Charlie Strong Knows What You’re Thinking
About expectations. About tradition. About being the first black head football coach at UT. And about whether he can win it all.
Charlie Strong is probably ready to stop talking. The conventional wisdom is that he doesn’t shine at press conferences or while giving speeches, something that’s been brought up time and again since the 54-year-old took over as the University of Texas football coach on January 6. Brought up time and again, that is, by members of the media.
The conventional wisdom isn’t wrong. Strong is not a politician or PR man. But after all the drama and distractions that accompanied Mack Brown’s final seasons—the Longhorn Network, A&M’s joining the SEC, the regents’ back-and-forth with UT president William Powers, and, yes, the lack of conference championships and major bowl appearances—fans just want to see the Longhorns win ten games (at least) again.
That’s why Strong, who led the University of Louisville to a 23-3 record the past two seasons (including a Sugar Bowl win over the University of Florida in 2013), came to Austin in the first place. Assuming he succeeds, the other stuff won’t matter. The question shouldn’t be whether Strong can fit himself into the often melodramatic University of Texas empire. Rather, it’s whether the University of Texas will fit itself to him.
Jason Cohen: You’ve talked a lot about “putting the T back in Texas.” What exactly does that mean?
Charlie Strong: You always look for a niche. The image at Texas has been a program that didn’t play physical. And when you talk about being physical, you talk about toughness. So when I say “put the T back in,” I’m talking about toughness. I’m also talking about trust; I’m talking about togetherness as a team. I want to build the toughness back into the program.
JC: So toughness was missing?
CS: I don’t know if it was missing. I just think you have to ask, What do you want to hang your hat on? And right now, that’s what we’re hanging our hat on.
JC: It’s a brand.
CS: It’s a brand. It’s what you look for. Go brand your team.
JC: You’ve made another big symbolic statement: the players aren’t allowed to make the Hook ’em sign. What did you say to them about that?
CS: You have to have pride within your program. When we put up the Hook ’em sign, let’s make sure that it’s being represented the right way. It’s gotta mean something to them; they really have to believe in it. So it goes back to, Have we played hard enough? Have we fought hard enough? We’re not gonna throw the Hook ’em sign up just to throw it up.
JC: Do you think that’ll change during camp?
CS: I don’t know yet. But I think we’ll work them hard enough that they’ll earn their way back.
JC: If I’m writing the movie about this, that’s the end of the second act. They earn the Hook ’em sign and go out and win the game.
CS: Or that’d be the conclusion: at the end of the game you’d watch them put it up, and they’d walk off the field.
JC: At Louisville, you took a losing team to 7-6 twice and then 11-2 in 2012 and 12-1 in 2013. What are the expectations, inheriting an 8-4 team at UT?
CS: At the University of Texas, the expectations are always high. It’s a team that has always competed at the highest level. So that’s what you want to do here. You want to compete at the highest level and make sure the players understand that you’re looking for their best effort each and every game.
JC: You keep getting asked about the comments you made in the spring, that the team’s not going to play in the College Football Playoff Championship Game this year.
CS: I don’t ever like to put pressure on our football team. When you start talking about a national championship, that’s what you do. We still have a lot of work. We’re not who we were [in April], but we still have a long way to go.
JC: But is it fair to expect UT to compete for a national championship every season?
CS: You want to compete. And you’d like to go compete year in and year out.
JC: I’ll ask you a much narrower question then: Are you going to beat North Texas in your season opener on August 30?CS: Oh . . . [laughs]. Let’s make sure I get my guys to camp on August 4 and get ’em going.
JC: When you heard that you could possibly have the Texas job, did you think, “Oh, yeah, if I’m offered that job, I’m gonna take it”?
CS: Yeah, but you still have to research it. You don’t want to just jump on board. You always want to make sure that you’re working for an outstanding athletics director, that the resources are available to you, that the facilities are available, and that you have a chance to go be successful. That’s what you have at Texas. It’s an unbelievable job. You’re looking at one of the premier universities in the country. Top one percent. And it’s not like I’m walking into a place where the cupboard is bare. We still have some outstanding players. It’s just a matter of us getting them back to the level we need to go compete at.
JC: Have you had any conversations with Coach Brown since you got the job?
CS: Well, Coach Brown is there if I need him, but he wants me to learn about the team myself and make sure that I’ve got a great feel for it. If I ever need him, he’s someone I can always call on. I haven’t had a conversation with him, but I know that he’s there for me when I do need him.
JC: The Big 12 is known as an offensive league, but these things go in cycles. When you were the defensive coordinator for Florida, you shut down Oklahoma in the 2009 BCS game. Do you feel like you could play a role in changing that reputation?
