A few scatter shots I’ve learned from talking to my contacts and following up on the hiring process.
Fenves Ran The Show
You probably gathered that if you watched the body language in the press conference and the deference showed to Fenves when asked the larger Who, What, Why questions. Fenves has minimal knowledge of football, but he’s a very bright guy with a good understanding of leadership and organizational management. He also consulted a number of advisors – former players, coaches, successful alumni who have been a big part of the football program – to help him understand the landscape so that he could create a proper framework for his decision. He also got more than his share of unsolicited advice. Shaping that decision-making framework required an understanding of our history, the available candidates and what actually determines winning at an advantaged, if slothful, program.
While this is speculation on my part, I’m also of the belief that what Fenves experienced with the Gilbert/Mattox hiring fiasco proved to him that trusting important hiring/negotiating decisions that might impact him later down the road to a Texas athletic department that isn’t particularly overrun with elite performers is inadvisable. Did I write that nicely enough? Probably not.
There was a media portrayal of Fenves as a dithering, hand-wringing academic and while that certainly is a type that exists, it doesn’t apply to UT’s president. Anyone who knows anything about his history finds that suggestion amusing. Mistaking quiet deliberation for self-doubt is a big mistake. Fenves is a doer with some political skill. Not a politician with a facade of accomplishment.
Fittingly, Fenves was a structural engineer and his primary innovations as a professor were found in introducing novel methods to assessing structural integrity. Evaluating the health of a structure. Then finding remedies. You may draw obvious parallels here. Sometimes these things just write themselves, don’t they?
More broadly, civil engineering is a process dedicated to building. Building requires affirmative decision-making grounded in empiricism and objective reasoning. And then you act on it. YOU DO STUFF. That’s they key part of the constructive (or destructive) engineering mindset. You don’t wallow in paralysis.
Greeks ponder philosophy while Romans build aqueducts. Greg Fenves is a Roman.
If that mindset has a weakness, it’s that it can miss the forest for the trees, but it’s not a passive mindset. It’s about advancing from one step to the next. If you build a bridge, you don’t ponder what it is to be a bridge and whether bridges even matter and what about the effects on ferry operators and should we be crossing rivers at all? You decide a bridge is needed. Then you build a good one with the resources available. You don’t revisit the concept of bridges halfway through the project and then sit on the shore gazing at your belly button weeping.
When Charlie Strong was determined not to be the right head coach for Texas, it was on to the next phase of the process.
A Decision Is As Good As It’s Underlying Information
Once you understand the peculiarities, making a decision about football is the same as making a decision about anything – you gather the best possible information, act decisively, don’t link unrelated phenomena (should we fire Strong if we can’t hire slam dunks: Saban, Harbaugh, Meyer? – those two questions, while seemingly related – are not) and don’t revisit objective facts simply because there’s emotion or inconvenience tied to it.
His primary challenge was informational. Everyone has an opinion and while a billion plus dollar net worth is a good indicator of a pretty sharp mind – or at least one that can see opportunity where others do not – it doesn’t mean you have good football opinions. It doesn’t mean you have bad ones either. It’s just an opinion from a sharp person. The opinion’s quality and underlying assumptions are more important than the person’s net worth, but it is worth considering that the person’s net worth may mean they have unique insights or an understanding of how humans work that are worth pondering.
Similarly, former athletes can range from incredibly insightful about the game to offering very dated ideas built on “Well, when I played” assumptions or useless platitudes. I’ve talked to a lot of former players, some who have played at the highest level, and it’s shocking how much and, more surprising, how little some of them know. You can get an incredible education. You can also walk away wondering how this guy got his equipment on without help.
That was Fenves’ primary deliberative challenge. Who has good information?
When Quiet Resolve Leads To Panic
Fenves treated everyone like mushrooms. In the dark and fed ****. He asked a lot of questions but offered little indication of anything. If this was poker, Fenves looked at his cards once, matched every raise immediately and then sat there without blinking. Everyone at the table got nervous.
That was by design. As was the decision to officially “retain” Strong (Strong knew he was gone, obviously) until one second after the final gun sounded against TCU. That game result or Strong’s preceding Monday press conference were irrelevant, no matter what you’ve been told by media or alumni who want to relate their heroic tale of how they prompted Fenves to act based on an ESPN Thanksgiving day crawl.
There were myriad reasons to retain Strong until TCU and for Strong to pretend he was still the coach at Texas, most of them legal and perceptual. I described it as necessary theater after the Kansas game and if some in the media or some fans mistook a WWE production for reality, the good people at Inside Texas can’t help ’em with that. We can show you a punch that lands six inches short. Whether you believe it is up to you.
The result of Fenves’ silence was an echo chamber of bad information and speculation by a few panicked wealthy donors used to being apprised of big decisions, agents cruising for attention and consideration, and fans, fed by media, who mistook our president’s quiet resolve for dithering. In the absence of information, some filled in worst case scenarios. That’s how you had a series of leaks and hilarious misinformation coming from various media sources. Not to mention the worst pure speculative fiction since L Ron Hubbard took up a quill.
That short Thanksgiving week of entertaining buffoonery proved exactly why Fenves was correct in making an immediate hire. He eliminated the potential for protracted nonsense that creates its own poisoned well and Texas in January short on candidates and answers. At that point, you’re hoping for a Pete Carroll USC style Hail Mary. Engineers, generally speaking, don’t put a lot of reliance on unsupported hopes for building out their structures.
There was no perfect hire for the Texas job for a number of reasons, most of them out of our control. So Fenves made the best hire as efficiently as possible to ensure the greatest likelihood of a positive result.
Just like an engineer would.
Now it’s up to Tom to put up the scaffolding.
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