Football

Three and out: Texas fires Charlie Strong after 16-21 record

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Story highlights
  • Charlie Strong was 5-10 against ranked opponents in three seasons at UT.
  • Longhorns post three consecutive losing seasons for the first time since 1936-38.
  • Core values, honest persona made him a personal hit with administrators, parents.

Posted November 26th, 2016

With an authentic personality and disarming charm, Charlie Strong may be one of the most well-liked individuals ever to work inside the University of Texas athletic department. But it always boils down to wins and losses.

In three seasons, Strong was 16-21 and holds the lowest winning percentage of any coach in Texas football history. An embarrassing 24-21 overtime loss to Big 12 cellar-dweller Kansas was enough for UT President Gregory L. Fenves. Friday’s 31-9 loss to TCU removed all doubt. 

School officials made the official announcement at 9:30 a.m. Saturday that Strong had been fired.

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“In the end, the results over three seasons were not there,” Fenves said in a statement. “It was not clear the future was going to be at the levels expected of Longhorn football.”

In a statement, Strong called it “a very difficult day for me, my family and all of the people affected by this decision.”

“I’m most disappointed for these kids and our staff who have poured so much of their lives into this program for the last three years,” the coach said. “I do understand that it comes down to wins and losses, and we have not done our job in that area yet,” the coach added. “I accept full responsibility for that, but know in my heart that we accomplished our primary goal, which is the development of young men.”

Strong was 5-10 against ranked opponents and became the first coach to oversee three consecutive losing seasons since 1936-38. He was also 1-18 in games when the Longhorns were trailing at halftime.

“This was an important year for our program to take the next step, and the results simply aren’t there, so we’ve decided to make a change,” Men’s Athletic Director Mike Perrin said in a statement. “We appreciate Coach Strong so much, are grateful for all he has done with our program and wish him the best in the future.”

Texas coach Charlie Strong during the first half in Lawrence, Kansas on Saturday, November 19, 2016. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Former Texas coach Charlie Strong during the first half in Lawrence, Kansas on Saturday, November 19, 2016. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

With a 5-7 record this year, the Horns will miss the postseason for the second consecutive season, something that hasn’t happened scene 1992-93.

“I was told three years ago when I came in here to build a program,” Strong said after the TCU loss on Friday. “Just look at the positives, look at where we are with this football team, how young we are. The wins and losses, they don’t add up. But still it’s more than just that. It’s all about the total development, taking the program and moving it in the right direction.”

Strong has two years remaining on a guaranteed contract worth $10.7 million. However, that didn’t stop the university’s top donors from wanting change. It’s widely believed that Houston’s Tom Herman sits atop the list of available coaches waiting to lead the one of the nation’s most historic and financially lucrative football powerhouses.

Former UT President Bill Powers was ecstatic in January 2014 when he welcomed Strong from Louisville. The Arkansas native and career defensive coordinator was the first black coach of any men’s sport in UT history. Strong also had the unenviable task of following the second-winningest coach in program history, Mack Brown, who played for two national titles.

However, Strong insisted he wished to be treated like anyone else, not like some history-making idol. “I just want to look at it as that I’m a coach,” Strong said at his introductory press conference.

Strong ran his program by his personal moral compass whereby players could lose their scholarship by violating one of his five core values, which included being honest and not using drugs. He kicked 10 players off the team that first year and doubled the amount of drug testing that went on under Brown.

Strong won universal praise from UT administrators and parents. That’s a primary reason how he captured consecutive top-10 recruiting classes the last two years. Dozens of recruits’ parents told the American-Statesman they wanted their sons to play for a man of Strong’s character. 

But on the field, Strong went 6-7 in 2014 and 5-7 in 2015 with two of the worst defenses in school history. At Big 12 media days in July, Strong said, “You want to see progress. I totally agree with that.”

