One-on-one with Charlie Strong of Texas, where the sky is always falling by Steven Godfrey

Photo: Getty Images

AUSTIN - "I remember before I took this job, I had a guy tell me, ‘You may not want to take that job because of what all comes with it. But you can’t tell them no either,’" Texas head coach Charlie Strong says while seated at a table in his office.

Was there ever a point where you considered not taking the offer?

"I wasn’t going to let anything scare me from taking this opportunity. There’s only what, five jobs that are maybe like this one?"

This is Texas.

If the sport’s Tiffany job opens after the 2016 season, how many other national coaching jobs would be impacted? Texas is always the largest domino. Another rebuild of the most powerful program in the sport’s most powerful state would both cost and create influential jobs all over the country.

Texas football, like or not, is more than a single college athletics program. It’s a brand considered so valuable it green-lit its own network, now possibly an ill-fated endeavor for ESPN, thanks in large part to the Horns’ failure to finish in the top 10 of any poll since 2009.

If Texas fires Strong, any prolonging of the program’s malaise during another transition could further damage the Big 12 Conference’s valuation. It’s currently auditioning expansion candidates, a move critics of Texas’ Longhorn Network deal feel is necessary for the Big 12 just to stay in league with Power 5 conferences that are currently lapping the Big 12 in revenue.

So how can Strong, 11-14 in two seasons, pilot another impossibly young roster against this backdrop and this pressure? How can —

Hang on, someone’s at the door to his office.

"Oooooh," says 2015 quarterback Jerrod Heard, opening the door and pointing at Strong. Next to him is fellow QB Tyrone Swoopes.

"Aye man, you OLD!" Swoopes says to Strong.

Strong, 56 years old, tries not to laugh, but it overtakes him. He’s wearing a burnt orange Nike coaches polo and khaki shorts. This is the uniform for Texas’ local media day, plus a bit of personal flair: white tube socks and khaki Birkenstocks sandals.

News of this ensemble has been quickly texted around the facility. Heard and Swoopes reach for their phones.

Swoopes: "You so old."

Heard: "Oh my goodness."

Swoopes: "My goodness."

Heard: "I thought you was younger."

Strong rolls his eyes.

Strong: "I just look young. Black don’t crack."

This sends the pair into stitches and out of the room.

"Normally, they just walk in here like that. That door is never shut," Strong says.

So ...

"So, this same guy said to me, ‘Look, you may not have followed everything about Texas that closely.’ And I said, ‘No, I haven’t followed the program the way you have, but I’ve seen them play.’ And so he says, ‘You’re gonna have a lot of work to do there. But you’re going to go in there and get the work done no matter what. Because you cannot tell them no.’"

Charlie Strong is happy. Seriously, Charlie Strong is happy.

And calm. But rest assured, he’s also overly excited in all the standard football coach ways.

If this is genuine or a facade or naiveté, we don’t know, but it is the same fiercely simple methodology Strong used to turn Louisville into a national contender: It’s just about the players, so just worry about the players.

"You win and you’re fine with the boosters. They’re going to say what they’re going to say anyway, but you have to win with them. If you tack on the outside stuff to [the coaching], where would you stop? It really could be something new every day. And you could deal with it all day, every day."

This is Texas. There’s a lot of outside stuff.

When he coached at Notre Dame, Strong says he watched how his head coach, Lou Holtz, learned to present himself as if nothing was ever wrong, no matter what.

"Notre Dame is a lot like here. There’s always a message out there that something is wrong. But [Holtz] said, ‘If players don’t see that in you as a coach, then their response will be the same as you. But if you make a big deal about it, they’ll make a bigger deal about it."

He extends this to his public persona: press conferences, public appearances, anything where noise can bounce back to his roster. Because all he cares about is his roster, he says.

"What you do is, or what I try to do is, just keep us out of the news in the ways I can. Sometimes it’s hard to do here. If you keep yourself out of the news, there’s nothing new to talk about. But the moment you give anyone anything to talk about? Boom, it takes off. And this place here" —Strong taps the conference table — "it becomes a bigger story than what it is."

This often makes him come off as a bad interview, and because This Is Texas, that’s not OK to some.

Try and ask him a broad question in public, and Strong will grind you out with coachspeak. Often he just recites depth charts.

"I don’t know he does it all offseason," defensive coordinator Vance Bedford says. "But when he speaks [publicly], he’s always trying to develop these guys in what he’s saying. You can listen to him talk from the last two years, and everything he says goes back to the players. That’s what he cares about."

