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Mondays in the Humidor with Big Cigar

Charlie Strong. (Will Gallagher/IT)
Charlie Strong. (Will Gallagher/IT)

By: Jesus Shuttlesworth and Eric Nahlin

Background

“Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and start slitting throats.”— M.L. Mencken

In a sentence, that’s how we feel about this Texas program from top to bottom and last week was one fiasco too many as the Texas brass, and to an extent Charlie Strong, pulled up in their clown car, collectively honked their bright red noses, and proceeded to nearly make Tulsa University look like a destination job. After watching the events last week, I can’t help but wonder if Mike Perrin wears size 18’s. To be fair, after watching the last two seasons of Texas football, I’m nearly convinced Strong does.

But the difference between last week’s clown show and the two football seasons preceding it is one of intentionality. You don’t miss out on your best hope for 2016, Sonny Cumbie, and nearly get “Heismanned” by Tulsa’s finest with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake in the form of donations, ticket revenues, and merchandising dollars, not to mention the damage to a once proud “brand” which once could pull the best and the brightest with a phone call and a stroke of pen. You don’t unless that’s your preferred outcome which makes me think, oh how the mighty have fallen—so far that they’ll likely be coming to a rodeo near you.

So who’s to blame for one of the most embarrassing weeks in the history of Texas football?

We know what we know and we know what we think we know, and we’ll try to paint an accurate picture for you about last week and the circumstances leading to the fiasco. Perhaps the most important piece of information to keep in mind as you read the rest of this piece is the following—there is a critical mass of donors and members of the athletics department that feel Charlie Strong getting a fourth year would be disastrous for the Texas program. Full disclosure, I agree with them.

Where we disagree is the way to go about making sure that does not happen for the good of the program. On the flip side, if the Texas brass says it wants to give Strong the resources to succeed, then they need to do it with actions and not words. Their actions last week tell me that’s not the case and it wouldn’t be fair to not report on some.

Not to get into a history lesson here, just some background only, we’ve never been mouth-pieces at Inside Texas. Perhaps through cyber osmosis the fabric of our outfit has been influenced by our founder Robert Heard. Heard is famous for being the upstart journalist who grilled DKR in what were historically “soft-ball” formatted press conferences. After one especially heated press conference, one which Heard repeatedly pressed the venerable coach, Royal asked one of the friendlier reporters as they were walking out of the press room, “Who the hell was that?”

The reporter replied, “Oh, that was Robert Heard, you know, the guy who got shot by Charles Whitman.”

Royal replied, “Hell, is he still pissed about that?”

So yes, that’s IT in a nutshell. We won’t stand quietly aside and let anyone get railroaded, especially the Texas fans and anyone being pushed out unfairly to the detriment of the school. As Texas fans, you should be upset, and here’s where you can assign your blame.

Charlie Strong Not Blameless

Why are we here to begin with?

From a wins and losses standpoint, Strong’s first two seasons at Texas are, once again, historically bad. When you throw in the manner in which he’s lost ball games in blowout fashion, there are plenty of reasons to dump the head guy. The blowout losses in 2015 alone including a shutout defeat to Iowa State, a team that Westlake High School could manage a field goal against, is reason enough to fire the guy and reason enough to pull out all of the stops to land Cumbie, but I digress. However, what makes this even more frustrating is that Strong was warned by the former AD (and this publication) that bringing in Shawn Watson initially would result in offensive disaster. And the disaster of 2015 was certainly offensive, netting Watson a demotion after the first game of the season and an embarrassing scarlet letter of a lost spring and August for a team and an offense that can’t afford to waste time in a rebuilding period.

