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Charlie Strong took a momentous step Wednesday in his rebuilding of Texas football.
He took the play away from his in-state rivals and several national recruiting giants with the Class of 2016, adding to some young talent with some Texas-bred studs.
On a day when the Horns could have well crashed and burned, Strong’s class was a feel-good moment. To steal a line from rap legend Kool Moe Dee, Strong was the one standing at the podium at Moncrief-Neuhaus with a look on his face that asked, “How ya like me now?”
Let’s not get too far ahead ourselves, Longhorn Nation. But we can safely say that hope is back on the table. Texas fans can dare to believe again because Strong moved the Bevos up 22 spots to the precipice of the top 10, thanks to seven faxed-in freshmen who arrived on national signing day.
More important than anything is from where the talent emanated. Texas signed 24 players, and 19 came from within these borders.
We heard no mention of a Florida Five. No mention of a Swagcopter. Nary a mention of any holes that still remain, unless you want to talk about quarterback, where five will compete for first-team duties over the next six months.
Quite simply, Strong has just hit his recruiting stride. Better yet, he has learned the hard way that ultimate success can only come if Texas rises again in its own state.
Long before he won his only national title in January, Mack Brown was Coach February. In his finest hour as Texas’ coach, Mack made sure to pay homage to some very important people.
It was January 4, 2006 and the Longhorns had just ended USC’s dynasty. As the confetti rained down from the Southern California heavens, Brown peered into the TV cameras, congratulated USC on its 34-game winning streak and its two national titles and expressed pride in his players and his coaching staff.
Then he delivered the money line: “High school football in the state of Texas.”
At that point, I’m willing to bet that every coach in Texas, from Pop Warner to big-school varsity, stuck out his chest with pride because only two Longhorns starters came from somewhere besides Texas. And those two players — offensive linemen Kasey Studdard and Lyle Sendlein — were sons of former Longhorns. Texas was already a destination spot for loads of blue chippers before Mack’s speech. His words bought him another five years of top-10 classes.
It hasn’t been easy for Charlie. He’s extremely likable and personable, but isn’t a natural politician like Brown, who could sell an extra set of stripes to a zebra. Add to that, it has taken him a while to get coaches to buy into his style of recruiting.
Wednesday was a huge step for the program. Recruiting isn’t just about talent, but about college coaches getting up front and personal with high school coaches who are, for my money, the best in the country at what they do.
Charlie knew as much when he arrived here from Louisville. The 11-14 record over his first two seasons has driven the point home even harder.
“If you work and build relationships, you will get players,” Strong said. “Now it’s about us putting in the work and making sure we get the right ones.”
About two years after his 10-city barnstorming tour of Texas after his hire, Strong put up some very strong numbers in the winter before what will be a make-or-break year for him.
Nacogdoches safety Brandon Jones choosing Texas over Texas A&M and Baylor raised eyebrows statewide. Flipping Manor linebacker Erick Fowler from LSU was another smart piece of business. Both big signings that could pay dividends as early as this fall.
Strong said neither he nor Fowler’s family knew who he’d choose until the last second. Outgoing Manor coach Sadd Jackson told me Wednesday that Strong was the deciding factor in Fowler’s decision.
“Charlie came in being himself the whole time,” Jackson said. “He’s a very down-to-earth, genuine guy when you get to know him. He’s very direct and wants kids to understand what the expectations are to be a Texas Longhorn. He sets the standard and puts everything in place — not only when he’s recruiting the kid, but also when he’s coaching him.”
Strong came through Wednesday. He’s getting his message across in living rooms and field houses alike.