AUSTIN – Charlie Strong may not be the Texas Longhorns’ first choice as head football coach. Or the third or fourth. They sent out feelers to Nick Saban, Jim Harbaugh, Art Briles, Jim Mora Jr., and maybe others.
Strong doesn’t care.
“I could have been the fifteenth choice and I’m so happy to be the head coach here,” he said. He smiled broadly in his first media conference as Longhorns coach.
Speaking Monday at the 9th-floor Centennial Room of the Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, Strong did not sound like a typical football coach in the state of Texas.
For one thing, he made an admiring reference to Barack Obama, though he did not mention him by name.
Strong is the first African-American to coach any of the three main sports at the University of Texas, which has hardly been a trail-blazer in the cause of racial equality.
“Yes, this is a historical day,” Strong said. “It was a historical day when the president was named the president of the United States. . . . There’s always going to be a first somewhere.”
Not that he looks forward to being a civil rights icon. “A lot of times people look at you as just being a minority,” Strong said. “But I’m just a football coach. I’m a football coach directing young people’s lives, and I just want to change lives. That’s the only thing I’m looking to do.”
Covering his political bases was the singular strength of Strong’s predecessor, Mack Brown. It’s not the No. 1 objective of Charlie Strong.
The scouting report on Strong is that as head coach at the University of Louisville for the past four years he didn’t do much politicking or schmoozing, that he was interested only in teaching his players and strategizing with his assistants. All he cared about was winning games with good kids and making them better in life as well as in football.
His methods worked, as he lifted a basketball school into the top ten of football. He won 23 of 26 during his last two years at Louisville, and he also won two bowl games.
As far as Longhorn Nation is concerned – and perhaps the rest of the nation as well – Strong’s finest achievement came in last year’s Sugar Bowl. He upset fourth-ranked Florida, coached by Will Muschamp, Brown’s designated heir until he bolted his staff after the 2010 season.
Although he built his reputation as an innovator of defensive strategy, Strong learned to appreciate offensive brilliance on Steve Spurrier’s staff at Florida. “He changed college football with his wide-open offense,” Strong said.
The newly hooked coach also tutored under Urban Meyer and Lou Holtz. Strong is not as big a name as some of the biggest donors of Longhorn Nation would like, but his training cannot be faulted. He looked impressive, fit at 53, confident and at ease with the media he addressed Monday.
Strong’s affable first impression notwithstanding, he’s not overly interested in serving the Longhorn Network. He said he will leave that to others. Some suspect it will be Mack Brown, whom Strong made it clear he welcomes as a vital part of his program. The perfect arrangement here is for Mack to keep doing his schmoozing – with the pols, with the donors, and even with some of the recruits.
Strong invited Brown to keep his presence felt in the program he led for 16 years. “Come to all the practices you want. Don’t even need to call in advance.”
There will not be a repeat of what happened the last time a long-term Longhorn head coach and national championship winner stepped down. Darrell Royal and his successor, Fred Akers, kept their icy distance, and put a chill over the state.
Strong’s Texas media inaugural offered something for everyone.
You want the Horns to be smash-mouth or finesse?
“We’ll be a hard-nosed football team and very exciting to watch.”
He favors “up-tempo” and “wide-open” offense. “But at the end of the day you’ve gotta line up and run the ball.”
As much as he loves to coach defense, he’s enthusiastic enough about throwing the ball to lure Teddy Bridgewater, the quarterback who’s expected to be the first player chosen in the next NFL draft. The success of the Bridgewater-Strong connection is sure to influence other quarterbacks who are looking for a college.
When a football team, college or pro, changes direction, it’s usually toward a coach who brings something that was lacking in the outgoing chief. Strong, whose 5-year contract will bring him about $25 million, will provide the players with more one-on-one guidance than Brown did in his grand temple of entitlement, each player treated like a prince.
When the Longhorns lost a game they were embarrassed to lose, the players didn’t want to talk to reporters for the next week. So Brown said fine, have it your way.
Steve Patterson, who last fall replaced the retiring DeLoss Dodds as UT athletics director,
was looking for more discipline, more backbone. And yes, maybe someone who could compete evenly in a recruiting war with Kevin Sumlin, the black head coach of the Texas Aggies who lately have taken the upper hand in the great intrastate rivalry.
“When we got a chance to sit down and talk,” Strong said, “I knew where his passion was and I knew what he wanted with this program and what he was looking for and I told him I was that guy.”
Patterson was impressed by Strong’s life story. The coach’s dad was a high-school basketball coach in Luxura, Ark., which named the Charles Strong Recreation Center after him.
And there is Strong’s humility and reticence, which Patterson sees as a strength. Perhaps it’s better that Strong doesn’t need to project himself as a celebrity, as Holtz, Harbaugh and others have done. The celebrity coaches – Woody Hayes and Joe Paterno come to mind – can become so full of themselves that their careers end – much later than they should — in tragedy.
“A lot of times coaches feel their ego is bigger than the university,” Strong said. “I will never be like that.”
He almost seems to be saying winning isn’t everything or the only thing. It’s more like he sees winning as being a condition that applies to more than football: “I want the players to understand,” he said. “You’re here to graduate.”
He stressed “accountability” and integrity. “Running a clean program will always be our focus.”
Sadly, it may not have been the highest priority of the Brown administration.
In their book, The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football, reputable sports journalists Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian wrote of an unnamed blue-chip recruit being treated to dinner in a private room at one of Austin’s most expensive restaurants.
The lad is introduced to what are called – in a euphemism many in this conservative state would find blasphemous — “Angels.” These are female weekend hostesses who accompany recruits to a Sixth Street bar where “three quarters of the team” is partying, and here they are promised erotic adventures should they sign with Texas.
As the years wore on and he wore out, Brown’s program became increasingly slovenly and lax, off the field as well as on. There was less monitoring and guiding of the young athletes. And the laxness was noticeable on the field. Longhorns great Earl Campbell observed a decline in effort by players in Brown’s final lamentable season: “The push just was not there.”
Charlie Strong seems to believe — as Saban does at Alabama – that a coach must do more than teach football; he must help each of his players to develop into a responsible adult. This commitment in turn produces a better football player and a better team along the way.
The coach becomes a sort of father in absentia. Patterson noted that he liked Strong “as a father.” Just the sort of coach a father and mother might want their son to play for.
There are a handful of coaches in college football who dominate the annual competition for the national championship: Saban, Meyer, Bob Stoops, Les Miles, now joined by Jimbo Fisher, whose Florida State Seminoles won three consecutive bowl games before winning the final BCS Championship on Monday night in Pasadena.
Charlie Strong looks like the sort of coach who, like Saban and Meyer, can contend for national championships and bring respect to his university without being a Mack Brown sort of diplomat.
The overly demanding Texas fans expect to see that tall No. 1 lit up on its tower bathed in a burnt orange glow. They feel they’re due a fifth national championship. Strong said what they wanted to hear: “We’re devoted to making Austin the capital of college football as well as the state capital.”