Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Will Charlie Strong Be Fired?

Charlie Strong has as difficult a job as exists in American sports. A  head football coach at a major university is constantly under scrutiny, and lives with high expectations from the school and its supporters. Such a job can be rewarding if you win. It can be short-lived if you lose. Unfortunately for Strong, his team is not performing up to standards, and that kind of scenario usually ends with a pink slip.

After the 45-40 loss to Oklahoma on October 8, the University of Texas Longhorns are 2-3 and in danger of suffering a third straight losing season. This is a problem for any team that expects to win regularly, and to contend for a National Championship.

Strong is in his third season at Texas, and it has not been smooth. He took over in 2014, replacing long time coach Mack Brown, a man who took the Longhorns to a National Championship in 2005, and nearly another in 2009. Strong stepped in and almost immediately threw at least nine players off the team for various violations, according to this 2014 Max Olson/ESPN story. Some viewed those moves as Strong cleaning up the program, while others apparently felt that the new coach was hurting the Longhorns chances to win.

One might expect that a new head coach would be granted a grace period, with time to build his own system. That is not always the case in college football, where universities, alumni, and fans expect their team to win immediately. Although Brown faltered a bit in his final few seasons, in his 16 years at Texas he had a losing record only once (2010, 5-7). The expectation of Strong was that he would pick up where Brown left off in the good years, and bring championships back to UT. The expectation was not to lose more games than he won.

Bleacher Reports writer Greg Couch described that expectation in, "Charlie Strong Is Just What College Football Needs, but He Won't Last at Texas" (September 2014):

"Every college football program believes in its myths… So Strong is doing things the right way [in throwing rule breakers off the team]. His problem, though, is that Texas isn't interested in the right way. It wants the Texas Way."

The Texas Way (exactly the same "Way" you will find at Alabama, Notre Dame, and all major college football programs) is that the Longhorns should never lose. Any man who patrols the sidelines at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium is expected to win every game and to bring championship trophies back to Austin.

After his first two disappointing seasons (6-7 in 2014, and 5-7 in 2015), the wolves are howling at the door. UT supporters were not happy with even one subpar year, but after the second, the howling grew louder. Now, nearly halfway through 2016, the noise is deafening and the pressure is at the boiling point.

Although Texas Athletic Director Mike Perrin recently voiced support for Strong, such comments are often viewed as the kiss of death. With some critics calling for Texas to fire Strong before the end of the season, Perrin told Olson and other reporters on October 8:

"I support Charlie Strong. He's my coach." In response to the question, could Strong be fired during the season, Perrin said: "That's something I've never considered."

When the Longhorns win, Strong's job is safe for at least another week. When they lose, the rumors start up again. Strong didn't help his case when he announced that part of the reason the Longhorns lost to Cal in September was, according to Olson's September 22 story: "sweatpants screwed up Texas' trip to Cal as soon as it began."

It is a little crazy for a coach to partially blame a loss on his decision to temporarily abandon jackets and ties while traveling. Strong said he wouldn't do it again, but does he really believe allowing his players to wear sweats on the plane had anything to do with his team losing? In case he doesn't know this: Texas lost that game because the defense couldn't stop Cal from moving the ball.

The howling grew in intensity after Saturday's loss to Oklahoma in the Red River Showdown in Dallas' Cotton Bowl. Dieter Kurtenbach wrote on October 8 in a Fox Sports story 'Why Charlie Strong Is Finished At Texas':

"But barring a miraculous turnaround, Strong is done in Texas," and "Charlie Strong won’t see a fourth year in Austin."

Perrin refused in the Olson, October 8 story, to quantify the number of wins that would guarantee Strong a fourth season, but it isn't hard to make an educated guess. Another loss or two (in the next two games against Iowa State and Kansas State), and my guess is Strong gets fired immediately. If Texas loses any more than three of the remaining seven games, he will likely be fired.

If Strong survives 2016, the pressure cooker starts all over again next year. It is a shame for a man like Strong who, as Couch wrote in 2014, does it the right way. Unfortunately for Strong, that probably won't be enough.

Larry Manch is an author, teacher, guitar player, freelance writer, and columnist. His books include: 'The Toughest Hundred Dollars & Other Rock & Roll Stories', 'A Sports Junkie', 'The Avery Appointment', 'Between the Fuzzy Parts'.

He also writes about baseball for Climbing Tal's Hill, food and travel on Miles & Meals, and music/guitars on The Backbeat.

He lives in Central Texas with his wife and family.

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