Despite a less than ideal debut, Charlie Strong isn’t on the hot seat just yet.
But his players are.
With the option of air-conditioned comfort just a few yards away, Strong is calling upon an age-old mantra to prepare his charges for the challenges that lie ahead in 2015.
Mind over matter.
The season opener at Notre Dame is just three weeks away, and the Horns are attacking the first week of summer workouts with the intensity of a team that has something to prove. That means going at it every day in the soul-testing Texas heat.
While the Dallas Cowboys are enjoying 75-degree days at their Oxnard, Calif., training camp, the college guys on the Forty Acres are battling temperatures that have routinely topped the 100-degree mark. Strong is keeping the heat on his players. All practices outdoors in the heat of the day. None indoors.
I was out there baking at Denius practice fields Tuesday evening and witnessed a team getting after it in professional fashion despite the conditions. The training staff did a good job of keeping the players hydrated – that’s important in these parts – but heat is still heat, and the sheer effort it takes to get through these workouts is admirable to say the least.
OK, it’s not the Junction Boys, but let me assure you: dude, it was infernally hot out there. Aside from a brief shower that came and went all too soon Wednesday, the Horns spent the first week competing against one another in a frying pan disguised as a practice field.
“They haven’t said much about it at all,” Strong told me after Tuesday’s first practice in full pads. “They just come out here. When you first start off, it’s fairly hot, but once we go up on top (to the second field), we get a little shade, so I let them catch some shade and then I bring them back down and let them catch the heat.”
The Horns caught plenty of heat in Strong’s first season at the helm. A 6-7 finish to start the post-Mack Brown era – including an embarrassing bowl loss – wasn’t how Strong expected to make his Texas debut. Now his group is unranked in most preseason polls and has been picked to finish fifth in the Big 12 by the media, a clear indication the Horns are not expected to make any real noise in Strong’s sophomore season.
Sure, he needs time to get things turned around, so it would be beyond premature to say he was a coach on the bubble. In fact, the word “bubble” has been taboo at the start of camp. The indoor practice facility, aka “The Bubble” has been seen but not used by the Horns, who are out to show their mettle against that brightly lit pest that lurks overhead, seemingly 92 million miles closer than the science books insist.
Meanwhile, the $4 million bubble, site of hundreds of walk-throughs, band practices and, most notably, a pair of pro timing days involving Vince Young, has gone ignored, as Strong is obviously out to develop grown-man toughness during the summer with the hope that it will turn into more wins come the fall.
“We’re definitely trying to be the toughest team out there, the most-conditioned team,” cornerback Duke Thomas told me. “Being out here at 107 degrees â€¦ I don’t know if everybody is doing that or not. We don’t touch our bubble and that says a lot (about) us.”
The coaches aren’t talking about the heat, and if the players are suffering in the swelter – and surely many of them are – they’re not complaining. The Horns won’t be the most talented team in the Big 12 this fall, but they will certainly be among the best-conditioned, mentally and physically.
“We all grew up in this heat so it’s nothing really new to us, but coming out here in 105-degree heat makes a man out of you,” said senior running back Johnathan Gray. “You see who’s going to quit and who’s going to ride with you.”
Spending a month practicing in these conditions while avoiding the bubble shows the fan base that Strong is already testing the resolve of his players. A couple already have fallen by the wayside as linebacker Cecil Cherry and running back Duke Catalon announced their intentions to transfer. Others may follow. Veterans like Gray and Thomas understand the big picture in play here.
Looking ahead, the rest of camp will be anything but comfortable because workouts won’t be cooling down any time soon.
Strong and his coaches will make sure of that.
Contact Cedric Golden at 512-912-5944.