Charlie Strong is 11-14 in two seasons, heading into a critical third year. Every season is critical at Texas — especially when you’re 11-14.” I always say it’s always fourth-and-one around here,” Strong told Sports Illustrated‘s Pete Thamel in a recent interview. “There’s a sense of urgency, and there should be. Because when you have an elite program, so much is expected.”
It’s no secret why Strong has stumbled out of the gate: a dearth of talent left behind by the previous regime, a problem that was exacerbated by an offensive scheme that proved to be, in no uncertain terms, a disaster. After reaching a high-water mark of 19 drafted players (four first-rounders) from 2006-08, Texas bottomed out to just six players selected in 2014-16, including none in 2014 and just one, a fourth-rounder, in last weekend’s draft.
While the rest of the Big 12 moved to a scheme that maximized chances for offenses stacked with mediocre talent to still put up competitive numbers, Strong went the opposite way. He brought Shawn Watson from Louisville to serve as his offensive coordinator, who then asked players to run a more complicated, technical scheme than they played in high school. Joe Wickline was given the offensive coordinator title but not the offensive coordinator role, inviting a messy, embarrassing lawsuit that still isn’t resolved — while Wickline works at another Big 12 school. Strong replaced his wide receivers and tight ends coach after year one, and by year two had blown out his entire original offensive staff. And with good reason. Texas ranked 110th nationally in yards per play in 2014 and 58th in ’15, an offensive sunken by a quarterback position that has placed 99th and 92nd in passing efficiency over Strong’s two seasons.
Back story established, let’s get back to the interview.
CR: For two years, this program has lacked a clear identity. Will your new offense help forge one?
Strong: In this state, that’s offensively what everybody does. So our identity now is when you go recruiting, when you bring talented players into your program, now they’re used to the system. Whereas before, we were trying to make them adapt to what we had. The [benefit of] running the system we’re doing now [is] junior high, high school [players]—now they don’t change once they get to college. And that’s what this conference, that’s what everybody is.
That it took Strong two seasons to realize this remains the great unresolved question of his tenure at Texas. One wonders what the Big 12 would look like today had Strong gotten to Lincoln Riley before Bob Stoops did. Instead, Strong stuck with Watson, and now he’s headed to a critical, win-or-else season under a new system while possibly playing true freshmen at quarterback and center.
CR: How much have you learned about running a program during your first two seasons here? Texas is certainly a different beast than Louisville.
Strong: When you come in—and you’re right, it’s such a large program and there are so many people you have to tap into—there are alums you have to call and you need to make a connection with them. In the very beginning, I didn’t have that. I didn’t make that connection. I said, “Listen, I [have to] get the program going.” And then there are high school coaches. You have to make sure Texas high school coaches stay involved.
But you have a job to do, and you don’t want to get pulled from all those different angles. Still, there are people you know, Hey, we need to keep these people involved, and make sure you’re running the team.
Only the two of them know the true nature of their relationship, but this answer invites a scenario (in my mind, at least) where Mack Brown didn’t give Strong some much-needed advice, or perhaps Strong didn’t take it. Because what got Brown rolling from day one back in December 1997 was embracing the all-encompassing “stuff” that goes with the Texas job. (Inheriting Ricky Williams and two other first-rounders didn’t hurt.)
And so from running the team, you know what I always say? It’s almost like you buy a new car. And you just clean that car the whole time. You keep it. It always shines. From the outside it looks really good. You got to lift that hood up sometimes and look at the engine. So from the outside, everybody sees this big ol’ pretty car. But you still got to lift that engine up. That’s where the engine is, that’s what we make sure we gotta keep clean. You know from the outside it’s going to stay clean. But we got to change that oil.
If I’m reading Strong’s analogy correctly here, he’s calling the Texas program he inherited a 2016 Lexus with a 2001 Toyota engine. Which, if so, would be the most perceptive thing he’s said in two-plus years on the job.
CR: Coaches use the word alignment a lot. The administrative alignment here was—and some would say still is—a bit muddled. How does that affect you day to day? And how are things pushing forward?
Strong: With [athletic director] Mike Perrin, with our president, our chancellor, everyone’s aligned. With the chancellor and president aligned with the AD, I can go to Mike and I can ask for things. [We] talk probably once or twice per week. We’re always talking. If there’s something he’s uncomfortable with or something I’m uncomfortable with, I can make that phone call.
So, the alignment is getting there. And the special people—I’m getting what I need. If I say, “Hey, I need this.” Boom, O.K. If he says he needs it, let’s get that done.
Kirk Bohls reported Tuesday that Texas will begin looking for interim AD Mike Perrin’s permanent replacement beginning this fall. Which means that Strong could head into the 2017 season working alongside his third athletics director, second president, second chancellor, with an SID that was fired without his consent, then rehired after his first athletics director was fired.
CR: Tyrone’s physical tools have always been there.
Strong: Oh my god. He looks physically—he’s pretty on the hoof now.
I just think with him, he’s got to believe in himself. At that position you have to believe, because the ball is in your hands. You’d better be confident. I think last season when that package went in for him that he started having that and started playing a little differently.
CR: Buechele on the hoof doesn’t blow you away. He’s 6′ 1″, 190 pounds?
Strong: Yeah, he’s about 6′ 1″, 190.
CR: What does he bring?
Strong: He’s always been a quarterback. You can tell, with his dad being in baseball, that he’s been around. Nothing fazes him. He’s like a gym rat, because he knows in order to be really good, I have to really study the game. He studies the game. I’m surprised he hasn’t walked up here yet, but he’s always around. And he’s a very intelligent young man.
He understands. And he’s been in this offense. Now, it wasn’t run exactly the way it’s run now, but he’s been in it, where he’s gotten rid of the football and knows where to put the ball. He just understands the game.
If one were to Frankenstein Shane Buechele’s head onto Tyrone Swoopes’ body, the end result may be a Heisman contender. Instead, Strong will have to pick one.
Strong has navigated a minefield in his two seasons at Texas — some placed by circumstances beyond his control, others not. But how he navigates those mines — beginning with a national spotlight game against Notre Dame on Labor Day Sunday — makes him one of college football’s most fascinating figures in 2016.