Texas was 5-7 in 2015. Despite beating Oklahoma, blowout losses cast a pall, coming against good conference foes (TCU), bad ones (Iowa State) and the same Notre Dame the Longhorns will host Sept. 4 in the season opener. Texas started six true freshmen in a 38-3 loss in South Bend.

"Things will have to be different [against Notre Dame], just because everyone’s going into that game with more poise," defensive tackle Paul Boyette Jr. said. "Everybody won’t be so antsy, like they were last year."

Texas had a problem on offense. For two years, the system had been a mush of styles that contrasted with the Big 12’s streamlined, productive schemes. Five conference rivals finished in the top 22 of Bill Connelly’s Offensive S&P+ in 2015, with three (Baylor, Texas Tech and Oklahoma) in the top seven. Texas was 75th, and 114th in passing S&P+.

In December, TCU co-offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie turned down Strong’s offer to take over play calling. Ultimately the Horns hired Tulsa OC Sterlin Gilbert, an Art Briles disciple. The move calmed fans — Strong was acquiescing to the way things are done in the Big 12 — but losing Cumbie and having to twice lobby Gilbert away from a mid-major bruised egos.

Strong’s response: "Say nothing. Say nothing and go about your job. Don’t give them, don’t give anyone, anything to talk about."

The most common comparison made is the obvious one, to his predecessor Mack Brown. Strong says the two have a great relationship and communicate frequently, but their contrast in style when addressing public-facing aspects of being a head coach is still glaring for a Texas community stroked by Brown's peerless social skills for over a decade.

Brown has kept a tactical low profile on Texas and Strong in recent years, but responded to a request by SB Nation with a statement:

Charlie is a good man who I’ve known and respected for a while. I’ve told him all along that I’ll stay out of his way unless he needs me, and that he can call me any time. We’ve had conversations, and I do remind him that Texas is a place with a lot of distractions, so one of the biggest things you need to do is find a way to limit those. We’ve talked about how important it is to get good people around you and find a support group that you trust, respect and can lean on.

Texas football is really important to a lot of people, and as the head coach, you’ll get pulled in many different  directions. Making sure you have the time you need to coach and be with the team while handling all of the other responsibilities is one of the biggest challenges of the job.

Still, according to the narrative, Strong should be miserable and perpetually nervous.

Even his players should be. Heard, last year’s heir apparent at QB, is now a wide receiver after fighting injuries and dropping to third on the depth chart. Last season he split time with Swoopes, the public scapegoat of choice during Strong’s first season in 2014.

Instead, they’re reformed publicity hounds in the Texas football fishbowl, where five-star recruits are often bigger superstars than the upperclassmen teammates they’ve yet to meet.

"Swoopes has been beaten up so bad, he won’t read anything [written about him]," Strong says. "Heard has been beaten up so bad, he won’t read it. The kids who have been beaten up a lot will tell the other guys, ‘Don’t do it. You think that guy online is your friend? Ok, just wait. Your time is coming.’"

"Me personally, this is how I feel about it," Boyette says. "He has a job to do; we have a job to do. But our job is more important than his, really. That’s how I look at it. I tell my teammates not to get caught up with the talk, the social media, you guys. We’ve got a job to do just as much as he does.

"We go out there. He doesn’t play, we do. We control everything."

After that December, two things happened.
  1. Early enrollee freshman quarterback Shane Buechele lit up the spring game in Gilbert’s scheme. Strong was no less 11-14 after that weather-shortened scrimmage, but nothing builds excitement in April like a new quarterback running a new offense
  2. Baylor fired Art Briles, and Texas added a mini-signing class in July, signing four of Baylor’s 2016 signees, including new top-rated Longhorn freshman Devin Duvernay and two other four-stars. Five months after National Signing Day, Strong finished at No. 7 on the 247Sports Composite.

There are recruiting cultures, and then there’s Texas. This was a massive local win for Strong’s optics. Recruiting is a comfort zone, one thing Strong will talk to anyone about.

Reporter at Big 12 Media Days: "Coach, you said you like to close late in recruiting. With all the added scrutiny over wins and losses, do you feel like you might want to change things more towards your recruiting philosophy, getting kids to commit a little bit sooner?

Strong: [laughing] "What do I need to change, though?"

Strong made his name as a top recruiter in territories deep in the heart of the SEC, where battles for top talent go down to the absolute last minute.

"Well, I think that what happened when Coach [Mack Brown] was here, he would get guys who committed early. So that was the pattern here, what they were used to," Strong says. "So I’ve always been of the mindset where you wait for guys. Not so much that you wait for guys, but you build. I want to know where they’re coming from. Try to find out about their background. So I just take my time."

