Focused determination and an unbending spirit to conduct business a certain way over the course of nearly two years ended with Steve Patterson’s dismissal as Texas’ athletic director on Tuesday.
The writing on the wall was there for Patterson for several months with fans, alumni, and even coaches under his employment being vocal about how poorly the now former AD was running his department. Patterson’s highly publicized and equally criticized tenure as head of the largest and most profitable collegiate athletics program in the nation that began in November 2013 come to an unceremonious end 22 months later when University of Texas president Greg Fenves gave Patterson his walking papers.
No need to worry about the Longhorns or Patterson. Texas is college football’s wealthiest sports program and Patterson is sure to make out like a bandit with four years left on a contract valued at $1.4 million per year. If a Texas fan is concerned about anyone in Austin, football head coach Charlie Strong might be at the top of the list.
The banner seen flying around Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium on Saturday during Texas’ 42-28 win over Rice reading “Patterson Must Go” could soon be replaced with “Strong Must Go” if progress is not seen on the field sooner than later.
Strong has more than paid his dues working his way up the coaching ladder after playing defensive back at Central Arkansas (1980-83). First starting as a graduate assistant at Florida (1983-84), Strong landed his first full-time assistant job as wide receivers coach at Southern Illinois (1986-87). After that he went to Florida as an outside linebackers coach. Strong then worked his way through the SEC and also did a stint at Notre Dame before getting the defensive coordinator job at South Carolina in 1999 working with Lou Holtz. Strong went back to the Gators in 2003 as their DC and while he was there he established himself as one of the most sought-after coaching commodities. He finally got his chance to run a program when Louisville hired him in 2010.
Once at Louisville it took the Cardinals two years to develop into a 10-win program, but Strong led his team to a bowl game all four years, going an impressive 3-1 in those contests. Fans in Texas may not be as patient waiting until year three to see the seeds of progress sprout in a similar fashion, especially considering the program’s historical standing.
The Longhorns have as rich a football tradition as any other college program in the nation with four claimed national titles and 11 unclaimed, along with 32 conference titles. Throughout the decades Texas teams have slipped from greatness to a year or two of mediocrity but from 1998 through 2009 the Longhorns were among the best of the best, never having a losing season. At least not until everything came crashing down around Mack Brown in 2010 when Texas went an unfathomable 5-7. Even though Brown put up eight, nine and eight wins in his final three seasons in Austin, falling below double-digit wins was unacceptable and the same fate could be coming Strong’s way.
As college football expands in popularity, the “win at all costs” mentality at name-brand programs like Texas makes each and every head coaching job seat a proverbial hot seat. Strong finished the 2014 regular season 6-6 before falling to Arkansas 31-7 in the Texas Bowl. This season has gotten off to a horrible start, beginning with an embarrassing 38-3 road thumping by then-No. 11 Notre Dame, which got diehard Longhorns’ fans attention, and not in a good way.
Losing badly is one thing but how the Longhorns lost is the underlying problem. Texas looked out-coached on both sides of the ball, giving up 527 yards to the Fighting Irish while gaining just 163 on offense. Starting quarterback Tyrone Swoopes was ineffective, completing just 31 percent of his passes for 93 yards. Johnathan Gray was the leading rusher with only 40 yards on eight carries.
Last weekend’s win over Rice righted the won-loss record, but Texas’ road ahead is anything but easy. On Saturday, the Longhorns host Cal, an up-and-coming Pac-12 program, at home before facing three Big 12 teams currently ranked in the AP Top 25 — No. 25 Oklahoma State, No. 3 TCU and No. 16 Oklahoma — in a row. After Oklahoma, depending on how Texas navigates these next four games, the Longhorns have five winnable conference matchups — vs. Kansas State, at Iowa State, vs. Kansas, at West Virginia, vs. Texas Tech — before finishing up on the road against No. 5 Baylor.
A split over the next four games would put Texas at 3-3 before the five winnable games. If Strong and company can reel off five consecutive wins to get them to 8-3 headed into the regular season finale in Waco, then the rough start would feel like ancient history to even the most hardline of detractors of the current coaching staff. Another 6-6 finish, or worse, could put Strong’s job in jeopardy.
Most athletic directors want “their” coaches in at key spots, as the conference titles and national championships, along with money brought in, are the main components of a successful resume for a program’s top executive. Whoever Texas hires to replace Patterson will be no different.
Strong signed a five-year deal that pays him $5 million annually when he left Louisville for arguably the one of the top coaching jobs in college football, if not collegiate sports as a whole. If Strong is fired, paying him the rest of the money he is owed or coming to agreement on terms of a buyout would not be an issue for the deep-pocketed Longhorns, especially if it’s the decision is made that the football program is not headed in the right direction on the field.
Strong’s resume and football acumen suggests the Texas program has the right leader in place and better times are ahead. But after Patterson’s firing, the question now becomes will Strong be around to potentially see his labor come to fruition on the field in 2016?
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and he recently started his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @HogManinLA.