UT wide receiver John Burt consoles Head Coach Charlie Strong in the final seconds of their loss to TCU at Royal-Memorial Stadium on Friday November 25, 2016. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
UT wide receiver John Burt consoles Charlie Strong in the final seconds of their loss to TCU at Royal-Memorial Stadium on Friday November 25, 2016. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Going into this make-or-break third season, Strong overhauled the offense and saw considerable progress in points and yardage. Doak Walker Award candidate D’Onta Foreman posted the second-greatest rushing season in school history. But the defense still gave up too many big plays. The Longhorns allowed 31.5 points per game, the second-highest total in school history.

Along the way, Strong fired or demoted eight assistant coaches, including his original offensive and defensive coordinators. Multiple in-game clock decisions proved costly, and the Horns even lost a possession with an embarrassing coin flip fiasco against UCLA in 2014.

Strong appeared to know he was in danger after last Saturday’s loss, which ended the Jayhawks’ 19-game losing streak against Big 12 opponents. His voice cracked as Strong said, “No idea.”

Rocky start in 2014

Strong faced criticism before he even moved in. San Antonio mega-donor Red McCombs, whose name adorns the north end of Royal-Memorial Stadium, said Strong would “probably make a fine position coach, maybe a coordinator.”

But Strong got significant financial support initially. Steve Patterson, the men’s athletic director at the time, agreed to a five-year, guaranteed contract with a $5 million base salary and a $100,000 annual escalator clause. Patterson also signed guaranteed, multi-year contracts for Strong’s assistants, a first in UT history.

Texas's Assistant Head Coach for Offense/Quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson watches Jerrod Heard during spring practice on Wednesday, March 25, 2015. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Texas quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson tried to turn Tyrone Swoopes and Jerrod Heard, right, into next-level passers but it never quite worked. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Strong brought along his trusted confidants from Louisville, including offensive coordinator Shawn Watson and defensive coordinator Vance Bedford. Then, Strong hired offensive line coach Joe Wickline from Oklahoma State, a decision that would spark an unnecessary two-year legal battle with OSU over Wickline’s official title and whether he actually called plays. He didn’t; Watson did.

The school staged an elaborate multi-city campaign titled the “Comin’ On Strong Tour” so the coach could meet fans and donors. But things got off to a rocky start in Fort Worth when Strong stood before fans at Joe T. Garcia’s restaurant and blurted out, “We will not be in the national championship game.”

Fans accustomed to Brown’s always-sunny message were thrown off kilter. But so was Strong after he surveyed the quarterback situation he inherited.

David Ash had suffered wrist and rib injuries and endured multiple concussions. A broken foot short-circuited his spring workout regimen after Strong arrived. Yet Strong went on the tour touting Ash, even though the junior was always one hit away from being done with football forever.

Strong tried to go after a USC transfer, but that didn’t pan out. Sure enough, Ash felt dazed after being hit on UT’s second drive of the 2014 season opener against North Texas. He didn’t come to post-game and later made a late-night call to UT trainers saying he felt nauseous. Having suffered multiple concussions, Ash’s football career was over.

That injury, coupled with a season-ending ankle injury to center Dominic Espinosa, changed the entire dynamic of Strong’s first season. Watson assumed a paternal role with Swoopes and tried to transform the backup quarterback in to the next Teddy Bridgewater. That never worked, as Swoopes completed just 58.3 percent of his passes that season.

Texas suffered a 34-point loss to BYU and a 21-point loss to Baylor. The Horns mounted a three-game winning streak to become bowl-eligible, but finished the year with an embarrassing 31-7 loss to Arkansas in the Texas Bowl.

“Texas has gotta mean something,” Strong said after the bowl loss, “Right now it doesn’t mean much.”

Losses keep mounting

Strong wanted to go with his gut and start backup quarterback Jerrod Heard in the 2015 season opener at 11th-ranked Notre Dame. But Watson stuck with Swoopes, and it was a disaster. Texas lost, 38-3.

The next day, Strong demoted Watson and put receivers coach Jay Norvell in charge of offensive play-calling. Heard started the next week against Rice, and things appeared to be on the right track.

