AUSTIN, Texas — Three years ago the Texas Longhorns hired the fastest-rising football coach in America. Charlie Strong was on a 22-of-25-game win streak at a college not famous for football wins: Louisville. So anybody who wanted a new head coach was interested in Charlie Strong.
The University of Texas was interested, after first going after Nick Saban like he held the cure to cancer. But when Saban could not be bought, or his wife could not find the home of her dreams in Austin, Longhorn U turned to Strong.
And now he’s out after becoming the first UT coach to threepeat with losing seasons. Tom Herman is in, after accumulating a training record at the University of Houston that was, well, Strong: 22-4.
Herman is 41, and the Forty Acres hasn’t seen a coaching prodigy comparable since Darrell Royal took over the football program in December 1956. Royal was 32 and already had three years of head coaching at Mississippi State and Washington.
In that day football was not the economic uberforce it is today, and Royal was not pursued like Herman, who was rumored to be going to LSU a few days before he committed to Texas.
As his Houston Cougars were preparing to take the field at Memphis on Friday afternoon, Herman assured the TV audience that the rumors of him changing jobs were totally false, that he was focusing on nothing but beating Memphis.
However much he was focusing, his team did not seem well prepared, losing 48-44.
Herman met with UT’s president, Greg Fenves, and the athletics director, Mike Perrin, on Friday night at “an undisclosed location,” and they hashed out a 5-year contract for more than $5 million a year, and it all happened faster than you could buy a car. The deal was done, Herman said, by 4 a.m.
When Fenves was asked for some play by play, he said, “Out of respect for those involved, we will not share further details about the search.”
Appearing Tuesday morning on the Dan Patrick Show, Herman would not deny there was some negotiating with LSU. “How we got here is irrelevant,” he insisted.
And how’s this for a dodge? “There are a lot of things that happened that have been reported and that did and didn’t happen.”
Whatever did and didn’t happen in Baton Rouge, there are a few ill feelings in Houston over Herman bolting after signing a contract extension at UH (granted, at about 60% of the salary Texas would offer). Last week the Coogs offered to extend him some more, with an additional million. Hey, Houston has money, too.
But it doesn’t have the prestige of Longhorn U, which is widely hailed as the most desirable place to coach college football in the world. The budget is unlimited and the sport is appreciated nowhere more than here.
So it’s understandable that Herman would want this job more than he could ever want one. But while I would not attempt to be a purist about college football, veracity still counts for something.
The young and gullible athletes believe their coach when he tells them he’s not leaving. Consider Kyle Allen, a quarterback who transferred from Texas A&M to Houston, where he sat out this season to use his final two years of eligibility to play for Herman. Now Allen is considering another move, to Austin, hoping to play for Herman at his new venue.
Meanwhile, there are complaints that Strong was not given a fair shot, considering the inherent weakness of the program he inherited. Mack Brown won the national championship in the 2005 season and was runner-up four years later, but after that, discipline lagged. His players were treated like little princes, not held accountable. There were too many incidents of Longhorns assaulting young women and being otherwise disorderly.
Strong came in promising to change the culture, and he did. Players were not just required to attend all their classes but to be in the front three rows. When they broke rules, they were benched. When they broke laws, they were dismissed from the team.
It was tough love, but his players appreciated the moral clarity and firmness. Some of them were crying after the Black Friday loss to TCU, just as they had sobbed at his semi-farewell press conference four days earlier.
Cynics said that if they loved him so much, they would have played better. But I agree with Strong that the players put so much pressure on themselves to win for the coach that they were too tense to play well.
Adding still more complication is the matter of Strong’s race. Tim Brando, one of the most informed of FoxSport’s college football analysts, told the Dallas Morning News that Strong might have lasted longer at UT if he were white. “I know the fans hate it when the media brings up the race card . . . but the pushback was immediate from influential people with numbers on their checks that are way up there.
“Clearly there was an agenda against Charlie Strong the likes of which we haven’t seen of any coach taking a job of that magnitude.”
Perhaps I’m naïve but I believe the agenda was winning. Some Texas alumni – myself included – saw Strong’s blackness as an asset; he could hold his own in recruiting against the talented and successful African-American coach at Texas A&M, Kevin Sumlin.
In my opinion, Strong is an indecisive strategist who does not realize that the best football coaches – Saban, Jim Harbaugh, Urban Meyer – simplify the game.
Herman showed he could do that as Meyer’s offensive coordinator at Ohio State. He turned a strong-armed but immature Cardale Jones into a projected first-round draft pick. Then Herman got his job at Houston. In his absence, Jones turned into an actual fourth-round pick.
My expectation is that Herman makes something out of Shane Buechele, who as a freshman showed a big-league arm but not much escapability.
Strong has bequeathed Herman three recruiting classes that all ranked in the top 12 nationally, though none was No. 1. They’re better than the recruiting classes Herman had at Houston. And unlike Strong, Herman takes over with Texas connections. He was an assistant coach at Texas State and Rice before Ohio State.
He promises to maintain the discipline that Strong established. “This won’t be Camp Texas.” He observes that no coach has ever won a national championship “and said, ‘We out-finessed them.’”
Whether or not Strong was treated fairly, I think the Longhorns’ prospects are better now than they’ve been for half a decade. I just wish Herman had been a little more forthcoming in his transition. He could have apologized for feelings he has hurt. It’s not “irrelevant” to everyone.
Still, what seems relevant now may not be for long. Herman is right to think winning will make orangebloods forgive if not forget his awkward entrance.