Which brings us to the current situation…

Mismanagement of players’ personalities and team dynamics has been an embarrassing hallmark of Strong’s tenure at Texas. The case in point is Jake Raulerson, ostensibly your starting center in 2016 and someone who failed to find snaps playing behind Taylor Doyle—the Mike Webster of Texas football allegedly. Here’s a kid, a poster boy for the Strong core value/work ethic and someone Charlie had sat down with in-season to talk about snaps and what Jake needed to do to get better and more playing time, and it’s beyond comprehension that Strong was shocked when Raulerson stuck a transfer form on the coach’s desk at season’s end. If you’re going to tell a player like Raulerson, a solid citizen, and a player who’s at least as good as Doyle for even the most discerning eye, that he’s going to get snaps, then you’d better get him snaps or you’re out one starting center for the all-important 2016 season. Losing future starters who graduate in three years is not the stuff of rebuilds. This just in.

All of this and more can be set at the feet of Strong, and I’m confident Mike Perrin knows full well every detail of every aspect of Strong’s failing. Dickens said, “Never do tomorrow, that which can be done today. Procrastination is the thief of time.” Charlie Strong’s timeline is certainly a thief if we’re being honest.

To Fire or Support

“Blank Checks, Charlie has our full support”. Stop! It’s as clichéd as “winning is a game of inches” or there’s not an “I” in team. It’s well documented on our site that there’s a faction of donors, actually a majority of big donors that matter who think coach Strong is simply not the man for the job. It’s critical mass that has been steadily building since the Notre Dame game and includes all geographic regions in Texas and all age demographics. Hell the guy who pledged Strong’s buyout is in his 40’s.

There’s also the case of the athletic director who has to operate in the realm of firing a head coach two years into a rebuild and by all reports he’s feeling the exact same as the stakeholders he reports to after consulting a contingent of football people. As we’ve reported on the site, Perrin was always going to give Strong another year because firing coaches after two seasons isn’t what Texas does, but make no mistake, Perrin thinks Strong needs to be gone after 2016 so Texas can get on with the business of winning and so do the vast majority of his constituents. This isn’t news…

What is news is Perrin really didn’t give coach Strong “full support” in procuring Cumbie. He wasn’t on the ground in Austin when Strong needed a “go-between” to navigate asymmetrical questions from Cumbie like, “will Strong be around in 2017?” or “can you tell my pregnant wife how to navigate the sales side of the house process if we need to relocate to Lubbock if Strong does get canned?” A true salesman, ahem, Mack Brown would have answers to these questions, but we have a football coach, not a salesman. I know it, you know it, and Perrin knows it.

We all know that Strong is not Mack Brown, so where’s the support? Where’s Perrin to close the deal if we are truly committed to winning in 2016? The short answer is NYC. The long answer is a bit more Machiavellian.

Athletic Director Incompetence or Machiavellian Tendencies

Passive aggressive is your term of the day because that’s how the athletic department seems to be acting lately in its operations with coach Strong. There are leaks dating back to November that give names and contract numbers to outlets when everyone knew the Cumbie hire was the most important hire in Texas football since, well, Charlie Strong. Had we cared about Cumbie, you plug the leaks, go on a mole hunt, and then reset the story line so the negotiations you began in October don’t sabotage what is going to take place in November. Again, we’re not guessing here.

As someone who is privy to how the sausage is made, why not just fire the guy if you’re going to allow a drip, drip, drip of bad news in the program including but not limited to the clown show that was the offensive coordinator hiring process? The answer simply is that the Texas program and specifically the athletic director think the biggest risk for the program is to win nine football games next season. It’s sad but true.

So evidently the AD thought it better to feign support for the Strong regime publicly on one hand, and allow Strong to sink or swim with the most important hire of his tenure during the negotiation process on the other. Now some —this writer included— will argue that we’re here as a result of Strong’s incompetence in assembling a staff but it doesn’t change the fact that Cumbie was there for the taking after two months of negotiations if the Athletic Director truly wanted this to happen. The AD’s attitude also belies the fact that Cumbie gave Texas the best chance to win and recruit in 2016 so pulling out the stops, regardless of who was at fault, was the play all along—unless you want to sacrifice the short-term in order to maximize the long run.