CS: I don’t know if I could change it, but to win a championship you have to go play good defense. I know this has always had the reputation of an offensive league, but you have to play all three phases. You look at Oklahoma and they’re a complete football team. And I think that a lot of times Baylor gets the [offensive] reputation, but Baylor understands they’ve got to go play good defense. It’s amazing how much their defense has improved over the past few seasons.
JC: At Louisville, you had five core values for your program, posted prominently in the locker room. Any change to those at Texas?
CS: They’re still the same. Be honest, treat women with respect, no drugs, no stealing, no guns. Core values are something that has always been a part of us. It’s the way we’ve been raised.
JC: My wife was recently talking to someone who said he liked that you had daughters, because you probably meant it when you told players to respect women.
CS: I tell my guys that there’s no reason for them to ever disrespect a young lady. And for a lot of families, a lady is the one who is the crutch of that family. They’ve all grown up around good mothers, and if it hasn’t been a mother, it’s a grandmother. There’s a female that’s involved and has raised them. So let’s make sure that we respect women the right way.
JC: And you’ll have no problem suspending someone if he breaks these rules—a great player before an important game, say?
CS: If they break a rule, they will miss a game. They understand that. I tell them that all of the time: if you don’t want to play, then go break a core value. [Editors’ note: On July 24, a few days after this interview, Longhorns wide receivers Kendall Sanders and Montrel Meander were arrested by the University of Texas Police Department on charges of felony assault and were later dismissed from the team, bringing the number of players that Strong has dismissed or suspended to ten.]
JC: Your players are required to sit in the front two rows of their classrooms, with coaches and assistants checking on them. Do you ever personally poke your head in?
CS: When I first came here, I walked into some classrooms, which gave me a chance to be on campus. But I don’t want to be so visible that I feel like I’m a threat to a professor. I just want the faculty to understand that I’m here to support them.
JC: Another rule, also going back to Louisville, is that if you miss one class, you run; if you miss two classes, the position unit runs; if you miss three classes, the position coaches run . . . “and the position coaches don’t want to run.” Have your position coaches ever had to run?
CS: Oh, no. We haven’t had anybody miss three times! [Laughs.]
JC: You earned a master’s and an education specialist degree while you were a graduate assistant at the University of Florida. Do you feel like you are still in education?
CS: That’s right. I wanted to be a college professor, so I ended up coaching football. I just wanted to be a teacher in any kind of way. Because it’s all about changing people’s lives and making sure that they develop and grow.
JC: I’ve always thought that coaches’ contracts should have higher incentives for graduation rates than they do for winning a bowl game.
CS: Graduation rates are part of my job. So when I go recruit, my mission is very simple: I tell a family that their son is going to graduate. You, as a coach, have to make sure that each one of your players graduates.
JC: As a former walk-on athlete yourself, at Central Arkansas, do you feel like the scholarships are enough to cover the expenses of being a student?
CS: Today there is so much money being made, I’d be all for it if you could provide more for a student-athlete.
JC: The University of Texas still had all-white football teams in both of our lifetimes, with Julius Whittier becoming the first African American player in 1969. Was becoming the first African American head football coach at Texas especially meaningful?
CS: When you feel like you’re a part of a change, you’re happy. You welcome that change. But never once did I sit back and say, “Hey, they never had an African American.” The opportunity arose, and a lot of times you have to look past the color and just make yourself known as a good football coach. At the end of the day, it’s all about wins. It’s not about the color of your skin. So let’s just go coach ball.
JC: I imagine that you don’t personally use Twitter.
CS: Oh, no, I don’t.
JC: So you probably missed the controversy and the jokes when the Dallas Morning News website revived an old quote by Coach Lou Holtz saying you were not a “hip-hop coach”?
CS: [Guffaws.] Oh, Coach Holtz is one of my mentors. What did he mean by that?
JC: He seemed to mean that you were old-school. That you “could’ve coached for Woody Hayes.”
CS: I don’t think it’s so much hip-hop. I think that he looked at it as someone without all the bells and whistles. A guy may think he can go rap or he can go dance, but that’s not me. I don’t need to motivate my players by going out there dancing and rapping. They get motivated the right way.
JC: Have you and your family gotten to take in much of Austin yet: gone out for barbecue or listened to music?
CS: My family actually just came down because my girls finished school in Louisville. I’ve been busy, but it’s a great city, as much as we’ve seen of it. It’s hard for me to go out. I can’t just sit and watch a music concert with a thousand people around me. It may turn into an autograph session.
JC: I asked Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury about his stubble, so I’ll ask you about shaving your head: barber or yourself?
CS: No barber. I do it myself every morning. Just grab a razor, put shaving cream on my head, and shave it.