AUSTIN — You can’t blame Charlie Strong for a kicker missing an extra point to cause a loss and then, the following game, a punter whiffing on the long snap, causing another loss – this latest being 30-27 to No. 24 Oklahoma State.
But Strong’s Texas Longhorns are 1-3 and will be underdogs – probably by double digits – in their next two games, against No. 4 TCU and 15 Oklahoma.
At 1-5, they then would have to win five of their last six and prevail in a bowl game to achieve a winning record. Another 6-7 like last season would bring a crescendo against Strong, who’s in his second season as head coach of the burnt orange.
With a more reliable kicking game he might have won the past two games, and if he were 3-1 there would be no sense of urgency about the upcoming schedule.
Still, Strong has himself to blame for a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct as his temper tantrum on the sidelines set up the Cowboys’ game-tying field goal.
The ref, who had not been having a good game, appeared to be goading Strong, who bumped him only slightly. Still, a coach has to keep his composure.
In his Monday press conference, Strong lamented his team’s 16 penalties, even if some were undeserved. He said: “We’ve got to be a better-disciplined football team. They make the calls and think they see what they see. But we’ve got to be under control ourselves.”
That would seem to include the head coach. Strong cannot expect his players to be disciplined if the head coach is not.
Texas fans are often accused of being the most unfairly demanding of any in the country. But I think they have reason to expect success, given that UT is constantly portrayed as the wealthiest of collegiate sports institutions, as being the school that’s best positioned to succeed at football.
Darrell Royal won multiple national championships in the 1970s and Mack Brown, Strong’s predecessor, won one in 2005 and was runner-up to Alabama in ’09. So there’s a tradition here that Strong is expected to continue.
He promised to change the culture. He suspended nine wayward athletes to clean up a program that had gone lax as the aging Brown lost energy and toughness.
Brown was pushed out by a new athletics director, Steve Patterson, who then hired Strong, coming off a 23-3 record his final two years at the U of Louisville, when Teddy Bridgewater was his quarterback.
But Patterson recently was fired, costing Strong his key supporter. Whoever is eventually chosen to be the new AD (former Longhorns linebacker Mike Perrin is interim AD) may have his own ideas about who should be head coach.
Strong has done much to weaken his position. He made so many negative comments about the program he inherited that there was little chance of building morale last season or this one.
And Strong has not inspired much confidence with his shaky handling of the offense, changing play-callers and quarterbacks after getting routed in the season opener 38-3 at Notre Dame.
He had made the mistake of promising three of his assistant coaches a role in the play calling. Napoleon said an army cannot succeed without unity of command, and so it is with football teams. The ’Horns were a confused mess before Strong again remodeled the offense, installing redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard at quarterback and assigning Jay Norvell to call all the plays.
In the narrow losses to California and OK State, Heard threw better than his predecessor, Tyrone Swoopes, but he was off target too often and stumbled into sacks.
As he gathers more of his own recruits – hard-working, self-sacrificing types – perhaps Strong can build the program he and the UT alumni envision. His emphasis on “core values” resonates with the parents of athletes.
But people are beginning to wonder how much of his success at Louisville was due to the extraordinary passing and leadership of Bridgewater, who has established himself as franchise quarterback of the Minnesota Vikings.
“We need everyone behind us,” Strong said. “It’s going to flip. You might as well get on board now.”
It may take a win over TCU or OU or an upset at Baylor in the season finale. If none of those three events happen, Strong has to hope Texas fans are more patient than their reputation suggests.