When the University of Texas finally gets around to firing Charlie Strong as its football coach — almost certainly after the regular season finale Friday against TCU — it will mark the merciful end of one of the sadder sagas in college football history.
Strong’s three-year record at Texas is 16-20. That’s not good enough to survive at Texas. In fact, it isn’t good enough to survive at most schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
But the simple fact is this: Strong was behind the eight ball even before he coached a game in Austin.
Mack Brown was pushed out by Texas after a 16-year run that included 158-48 record and a national title. But after going 128-27 in his first 12 seasons, Brown was only 30-21 in his last four, including 8-5 in the fall of 2013.
Brown probably would have been given at least one more season — his team recovered from a poor start that season to win six games in a row — if not for the fact that Texas was convinced it could hire Nick Saban.
There were rumors to that effect throughout the fall of 2013, and it’s true that Saban’s agent, Jimmy Sexton, did have conversations with a number of Texas boosters. One story had it that a 10-year, $100 million contract was informally put on the table. But no formal offer was apparently made, and Saban signed a new contract at Alabama that pays him about $7 million per year.
When Brown was forced to resign that December and nothing came of the Saban flirtation, Steve Patterson, the new athletic director at the time, had to start his search from square one. He eventually landed on Strong, who had gone 23-3 over the previous two seasons at Louisville, including a Sugar Bowl win over Southeastern Conference power Florida.
Strong made absolute sense — if Saban wasn’t available. His final two years at Louisville were very similar to Brown’s final two at North Carolina: 20-3. Those numbers had attracted Texas then, just as Strong’s numbers at Louisville got Patterson’s attention.
Strong was introduced on Jan. 6th, 2014. Nine days later, Red McCombs, arguably Texas’s most important booster, was interviewed on a San Antonio radio station. Here’s what McCombs said:
“I think the whole thing is a bit sideways. I don’t have any doubt that Charlie is a fine coach. I think he would make a great position coach or maybe a coordinator.
“But I don’t believe he belongs at what should be one of the three most powerful university programs in the world right now down at UT-Austin. I don’t think it adds up.
“I don’t see how they can miss. They can get anyone they want. They can close their eyes and go, ‘Eeny-meeny-miny-moe’ and come up with someone good.”
Clearly, McCombs was wrong because, if Texas could get anyone it wanted, it would have gotten Saban.
Then, just for good measure, McCombs added: “It’s a kick in the face.”
How prominent is McCombs at Texas? He’s given the school more than $100 million through the years. There is a statue of him inside the football stadium.
There was clearly an underlying racial tone to McCombs’s comments. A position coach? Maybe a coordinator? This, about a coach who had just gone 11-2 and 12-1 at a non-football power? Anyone who believes that McCombs’s reaction would have been so visceral if a white coach with Strong’s record had been hired is naive. And anyone who thinks that McCombs’s views weren’t shared by other prominent boosters is just as foolish.
What made things even tougher for Strong is that he is not a hail-fellow-well-met the way Brown was throughout his coaching career. Brown actually enjoyed glad-handing with alumni and was always media-friendly. Strong did what he was told he had to do and nothing more. His job, he believed, was to coach the football team.
Had he done so successfully, he would still have his job. You can be an African American coach who wants little to do with wealthy boosters if you win. It took less than a season for rumors to start that Strong was in trouble.
After going 6-7 in Strong’s first season, the Longhorns started 1-4 in 2015, including a 50-7 humiliation at TCU. By the time they got to Dallas to play Oklahoma in the Red River Rivalry, stories were rife in the media that Strong would be fired after the game. Except that Texas won and Strong’s players carried him off the field.
But after the team finished 5-7, there was little question that Strong needed some kind of a breakthrough season this fall if he wanted a fourth year. Even though there have been wins over Notre Dame and a then-unbeaten Baylor team, Texas simply hasn’t been good enough. If there was any doubt at all about Strong’s fate, it was sealed with Saturday’s loss at Kansas.
Being 5-6 is bad; losing to Kansas is catastrophic. Kansas had lost 19 straight Big 12 games and was 1-21 under Coach David Beaty before it rallied from down 21-10 in the fourth quarter to win, 24-21, in overtime.
Kansas fans tore down one of the goalposts and carried it out of Memorial Stadium. Texas fans and boosters clearly want their coach carried out of town.
Most thought Strong would be fired Monday. That’s the way of the world these days: If you know you’re firing a coach, relieve him, put an interim in his place and begin your coaching search right away.
But if you believe published reports, there’s a decent chance some, if not all, of Strong’s players would have boycotted playing the TCU game if Strong hadn’t been allowed to coach this week.
And so he will twist in the wind for a few more days. Texas may very well win the game. TCU is struggling, and if nothing else, Strong has proved that his players will rally around him in moments of crisis. Which may very well lead to the sight of a coach being carried off the field one day and fired the next.
In a way, that would be a fitting end to Strong’s tenure at Texas. He didn’t forget how to coach while en route from Louisville to Austin. Clearly, his players are intensely loyal to him and he’s recruited well, even though he’s been publicly under the gun almost from day one.
Strong will coach again. Texas will almost certainly hire Houston Coach Tom Herman. Like Strong and Brown, he will be hired on the basis of two superb years — he’s 22-3 at Houston (sound familiar?) — and has been targeted by Texas almost as intently as Saban was three years ago.
Of course, Herman’s not Saban. He’s also not Charlie Strong. Why? He’s white.
You can bet Red McCombs and his pals won’t be screaming that their new head coach would make a fine position coach this time around.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.