For background, Texas paid Perrin a lot of money to be at Texas and paid Brown a lot of money not to be at Texas. So it begs the question, why is Perrin in NYC when one of the biggest assistant coaching contracts in college football history needs to be signed on the line that is dotted? If that’s full support, then give me half support every day of the week. You don’t let a guy like Strong, with an obvious deficiency in negotiations, lean on his weaknesses to hire offensive coaches and right the program’s ship unless you prefer that outcome. Unless you’re going to argue that Perrin is incompetent which I don’t believe he is.

And if you’ve had the golden handcuffs you understand Work Performance Programs in corporate America. Corporate America loves them because they allow you to fire an allegedly substandard employee with a modicum risk of legal blowback. From my corporately trained eye, I think Strong is being documented, right or wrong, and his hiring skills are one of the tasks they’ll use to document his deficiencies. The question is begged that if that’s the case, why let Fenves come in to save the day with Sterlin Gilbert? The obvious answer is that Fenves realized the PR disaster of Gilbert going back to Tulsa unsigned and stepped in to limit the PR damage. Is that Strong’s fault? I guess it is to an extent, but couldn’t we just fire Strong and move on if he’s not the guy instead of risking embarrassment to the University?

Leaks and Shenanigans

More damning for the AD is that Inside Texas had the offensive coaching search story for two months and sat on it until other outlets caught on and reported on it. We could have reported about Cumbie down to the dollar and cent, but our choice was not to affect the deal because we knew how important it was to the program. Consequently, early reporting on this subject was going to do the program no favors and it didn’t if we’re being truthful. Not only did these leaks make it more difficult on the primary target, Sonny Cumbie, but it made the negotiating landscape for Strong, a coach not adept at negotiations, that much more difficult, especially when the numbers being bandied about were made public. Aside from putting Cumbie on the defensive with his own boss it gave every subsequent OC candidate a baseline for their own negotiations—an agent’s wet dream. At this point, Texas was negotiating down from $1.3 million instead of up from $500,000. Gordon Gecko gets pantsed in negotiations from this position so what does that say about Strong?

Furthermore, it’s been reported recently by other outlets that Strong low-balled Gilbert. In order to believe that you have to believe Strong is negotiating against his own interests because it’s not Charlie’s money at the end of the day. The fact of the matter, from someone very close to the situation, is the money didn’t break down negotiations late Wednesday, which flies in the face of Strong’s role in complicating the negotiating process as reported by some outlets. The money was fine and Gilbert was happy with it.

As it stands, we think we know the source of the leaks about money, candidates, and even the Miami Hurricanes being a soft landing spot for Strong and you can probably guess this person is a Texas long-timer and stated by name in one of the articles that ran this week. He’s certainly no friend of Strong’s but we suspect Charlie gets that now.

Sterlin Gilbert. (Angelo State Athletics)
Sterlin Gilbert. (Angelo State Athletics)

Sterlin Gilbert

Now that Sterlin Gilbert can afford to buy a “g”, let’s discuss what really happened here. The timeline goes thusly. As of Wednesday evening Sterling Gilbert gets on a plane to Tulsa thinking he has the offensive coordinator job at Texas. Thursday morning, news breaks that Charlie Strong is set to interview another OC candidate, Tony Franklin. This revelation sends the Gilbert deal into a tail spin and reports break on Friday that Gilbert is withdrawing his name from consideration for the Texas job. Chaos ensues in Longhorn fandom, and President Fenves, Charlie Strong, and Mike Perrin board a plane to save what shred of dignity the Coaching Hire Flow Chart has left to offer. Three years at $900,000/per later, and Texas has procured a football coach, from TU, or Tulsa University. Yay, us! We only had to pay a half-million dollar premium.

Fenves

Obviously you never want to involve a sitting University president when the subject of coaching hires rears its ugly head. The University of Texas has a recent and glaring cautionary tale replete with a contract negotiation that will go down as historically bad. Ironically Bill Powers is your cautionary tale giving Strong a guaranteed $25 million.

