.
Can Charlie be strong enough to stick to his change, underneath a mountain of scrutiny and turn Texas around? Or will the Board of Regents be making the next change?
— Written by Lloyd H. Spence Jr., who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Spence has covered both high school and college sports for several years, and has written for several outlets, incuding ESPNLouisville.com and CardinalSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @TalkinNOIZ.