Charlie Strong gets it. He really does.
The sense of urgency. The desperate need for improvement. Fans’ distaste for back-to-back losing seasons. The inevitable outcry for blood if there’s a third.
The Texas football coach has a solid grasp on all that and doesn’t dodge the fact that the school’s administration and fan base want to see clear progress for the future if Strong is to remain on the job. Remember, Strong benched his starting quarterback after one game last season. He did the same to his offensive coordinator and then fired him at season’s end.
So he knows what has to be done. With eight assistant coaching changes in two years, he’s used to change.
When asked at Wednesday’s press conference if his program was ready to make a jump to the next level as he did at Louisville between his second and third seasons, Strong said, “We’re young, and we’re talented, so you just don’t know. You can’t count the wins.”
But the Tower might.
One highly influential Longhorns power broker can count, and on Wednesday said Strong needs at least eight wins to show progress from an 11-14 record. That’s eight wins in what some call the most difficult schedule in the country. Considering nine of Texas’ 12 opponents this fall went to bowl games last season and that every opponent but one returns its starting quarterback, the deck could be stacked against Strong.
But he has two things going for him.
He has a hopeful administration in his corner. And thanks to consecutive, spectacular recruiting years — and a class that keeps improving, with the addition of Baylor defector Devin Duvernay — Strong has terrific, young talent. In fact, I’d argue he has maybe nine-win talent at running back, wide receiver, defensive back, linebacker and punter. That could be overly optimistic.
However, he also has six-win talent at quarterback (because of no experience for freshman Shane Buechele and bad experience for Tyrone Swoopes) and offensive line (no depth), four-win talent at defensive line (no established playmakers) and two-win talent at kicker.
The 2016 season might determine whether Strong is a six- or seven-win head coach. His 23-3 record over his final two Louisville years would suggest he’s much better than that. After all, he didn’t stumble into bowl victories over Florida and Miami.
The source added that the administration totally supports him, which is critical because many of the same decision-makers were eager to push out John Mackovic and eventually supported giving Mack Brown a shove out the door.
Asked if Strong has complete support from the administration, the source said, “I think he does … as long as there is progress shown. That can be measured by the number of wins and not getting TCU’d.”
No blowouts, in other words. No 30-0 deficits at the end of the first quarter and eventual 50-7 TCU losses. No 24-0 whitewashes by feeble Iowa State. No more 38-3 Notre Dames.
Even Strong said he put too much stock in that season opener at South Bend. He’ll approach it a little differently this year. The good news could be the entire country will be watching when the two square off on Sunday, Sept. 4. The bad news could be the entire country will be watching.
“It’s big,” he acknowledged. “I told our players that now everybody across the country gets the chance to watch you play. But why would you want it any other way?”
Texas has a number of obstacles in its path. And that doesn’t allow for bad breaks in officiating or the way the ball bounces or a key injury here and there. Those things inevitably happen at some point. So how do the Longhorns overcome the adversity?
If Strong does pull an eight-win out of his cap, he’ll certainly stay. Might he also merit an extension with just two years left on his contract?
“As you know, there are different kind of extensions,” the source said. “Cosmetically, some extend the term. The key thing to look at is the guaranteed portion.”
If he wins eight, Texas could extend his contract two years without guaranteeing the $5 million salary. Because as Strong knows, nothing is guaranteed. Except drama.