In this case, Greg Fenves was forced to be the adult in the room and salvage the negotiating process of a hire that should have gotten done in the high $700,000’s at most, and it is the most obvious case in point that the there’s something amiss about the Longhorn hiring process. If Texas could have just corralled the AD leaks alone, the Gilbert deal gets done with perhaps a quarter of a million dollar savings, which is a chunk of change for a bunch who claims being stewards of the Universities resources is of the utmost importance. Instead, THE boss has to get on the plane to Tulsa, Oklahoma to acquire what amounts to a mid-level manager that doesn’t need Board of Regent approval for his salary. It’s a ringing indictment of the hiring process and one that should send the AD and the president’s office into rehab mode in short order. I shudder to think what the Tom Herman negotiation looks like if this is the template.

Board of Regents Role

Here’s what we know about these players who seem to be taking on stones in some circles for things they had nothing to do with. First and foremost, it’s highly unlikely that the sitting board would allow there to be a hiccup in contract negotiations involved with the University of Texas football program. Some of these members including the head of the BOR, Paul Foster, are acutely aware of their standing with the governorship in light of the fact they’re non-Texas people occupying a University of Texas board. They’re short timers by definition because Rick Perry appointed them, and these guys are walking on egg shells as it is and are loathe to be perceived to be getting in the way of a University of Texas football hire.

Secondly, we’ve also been told that the Texas-centric members of the BOR have always been onboard with keeping Strong for at least another season. They have little appetite, in the case of Cumbie, to sabotage the hire and we’re told from sources close to the situation that this wasn’t the case to begin with. As for Gilbert, we’re told that the dollar amounts involved precluded the BOR from having any input on the situation so any mention of BOR interference on that negotiation is inaccurate.

Finally, if you’re looking for a scape-goat in any of these bungled negotiations especially as it pertains to Cumbie, look no further than the bridge between Coach Strong and the Board of Regents. It’s been reported that Coach Cumbie’s negotiations looked disorganized because the numbers that were agreed upon were not necessarily approved by the BOR. We don’t believe that this was the case because after two months everyone pretty much knows what time it is. Two month negotiations rarely end with such a disjointed result so if you think there were surprises on numbers in the end we can’t help you. All of the parties involved knew the numbers and any ambiguity of whether Strong was to be retained in 2017 was just that.

Fallacies

Strong passed on Cumbie because he didn’t call plays—no shit this is making the rounds. Let me get this straight; Cumbie and Texas play footsie for two months, Strong flies to Fort Worth on a Sunday night, likes how the meeting went, and has Cumbie’s pregnant wife come to Austin. Strong’s wife also shows Cumbie’s wife around Austin, but Cumbie isn’t out of play until Wednesday and it’s because Strong finally realized he wanted a play caller and then targets a Tulsa coordinator who has always worked under an offensive minded head coach? Seems legit. Please, squash this rationale.

The second fallacy is Strong had a blank check. Sure, I guess, if you claim it wasn’t signed either. Seriously, Cumbie may have had a blank check relatively speaking, but it was always subject to BOR approval. As for Gilbert, there was no blank check, but the price of poker went up significantly with the leaks of Cumbie’s numbers. Inconveniently for those that argue otherwise, Cumbie always claimed the numbers were right for him. He’s never said otherwise and we’re not guessing here. His questions resided in the gray areas of stability and no one in a position of power was available in Austin to placate his concerns. Either Strong is the Grand Poohba or he’s not.

The last fallacy is that Strong wasn’t going to let Gilbert bring his offensive line coach Matt Mattox as some have hinted at. Obviously that’s patently false because Mr. Mattox is now your new offensive line coach. So Coach Strong was against the offensive line coach before he was in favor of it? Right.

To wrap things up, we’ll let you know what we know, what we think we know, and where we go from here…

What we know

It’s a wild ride so please bear with us. What we know is that Cumbie worried about the time frame to get his offense installed. He worried about Strong’s longevity to that end and he worried about not having a quarterback on campus to run his offense. More importantly, Cumbie worried about having the support he needs and saw it up close and personal when he couldn’t get answers to his questions put to the athletic department. It had nothing to do with money or guaranteed dollars no matter what Arthur Johnson claims happened. Again, we’re not guessing here. On an ancillary point, it didn’t help that Cumbie saw the negotiating process up close and personal which showed the disorganization within the AD and the football program. Whether or not that disorganization was done purposefully or not is a matter for your interpretation dear reader, but just know that Mike Perrin being in and around Austin when these questions were lodged would have gone a long way to procuring the guy most likely to save Charlie’s and Texas’ bacon. Rhetorically, was Deloss Dodds in Barbados when Will Muschamp was procured?

