UT President Gregory L. Fenves wants Strong to succeed, but don't expect any announcement until the end of the regular season
Posted November 13th, 2016
As the Longhorns continue toward another mediocre finish, Texas President Gregory L. Fenves faces a difficult gut-check moment: Should he keep or fire coach Charlie Strong?
Persuasive arguments can be made either way, and there’s little to be gleaned from the final two games of the regular season. Of course, if Texas gets drilled by lowly 1-9 Kansas this week, the decision may be easy.
It’s widely believed inside the UT Tower that Fenves wants Strong to succeed. As of today, even after Saturday’s 24-20 loss to West Virginia, smart money should be placed on Strong returning in 2017. And it’s unlikely Fenves would make any sort of announcement until the end of the regular season, a source told the American-Statesman.
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This is Fenves’ decision: Strong, who has two years remaining on a guaranteed contract worth approximately $10.7 million, may deserve another year, but is he the right coach to lead Texas out of the morass of mediocrity? In three seasons, he’s 16-19. Make no mistake, this program started backsliding long before he got here. Strong didn’t fully cause this problem, but it’s his problem to fix.
“I can’t worry about that, and I really don’t worry about that,” Strong said after Saturday’s loss. “I have a really good group of guys, and I know they’re going to play for me. They’re going to battle. They’re going to give everything they’ve got.”
Set aside this week’s trip to Kansas for a moment. Pull the camera lens back and examine what Texas football has come. It’s important that top UT administrators, including Fenves, understand just how far this program has fallen.
After 10 games this season, the Longhorns (5-5, 3-4 Big 12) still have yet to become bowl-eligible. It’s conceivable, although unlikely, they could notch a third consecutive losing season, something that hasn’t happened since 1936-38.
It’s a program that will finish the 2016 season unranked. That’s happened six times in the last seven years. Going back even further, Texas has not finished in the final Associated Press Top 25 poll 18 times in the last 40 years.
It’s a program that has not won a game trailing by at least 14 points since 2007, according to ESPN Stats. Strong is 1-16 in his three seasons when trailing at halftime by any margin.
It’s a program that hasn’t been nationally relevant since the 2009 national championship game. In the years since, it’s a program that’s had a real shot at the Big 12 title only once in 2013, Mack Brown’s final season.
However, it’s also a program that’s collected back-to-back top-10 recruiting classes. A vast majority of those sophomores and freshmen are now on the field.
Strong’s been woefully slow to make necessary staff changes, but he ultimately gets it right. He dumped Shawn Watson and hired Sterlin Gilbert, who implemented a veer-and-shoot system with a freshman quarterback that’s paying huge dividends.
Texas is averaging 35.3 points per game, the second-highest total since 2009. Shane Buechele, the 19-year-old triggerman, just threw for a season-high 318 yards and bounced back after a bone-rattling hit to complete the game. He’s rewriting the UT freshman record book along the way.
Running back D’Onta Foreman is the nation’s leading rusher, averaging 179.2 yards per game. He’s been labeled a Heisman contender, and while Foreman will likely jump into the NFL draft, the majority of the offensive line returns next season intact.
Defensively, things improved once Strong started calling the plays prior to the Oklahoma game. The last three opponents — Baylor, Texas Tech and West Virginia — were all held at least 10 points below their season averages.
Perhaps more impressive is that UT’s young squad did it against a Mountaineers’ bunch that featured 16 fifth-year seniors.
“We just kept fighting and put our team in the best situation to win,” defensive end Malcolm Roach said. “You could see it in spurts. But we just have to learn to play hard, even harder, prepare harder. The results will take care of itself.”
Over the course of three seasons, Strong has made numerous game management decisions that have left fans dumbfounded.
For example, he punted on fourth down late against California while trailing by seven. He allowed Gilbert to utilize backup quarterback Tyrone Swoopes late against Texas Tech in a short-yardage situation that begged for Foreman. He routinely burns timeouts that come back to haunt the Longhorns later in halves.
Through it all, Strong has never lost the locker room. All the players do is profess their love of him and swear they’ll keep playing hard under his guidance.
“I really do think we have a really good football team, and I think we’ve made a ton of progress,” Strong said. “We’re a different team than we were at the beginning of the season.”
Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.