Football

Rock chalk, one tight tightrope walk: Charlie Strong, Texas need a win in Lawrence

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Story highlights
  • The Longhorns, who usually struggle on the road, are 24-point favorites in Lawrence, Kan.
  • D'Onta Foreman can break Earl Campbell's UT record with his 12th straight 100-yard game.
  • Strong: "Let's go finish out those games and let's see where we are at the end of the season.”

Posted November 18th, 2016

Texas fans can mope about their team’s situation and grumble over Charlie Strong’s 16-19 record. But when it comes to futility, the Longhorns are in high cotton compared to the Kansas Jayhawks.

Kansas is 4-30 in the last three years. The program hasn’t won a Big 12 game since 2014, and even that memorable win over Iowa State was followed by 19 straight debacles. There were some blowouts, some tight games and some bad calls, but the final result has been the same — a loss, 19 of ’em.

After last week’s loss to Iowa State, a Kansas City Star columnist noted there were less than 20,000 fans in the stands and asked, “Just who is supposed to care about this misery?”

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A lone fan watches a game between the West Virginia Mountaineers and Kansas Jayhawks in the first quarter at Memorial Stadium on November 21, 2015 in Lawrence, Kansas. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
A lone fan watches a game between the West Virginia Mountaineers and Kansas Jayhawks in the first quarter at Memorial Stadium on November 21, 2015 in Lawrence, Kansas. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

Into this dreck walks Strong, a coach with nothing to lose, except maybe his job.

Texas (5-5, 3-4 Big 12) must win one of its final two games to become bowl-eligible. The Longhorns are 24-point favorites, so things should go well at Memorial Stadium. Or, they’re expected to, anyway. But if they don’t, well, Strong will have likely sealed his fate as the coach with the worst losing percentage in UT history.

Then it would become an easy decision for Texas President Gregory L. Fenves. The $10.7 million remaining on Strong’s guaranteed contract would suddenly look like chump change.

This coaching decision may be like no other in UT history. Fenves is said to keep an extremely tight circle of confidants, possibly as many as you can count on one hand. One of Fenves’ strengths is listening and being engaging without tipping his hand. The big-money donors that are jamming his email inbox and calling into his office get their proper time, but it’s unlikely any have real sway, university sources told the American-Statesman.

“Greg is stronger than people think,” one university source said. “Do not underestimate him.”

Fenves is well liked by the UT System Board of Regents for how he’s handled other sticky issues in the past. Even UT Chancellor Bill McRaven has told the Statesman he would wait until Fenves makes a formal recommendation before deciding on Strong.

“I think that our president will take a long look at it,” Strong said Monday. “We’ve just got to still finish out. We still have two games left, so let’s go finish out those games and let’s see where we are at the end of the season.”

Currently three games under .500, Strong has a .457 winning percentage, the worst in school history. Jack Chevigny posted a .483 percentage from 1934-36. Strong can move out of last place with two wins to close out the regular season.

University sources have told the American-Statesman that as long as Strong beats Kansas and the team plays well in the regular-season finale against TCU, Fenves is considering keeping Strong.

It’s widely known within UT administrative circles that Fenves wants the coach to succeed. There is no obvious hire available — perhaps that’s changed in Tom Herman’s favor after Houston’s win over Louisville — and boosters would have to pay Strong’s final two years.

Texas coach Charlie Strong celebrates a score against Kansas Jay Hawks in the NCAA college football game at Memorial Stadium in Lawrence, Kan. Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014. (RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMERICAN- STATESMAN)
Texas coach Charlie Strong had plenty to celebrate in his first trip to Kansas during UT’s 23-0 win in Lawrence, Kan. Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014. (RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMERICAN- STATESMAN)

Speaking of slam dunks, Texas used to appear in bowl games with regularity. But the Longhorns haven’t made the postseason since 2014.

That group had the same setup as this year’s model. Texas went into the second-to-last regular season game needing a win for bowl eligibility. UT went to Stillwater and helped Oklahoma State lay down on coach Mike Gundy in a 28-7 victory.

Last season, the Horns were 5-7 and knew they weren’t going bowling by mid-November.

Even now, the prospect of missing out on the postseason again gives the Horns shudders.

“I don’t want to think about it,” receiver Dorian Leonard said. “(The offseason) was so long. You sit there and just watch all those games going on and thinking, ‘Why aren’t we there? Why are we in this situation?’”

Left tackle Connor Williams said he just sat at home with his family watching bowl games. “It was hard. Of course I want to experience a bowl game. It’s something we’re trying to get our seniors to,” Williams said.

Defensive back P.J. Locke III said some players stayed in touch through a group text, although it was probably hard to read at times. “People were upset, kind of disappointed,” Locke said.

Hopefully for their sake, the Texas coaching staff has been stoking those fires this week.

Texas running back D'Onta Foreman runs against West Virginia in the second half at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium Nov. 12, 2016 in Austin Texas. West Virginia won the game 24-20. (Photo by James Gregg/American-Statesman.)
Texas running back D’Onta Foreman can break the school record with his 12th consecutive 100-yard rushing performance against Kansas. (Photo by James Gregg/American-Statesman.)

Kansas (1-9, 0-7) may be woefully bad, but this is no walkover. The Jayhawks are competitive early practically every week. They get worn down by their opponents’ size and depth. On Monday, Kansas coach David Beaty thanked the few fans that have been coming to home games. “We’re going to need you down this road here,” Beaty said.

As for the Horns, Beaty said, “They’re strong, they are big. They come off the football. They’re one of the more aggressive-off-the-football teams that I’ve seen this year.”

This would be a perfect time for Texas to show its fan base — and Fenves — how competitive its young team truly is.

Running back D’Onta Foreman, a Doak Walker Award semifinalist, is the nation’s leading rusher and a possible Heisman Trophy finalist. The junior can break Earl Campbell’s 39-year-old school record on Saturday with his 12th consecutive 100-yard rushing performance. Foreman’s running behind Williams, who was named an Outland Trophy semifinalist this week, too.

Freshman Zach Shackelford snaps the ball to freshman quarterback Shane Buechele, who then looks for freshman receiver Collin Johnson. Offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert was the first to publicly float one of the team’s new positive bullet-points this week — 37 of the 44 players on the two-deep depth chart will return in 2017.

The defense is young, but steadily gaining experience. Malik Jefferson, Malcolm Roach, Breckyn Hager and a slew of defensive backs appear to be finding their way with Strong calling the defensive signals.

Michael Dickson is also a Ray Guy Award candidate as the nation’s best punter.

Despite all of that, Texas is 5-5 and Strong is still sitting on an incredibly hot seat. That’s why it’s practically a must-win game against a team that frankly doesn’t know how.

“You know,” Strong said, “there’s no reason we should have a letdown at all.”

Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com.

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