You could truly sense the pride that Texas coach Charlie Strong felt on Jan. 15, 2014, when he met with reporters and bragged about his initial nine-man coaching staff. All nine received guaranteed multi-year contracts, a first in Texas football history.
“It is a staff with a lot of energy,” Strong said that day, “and a staff that I am very familiar with.”
Keeping those nine positions filled has become a nightmare, though. Two years after his arrival, Strong has seen eight assistant coaches come and go, including five so far this offseason.
Strong fired two assistants after the 2014 campaign, and a third left on his own, making a lateral move to Florida. Last September, he demoted two more assistants after the season-opening loss at Notre Dame. Ultimately, they were not retained. A sixth coach quit in January and went back to the West Coast.
Those personnel moves paled in comparison to Thursday’s news. Defensive backs coach Chris Vaughn was fired after being implicated in the NCAA scandal bubbling at Ole Miss. Then, around midnight, news broke that receivers coach Jay Norvell was leaving, too.
“Thanks and God bless,” Norvell tweeted Friday morning. He added a photo of the “Hook ‘em” hand signal.
Norvell was believed to be looking for another job after Sterlin Gilbert was hired as the team’s offensive coordinator in mid-December. Norvell, who has almost three decades of coaching experience, was seen wearing non-UT clothes at the January coaches’ convention, a sign he considered himself a free agent.
Neither Strong nor athletic director Mike Perrin were made available to reporters on Friday to discuss Vaughn or other coaching staff issues. But there are serious questions remaining:
- A source told the American-Statesman that UT learned about Vaughn’s involvement in the Ole Miss investigation through official NCAA channels. But when was Texas notified? Before or after national signing day on Feb. 3?
- Nacogdoches safety Brandon Jones, the highest-ranked player in Texas’ 2016 signing class, told the Statesman on Friday that Vaughn “was a big part of my signing” with UT.
- Two UT sources said the school has no knowledge that Vaughn did anything improper these last two years with the Longhorns. It’s believed NCAA investigators are focusing on what happened during the 2010 season, when Vaughn was a member of that Rebels staff.
The Ole Miss news was an unexpected bombshell, but is Strong absolutely certain NCAA investigators won’t come looking into UT’s football program?
- Is Strong concerned whether any recruits will try to wiggle out of their now-binding letter of intent because of the coaching changes?
“(Class of) 2017 recruits please commit to a SCHOOL and not a COACH they come and they go you gotta make the best decision for you!!,” North Mesquite’s Jean Delance tweeted on Friday. Delance was the highest-rated offensive line signee in the 2016 class.
- Do multiple coaching staff changes give Texas administrators pause about backing Strong going forward? As it stands, Perrin and UT President Gregory L. Fenves are fully supportive of Strong and told recruits and their families exactly that during the recruiting process.
“When you have that support and the parents see that, and then you go win five games, people wonder, ‘How did they get it done?,’” Strong said on signing day. “It’s because of the support that we have here.”
A source told the Statesman on Friday that Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin has contacted UT defensive line coach Brick Haley about the Aggies’ vacancy. It’s unclear whether Haley would be interested. If Haley leaves, that would make six assistants — two-thirds of last year’s coaching staff — gone.
Currently, Strong has three vacancies (running back, defensive backs and receivers). 247Sports reported on Friday that Purdue defensive backs coach Taver Johnson is a candidate for the same position at Texas.
Strong keeps a tight circle of confidantes. Only two coaches remain from his original staff — defensive coordinator Vance Bedford and linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary. Those two, along with strength coach Pat Moorer, came to Texas from Louisville.
As it’s shaping up, Strong heads into a pivotal 2016 season, one that could alter his professional career, without fully knowing all the men on his staff. However, the talent in the locker room supersedes those in the coaching offices.
On signing day, Strong was asked whether fans should just relax and just let him coach the Horns.
“I don’t think they are ever going to relax here about winning,” Strong said, “but I have some unbelievable coaches and we know how important winning is and we know we have to win some football games.”