Art of the culture change

Quandre Diggs. (Will Gallagher/IT)
Quandre Diggs. (Will Gallagher/IT)

The 2014 Texas football season has been a bittersweet transition from ‘culture shock’ to an apparent ‘culture change’ among Longhorn players. Thursday’s season finale against No. 5 TCU will speak volumes of how far the program has progressed under first-year coach Charlie Strong, but a couple of seniors spoke candidly Monday of the seismic shift within the burnt orange football culture.

“People talk about a culture change,” defensive coordinator Vance Bedford mused a few weeks ago, “but I don’t even know what that means.”

His players do.

“There’s no doubt there was a culture change,” said senior CB Quandre Diggs. “It was a culture shock to a lot of people. I’m not gonna lie: when you have coach (Pat) Moorer and coach (Charlie) Strong roll up on you, it’s a different feeling. You didn’t know what to expect because you didn’t have that before. Those guys rolled-up on me and (Cedric Reed) when we were thinking about leaving. We were like, ‘Man, these are different types of guys. We better get our stuff together.’”

Strong deftly referred to the ‘culture change’ as putting the ‘T’ back in ‘Texas’. The ‘T’ had multiple layers of meaning but it primarily had to do with ‘toughness’. The changes included upgrades in work ethic and accountability while addressing a sense of entitlement that had become chronic among too many of the players.

“It took a while for certain guys to trust (Strong), but we’ve finally got to the point where guys trust him,” Diggs added. “They know what to expect now. It’s crazy that we don’t complain as much as we used to. We used to complain a lot about the work we had to do. Now, we just expect it. It worked out for the better.”

Mack Brown was keen on developing a ‘family’ atmosphere, but he was such a players’ coach that the personnel often viewed him as a doting dad who lacked the persona to impress as a bad-cop, disciplinarian. Conversely, players frequently refer to the current coaches as “father figures” who never deviate from their tough-love standard. At the same time, players say the current assistants are more relaxed on the sideline and often crack jokes to ease raw nerves during the heat of the battle.

Diggs refers to his relationship with Bedford as “unlike anything that I’ve had ever since I played the game of football” but said DB coach Chris Vaughn is the most demonstrative assistant on the staff.

“He gets after it,” Diggs said. “He’s real emotional. He can go from high to low real quick. He can snap just like that. He has a lot of different emotions. He likes to whisper to us. It’s definitely different than from when we had coach (Duane) Akina where he would just yell and yell and tell.”

The likes of WR John Harris, WR/RB Daje Johnson and S Mykkele Thompson have found a new lease on life during Strong’s cultural revolution. Johnson recently tweeted that Strong has been a life-saver, despite the junior diminished role this season. Harris’ 16.5 yards-per-catch ranks No. 8 nationally and is just 24 yards shy of becoming Texas’ 1st 1000-yard receiver in five years. Meanwhile, Thompson has morphed from a lanky DB who once shied away from contact into a jaw-rattling, open-field tackler.

The fact that Bedford is a Longhorn letterman means that he takes each game personally, Thompson said.

Seniors spoke this week of laying a new foundation for the storied Longhorn program. During the open week, Strong said that five-loss seasons at Texas are of thing of the past. It will never happen again, Strong vowed. It’s just that ‘never’ is an awful long time. There’s still a chance, of course, Texas could finish with a losing season. The flip side is that the Horns could also sneak into in the final Top 25 – the Horns have ‘received votes’ in consecutive coaches’ polls — with a stretch run of five wins in six outings.

“The main thing that this senior class has laid out for the underclassmen is the overcoming of adversity,” said Thompson. “We’ve had a lot of adversity and hard times this season. This season has been like a rollercoaster. We made sure nobody gave up.”

The tide has turned, Diggs believes, who has a clear vision of how it’s going to be on the 40 Acres when he returns as an alumnus.

“I expect Texas to be kicking tail, each and every week. I expect nothing less…I am so blessed to be part of a foundation of some big things that are coming in the future.”