UT assitant coach Jay Norvell cheers as UT quarterback Jerrod Heard makes a touchdown against Cal late in the fourth quarter at Royal-Memorial Stadium on Saturday September 19, 2015. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Texas assistant coach Jay Norvell cheers as UT quarterback Jerrod Heard makes a touchdown against Cal late in the fourth quarter at Royal-Memorial Stadium on Saturday September 19, 2015. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

But a missed extra point doomed Texas against California. A questionable holding penalty led to a bogus sideline infraction on Strong against Oklahoma State when replays showed the ref bumped the coach first. Those two calls helped the Cowboys win, 30-27. A disastrous 50-7 loss at TCU was a game-changer.

However, Strong would knock off No. 10 Oklahoma the following week in what became his first signature win. Players lifted the coach off his feet and threw him into the air in a legitimate feel-good moment. Unfortunately for Strong, all those vibes were gone after his team got blanked 24-0 at Iowa State on Halloween.

“You look at two losses at TCU and look at Miami,” Strong said that night in Ames. But Texas never played Miami. This comment came after rumors surfaced that Strong wished he’d waited and taken the job in Coral Gables, Fla. Some wondered if his heart was truly with the Longhorns.

Texas finished a 5-7 season with a win over No. 12 Baylor, which was down to its fourth-string quarterback. By this point, Strong was 11-14 and had suffered eight losses by 21 points or more.

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Changing coordinators

Knowing he had to make serious offensive changes, Strong first went after TCU assistant coach Sonny Cumbie to install a spread offense. But Cumbie backed away, fearing there was little job security. Strong turned to Tulsa assistant Sterlin Gilbert.

Gilbert interviewed in Austin, but after getting mixed signals on the financial terms, he left, too. Fenves, athletic director Mike Perrin and Strong had to make a late-night flight to Tulsa to assure Gilbert things would be fine.

For Fenves, flying to Tulsa was viewed as unpresidential, something beneath his office. “He needed to work on his staff,” Fenves told the Statesman. “He knew that; Mike knew that; I knew that. I offered to help in a key recruitment.”

To hire Gilbert, Strong had to fire Watson, his friend. The new offensive staff went with freshman Shane Buechele, who threw for 280 yards and two touchdowns in a double-overtime thriller against No. 10 Notre Dame. Only now, the Irish are 4-7.

The offense appeared fixed, but the defense was still causing problems. California piled up 507 total yards in a 50-43 win on Sept. 17. The next week, Texas defenders couldn’t tackle worth a lick as Oklahoma State took an early lead and cruised to a 49-31 win.

Strong finally had to take the defensive play-calling away from Bedford and do it himself. The Horns appeared to get better as the season wore on. Baylor, Texas Tech and West Virginia were all held 10 points below their normal averages, but Texas was still 5-5 going into last Saturday’s game against lowly Kansas.

The Horns had six turnovers and looked dreadful against the Jayhawks. Fans stormed the field while defensive lineman Poona Ford and Charles Omenihu laid down on the field in disbelief.

Said left tackle Connor Williams, “It’s just sad to be where we are right now.”

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

University of Texas coaching records

CoachYearsSeasonsGamesWLTPct.
H.R. Schenker19061109100.900
Berry Whitaker1920-2232622310.865
Dave Allerdice1911-1554033700.825
Conrad Van Gent1916197200.778
Darrell Royal1957-76202191674750.774
Mack Brown1998-2013162061584800.767
Blair Cherry1947-50443321010.756
Bill Wasmund1910186200.750
Fred Akers1977-8610119863120.731
William Juneau1917-1932619700.731
Edward Stewart1923-2643624930.708
Clyde Littlefield1927-33768441860.691
Ralph Hutchinson1903-0532516720.680
W.E. Metzenthin1907-0821711510.676
Dana X. Bible1937-461097633130.665
J.B. Hart19021106310.650
John Mackovic1992-97671412820.592
Dexter Draper1909184310.563
Edwin Price1951-56661332710.549
David McWilliams1987-91557312600.544
Jack Chevigny1934-36329131420.483
Charlie Strong2014-2016337162100.432

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