Strong receives support of players, but it’s likely too late

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

More than 50 Texas players gathered Monday in an emotional show of support for Charlie Strong at his weekly press conference. Here’s the coldest thing I’ve written in this space: if they had shown up more on the field the past three seasons, the head coach wouldn’t be facing a firing squad.

“We’re here to support Coach,” said QB Shane Buechele. “There’s not anybody here who’s doing this just because somebody else is doing it. Everybody here genuinely wants to support him.”

Reports of Strong’s termination were so pronounced following Saturday’s upset at four-TD underdog Kansas that, apparently, players were surprised to see him at Sunday’s team meeting.

“When I walked in, a lot of them turned around and were, like ‘What are you doing here?’”, Strong said. “It was like they had seen a ghost. I said, ‘No, I’m here. It’s really me’.”

Strong said there had been no discussion with players during Sunday’s team meeting that he had been dismissed. Strong said no UT administrator has already fired him. Strong said no players, despite media reports, intend to boycott Friday’s regular season finale against TCU. He did say, however, that returning athletes “will win a national championship” during their tenure because the program currently has that kind of foundation and talent.

Right now, he’d settle for a win against Kansas.

Strong was “beside myself” after Kansas broke a 19-game Big 12 losing streak at his expense. Strong sat at home, late Saturday night “replaying it in my mind” before going to work at 5 a.m. to watch game film. He said he didn’t feel like being around anybody until it was time to meet with players later in the day.

“I did not tell them in our meeting that I would not be back,” Strong said. “I said we’ve got one game. Let’s go get this game. Let’s get these seniors to a bowl game because they deserve it. I spoke with (Athletic Director) Mike Perrin yesterday and he said, ‘You will be evaluated. You’ve got one game left, and you will be evaluated at the end of the season.’”

In short, it’s only a matter of time.

No Longhorn wore his emotions on his sleeve like Paul Boyette, Jr. did Monday. The senior said “it hit me” as he walked to the stadium. Tears flowed as he addressed members of the TV & radio media; he was choking back the raw sentiment when he later spoke to print & internet media. Boyette said he dearly hoped a bowl-clinching win Friday would be enough to save Strong’s job, whose record has fallen to 16-20.

“I can put on a tough-guy face out on the playing field,” he said, “but I never thought we’d be in the predicament that we’re in. We have to move forward. It is what it is. Whoever comes in will reap the blessings of the foundation (Strong) has laid, but I believe he deserves to be here.”

Mister Boyette, I feel your pain.

I know what it’s like to dearly love a coach, a teacher, a pastor, or an adult mentor at a level that borders on the love I have for my parents. I know what it’s like to be the father of a Division-I scholarship athlete and to endure both the grief and uncertainty of a coaching change. I know what it’s like to have spent most of my career working with young adults, to have been a ‘father figure’ for many of them, and then to pass that precious relationship on to my successor. I know what it’s like to fire someone, and it’s always painful.

I also know Strong has the worst winning percentage of any coach in Texas football history. I know Strong has fired (or demoted) nine assistants in less than three seasons, so I’m not going to feel worse for him than I did for them. I know Strong’s severance check (in excess of $10 million) is more money than most of us will earn in a lifetime. I know Saturday’s inexplicable loss to the most downtrodden college football program of this decade was the tipping point that moved Strong’s tenure to the point of no return.

There is no college football program more high-risk, high-reward than Texas. You simply accept that as a given when you sign-on with the outfit. (We all know, in the past three years, pink slips have been issued to a national-championship football coach, a national championship baseball coach and the most successful basketball coach in program history). Three bad seasons is an eternity for recruits whose frame-of-reference rarely extends beyond five years.

Former All-American Johnnie Johnson was on hand Monday, and he echoed the sentiments of many players when he said that three years isn’t always enough to turn a program. I would agree, but with this caveat: the third year has to be trending in a positive direction. The cold, hard fact is that, under Strong, a 6-7 season has trended toward 5-7 and, now, 5-7 has trended toward 5-6 capped by an inexcusable loss to Kansas.

The only measurable anyone could offer Monday was that Texas wasn’t losing as badly this year as it did last season. Yes, five losses have been by a touchdown, or less. But narrow-defeats will never, ever be the standard here, especially if you’ve been averaging six losses each of the past three years. (Moral victories are touted only at programs that used to be relevant. Hey, there was a time when nobody wanted to play Rice, Army, Syracuse or, uh, Kansas).

“The program is headed in the right direction,” Strong insisted. In fact, on Sunday, he told players: “This group of guys will win a national championship. I said it to them.”

Another Top 10 recruiting class, and they just might. But it’s going to come under a new head coach.

The loss to Kansas makes Strong’s dismissal inevitable, but that doesn’t make it any easier. What makes firing Strong so darn difficult are the vital aspects that are difficult to quantify. For starters’, Strong not only insists that every player graduates; he sees to it that they attend every class. (“Every player in this program is going to graduate,” Strong said Monday). With but one rare exception, his players have stayed out of trouble. They treat women with the kind of respect that, according to insiders, was less prominent during the previous regime. He purged the program from the kind of entitlement that saw too many players content simply to wear the Longhorn jersey. Strong’s guys play hard for him, week-in and week-out. In addition, player after player have likened him to a ‘father figure.’

All of that matters, of course, and I am loathe to say it matters less than winning. However, I am keen to say that, at a place like Texas, coaches are expected to develop character while fielding a championship-caliber program –- and it’s reasonable to expect both within a span of three years.

“Wins and losses are really important, and I would never say they aren’t,” Strong said. “But the overall development of a young man is very important. They have to be taught how to handle themselves and how to bounce back from adversity and overcome obstacles.”

Here’s another cold-hearted statement: you handle adversity by giving your beloved coach the win he absolutely had to have against the most beatable team in college football.

If, at the end of their days, the hardest obstacle these Longhorns had to overcome was the loss of a coach, then they can deem themselves among life’s most fortunate.