Charlie Strong has earned everything he's gotten, but Texas is the wrong fit for him
Charlie Strong is a self-made success story, a guy college football shamefully made wait – and wait, and wait – for his shot as a head coach. When he finally got that chance, he crushed it.
The result is an opportunity of a lifetime: head coach at Texas, earning reportedly $5 million a year. The first African-American coach of a men’s team in Longhorns history has earned it. This is a feel-good story – except for what might come next.
I hope the 53-year-old Strong doesn’t become the most miserable self-made multi-millionaire in the sport.
For all his on-field credentials, he is a complete misfit for the spotlight that accompanies the Texas job. Strong hated dealing with both the small media following at Louisville and the modest core of boosters who were important to the program.
When presented with national media opportunities to enhance the Cardinals’ profile, he routinely rejected them. Getting him to make promotional appearances that could enhance donor relations was an exercise in frustration. He left a lot of administrators and support personnel at Louisville exasperated at his unwillingness to do anything to sell the program outside the cocoon of the Howard Schnellenberger Football Complex.
So now we’re going to take that recluse and drop him in front of the klieg lights that shine on Texas football year ‘round? To quote Elvis Costello: I know it don’t thrill you, I hope it don’t kill you.
The fit is so bad in that area that you have to wonder whether Texas did enough homework upon making this hire. Certainly it is not the most important element of the job – but did the search firm that recommended Strong ever take it into consideration? Vanderbilt’s James Franklin, another Texas finalist who doesn’t have quite the on-field high points of Strong but has three times the personality, would pass that part of the test with flying colors.
When it comes to public relations, Strong is the antithesis of the man he is replacing, Mack Brown. Perhaps Brown’s best trait is his people skills: he made every out-of-town media visitor feel like an old friend; he was charming and indulgent with overly interested boosters; and he carried that winning personality with him into high schools and living rooms.
Mack sold Texas to all pertinent constituents. And there were many. And they were needy.
Strong can recruit. But he has shown no interest in or appetite for the other elements of a college head coach’s job. And like everything else, those elements are bigger in Texas.
Brown spent every Monday during football season in external relations. He did hours of media, talked to boosters, sent recruiting letters. If you gave that schedule to Charlie Strong and asked him to replicate it, he might have a stroke.
Does he have to do the job the same way Brown did? Of course not. And if he wins the way he has at Louisville, he can pretty much do what he wants and act how he wants and nobody will object.
But there is one other needy beast at Texas that must be fed, no matter what Strong thinks about it: the Longhorn Network. The ESPN creation is a revenue firehose for the school, so if it wants to mic up the head coach for staff meetings and practices, guess what? He’d probably better go along with it.
That will require an adjustment from Strong.
If he can learn to tolerate the public nature of the Texas job, the rest of it may come easily. The résumé he compiled in his first head-coach job is impressive.
Strong’s on-field body of work is commensurate with this Cadillac position. He took over a Louisville program that had gone flat and injected immediate life into it, going 37-15 in four years – 23-3 the last two. He was a recruiting force who built his program around star Miami quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, and buttressed it with his own specialty – a relentless and athletic defense that leads the nation in fewest yards allowed per game.
Presumably, a guy who has made his recruiting hay in the Southeast will be able to transition to Texas. When he has the power of the Longhorn brand behind him, Strong should be able to sell the program to the state’s annual battalion of top recruits.
So there are some tangible reasons why he got this job. But this is no sure thing. He would not be the first Louisville coach to use the job as a steppingstone that turned into a disaster (see: Schnellenberger to Oklahoma; John L. Smith to Michigan State; Bobby Petrino to the Atlanta Falcons). And even if it works out, he must change his mindset.
How will Strong handle the initial disappointment from some entitled fans who had their hearts set on Nick Saban, or Jim Harbaugh, or Jon Gruden? How will he handle it the first time the entire state questions his choice of starting quarterback? How will he handle the first time the Longhorn Network lays out a schedule requesting several hours of his time in a week?
The Charlie Strong at Louisville wouldn’t handle any of those things particularly well. Maybe the Charlie Strong we see at Texas will be different.
But it’s hard to change a man at age 53. And hard to make him act like something he is not.