In the final 48 hours of NSD, the Longhorns won nine commitments, pushing Texas to a consensus top-10 class. Were these long-held silent commitments Strong purposefully held, to create a Signing Day event, or were they down-to-the-wire battles Strong had the acumen to win?

"I don’t think it’s a SEC-type approach necessarily. I think it’s just so different from how Texas operated previously," one other Big 12 head coach said.

"That fan base was so used to filling out the next year’s class before the season even started, and now maybe they’re seeing that it’s worth being in some of those battles. Also he’s one of the best recruiters in the nation, with a national brand behind him. I wouldn’t worry too much."

"Whenever I see a commitment [in the fall], I don’t think anything of it," Strong says. "Most of them aren’t going to hold to it. Because now coaches know they’re committed to a school, you have to go beat that school. ‘Ok, let’s go beat up that school.’ So just let them make their commitments. And then we’ll go back in, and we’ll go back in with a plan on how we’ll get them."

Once he’s got them, a delicate process begins.

Since taking over Brown’s roster, Strong has been forced into the business of playing freshmen, most of whom arrive coated in a shell of celebrity.

"You have that problem here. You know what you’re going to deal with, with four- and five-stars," Strong says. "You have to de-recruit them, basically. A lot of them are so used to not having to do anything, because you were a five star you got to do anything you wanted to. So when you get them here in June you put ‘em right to work.

"You tell the coaches, ‘Listen, when they have something to complain about, don’t even listen. Because we’re not going to cater to them.’ They have to become a part of you, your program. Once they understand that, then it’s easy."

There’s no greater example of the conundrum of modern recruiting than Texas: build up recruits to lure them in, then break them immediately, but only to the point they can become immediate ambassadors of your brand for the next cycle.

"Last year, we were in a situation where we played a lot of freshmen. So now how are you going to do that again? You have to," Strong says. "The reason why is that the other recruits are looking. If I play you as a freshman, then you know I play freshmen. If you don’t play them and they redshirt, you’ve got no chance to go get the next one. Because they [recruits] will sit there and say, ‘Coach, last year you redshirted so many.’

"So you have to find a way where you balance playing enough of them where all of sudden they can help you go recruit the next one. Because if you don’t, they’re not going to become your recruiters."

Texas fans want to hear Mario Benavides’ locker room stories, even if they don’t know who he is.

Benavides grew up in Los Fresnos — just north of Brownsville in the southern tip of Texas —wanting to be recruited by Texas, watching the Rose Bowl national championship and cheering Vince Young. He ended up at Louisville as the Cardinals’ starting center in Strong’s third season.

"It was eerie, watching the players carry him off the field against Oklahoma. That looked awfully familiar to when we carried him off the field after we beat West Virginia in 2011," he says. "I like to think that I always knew he was the real thing, but when you’re inside the visitors’ locker room in Morgantown and everyone’s screaming the lyrics to ‘Country Roads’ after the game, you have to believe.

"Here’s what I can tell you, at least for us. In August of that year, it really was that storm-is-brewing cliche, because he has a way of locking in with his players, and it’s a private, family understanding. We grew to be confident over that year, but it was always private, not in the media. Never boastful. So if they feel good about this year, no one knows."

If you’re a Texas fan willing to chalk those offensive woes up to youth, you want to believe in Louisville’s year three: Teddy Bridgewater’s emergence, an 11-2 season and a win over Florida in the Sugar Bowl. Two years of recruiting and development, and then sweet, undeniable, national relevance.

"It doesn’t surprise me if the vibe in Austin is mellow or tame right now," Benavides says. "Texas is a whole different animal than Louisville, but it doesn’t surprise me that people don’t know what’s going on in that locker room right now, how positive it is.

"We used to have coaches say, ‘This is the funniest locker room in America.’ Some of the funniest things I’ve seen happened when we were supposed to be in these pressure situations. I think that’s by design."

Strong has waved off season-by-season comparisons between Louisville and Texas.

His Cardinal roster had more upperclassmen and an experienced Bridgewater running an established scheme. He does like to talk about Sept. 15, 2012, when the Cardinals beat a very good North Carolina, 39-34. It was the third win of a nine-game streak that would carry Louisville to the Sugar, but it was the first time Strong says he recognized a culture change.

"See, that’s the moment you jump out and — boom — something good happens. The message carries. It’s happening now, but when it really changes is when you beat a Notre Dame. It’s still a work in progress. You go win one you’re not supposed to, and then it really takes over. That’s really it.

"My first year, I didn’t have that mentality, but then you start growing into that mentality."


"... No, you have to," he says, cutting the question off.