What we think we know

People in the AD, whether it be leaks or actively choosing not to help with negotiations have done Strong zero favors. Is Perrin incompetent? We doubt it. He’s a successful trial lawyer who gets what UT and its stakeholders think is needed in a football coach.

He also doesn’t need this job so loyalties should be targeted towards those things that can help the program. On the other hand, it does seem like he’s taking an interest in not winning too many games next season because he thinks being able to fire Strong helps the program, so not being there to ensure a Cumbie hire seems like a calculated decision based on the background we have.

Third, Strong, Perrin, and the BOR had no effective go-betweens to bridge the information gap. “Who was to blame” or “why wasn’t it done” doesn’t matter at this point because Cumbie is long gone and Gilbert became an already embarrassing anecdote in Texas lore. In a perfect world, a decent purveyor of information would have alerted Perrin to the danger of losing Cumbie and Perrin would have reacted swiftly to the risk of losing the TCU wunderkind if that was truly his motivation. But the true screw up was lost in translation evidently.

Finally, we’re dubious about who was to serve as the go-between for Perrin and Strong because said go-between is the one who leaked the Strong to Miami soft landing narrative to begin with after Strong confided in him in the heat of the battle. Perhaps it’s Charlie’s fault and he should have known that this person wasn’t someone to be trusted, but I thought we were all friends here. Or at least I thought we have all given Strong our “full” support.

Where we go from here

Let me count the ways. We have Spring ball, an offense that is quarterback friendly and should generate points to benefit a young hungry defense perhaps not at the level of Cumbie but a system implemented for a spring, summer and fall can’t hurt. Also, you have recruiting which should be invigorated. And despite last week, it seems to be trending well if you’ve been reading our site. Also, the lack of talent in the 2016 class won’t hurt Texas next season, so we have that going for us, which is nice.

The bottom line is, however, if none of the above works, Herman will crawl on broken glass to Austin to be the University of Texas head football coach. It’s his dream job and he should kill it here. My guess is that you’ll see a full court press this time next season that wasn’t seen last week for Cumbie if Strong stumbles to seven or eight wins in 2016. Alternatively, nine wins in 2016 for Strong probably means no Herman and everyone gets that. I’ll let our readership do the calculus with respect to what went down last week, but again I ask, if you don’t like the guy, why not just fire him now? Charles Dickens would.

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**Boss man wants us to clarificate. I think the article was clear but people are misconstruing some things. Let’s work through this together.

– Strong is a bit player in the whole week. We began the article with him harboring some blame to draw a clear, objective line. He’s not faultless in his tenure, but last week he wasn’t at fault, at least not to the degree some made him out to be . If you read our article as us lambasting Strong you misinterpret the reason we wrote it in the first place. I’ll admit upon further review some things could have been worded more delicately in our original post but that only makes it more palatable, not more accurate.

– The timeline of events tells you a lot. Either Strong had no support, or he had it and didn’t want it. You can think he was in the middle of negotiating contracts and recruiting in Michigan while being aloof to his job description or not. It seems he busted his ass that week and if he messed up the Cumbie negotiations then why was he in charge of the Gilbert negotiations? Newsflash, he messed up neither. In the press he was blamed but it’s wrong, and again, why we’re posting what we’re posting.

– Mike Perrin was in New York.

Herein lies the difficulty. Our article has been taken as Strong was getting a free pass or all of the blame. The same has gone for Perrin. People don’t read good, and though I should probably have more patience, I don’t feel like re-spelling out what we’ve already spelt.

My personal position is Strong got jammed (it could be accidentally) and whether or not he’s the best coach for Texas doesn’t matter to me. I don’t like people getting jammed.