For Texas Longhorns fans, especially the subset who are also believers in head coach Charlie Strong, Saturday’s win over Oklahoma in the Red River Rivalry was cathartic.
For weeks, supports suffered as the Horns faced one setback after another. There was the debacle in South Bend, the devastating special teams miscue against Cal, and another against Oklahoma State in which the officials figured rather prominently.
Even so, up to that point, precious few Longhorns were calling for Strong’s head. He’d made decisive personnel changes—such as demoting offensive coordinator Shawn Watson and quarterback Tyrone Swoopes—and his replacements, Jay Norvell and Jerrod Heard, looked like clear upgrades.
So, yeah, a bumpy ride, but Strong was showing that he was willing to make tough choices, even if they involved loyal soldiers from way back like Watson. Everything was pretty much on schedule.
And then, a plague of Horned Frogs descended upon the Longhorns. That game reminded me of nothing so much as this Michael Spinks-Mike Tyson bout, which only took about 90 seconds.
By the time I could even put my contacts in and determine which team was which, the Longhorns were on the canvas, little birds and cuss signs circling their heads. And with a drubbing like that on the books, it seemed clear that Strong’s program had gone off the rails. There were the once-mighty Horns at 1-4, their worst start since Giant was a hit at the drive-ins.
According to the national narrative, it wasn’t that Mack Brown had left Charlie Strong the equivalent of a sack of dried beans and a can of cream of mushroom soup in the cupboard, but rather that Strong’s team was “undisciplined.” (Longhorn DB Kris Boyd’s TCU halftime retweet of an invitation to defect to Texas A&M certainly didn’t help there.)
Crawling around in the smoking crater of that thunderclap of a loss, Longhorn fans didn’t know what to make of a story by Sports Illustrated’s Thayer Evans and Pete Thamel that did go against that grain.
“In two years, Charlie could not have f—– that place up,” a coach tells The Inside Read. “It was already f—– up before.”
The latter was clear by the time Brown’s 16-year tenure at Texas had puttered to mediocrity when he left at the end of the 2013 season. The Longhorns were never the same after their loss to Alabama in the 2009 national championship game and declined with every additional year Brown was allowed to stay.
“Mack knew the s— going on, he just didn’t want to own up to it,” another coach says. “He knows what he left.”
All truths, near-universally accepted, but such is the Byzantine nature of college football fandom, many pointed out that one of the writers, Evans, was a Sooner, widely noted for what has been called a hit piece on OU’s other main rival.
So what were Evans’s true motives this time? Are his anonymous coach and scout sources really real? Or, anticipating an Oklahoma blowout, was Evans playing a double-secret blood oath Machiavellian game? Did he and Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops deck themsleves out in cowls and convene in a candle-lit Norman tornado shelter and drink blood from the skull of Saint Bud and agree to provide media coverage for an rival coach that the two of them perceived as a patsy?
So, that article and its possible implications for Red River intrigue aside, the idea was becoming fixed that no matter how many giants Charlie Strong had slain at Louisville, no matter how many players he’d recently put in the NFL draft, he was “in over his head.” He “looked like a deer in the headlights.” He’d “lost the locker room.” Strong was behind the times, and his era would usher in a decade-plus of crappy football to the 40 Acres.
Doom! Woe! Bring on Chip Kelly!
Last week ESPN’s Paul Finebaum reportedly said that Stoops and the Sooners would hang another 50 on Strong’s Horns, and might only consider letting up scoring even more to keep Strong in Austin, the better to toy with him for the next few years. (Finebaum had stumped for Art Briles to succeed Mack Brown as coach. In a Universe of Pure Football, that might have been the right call, but it turns out winning isn’t everything, as recent events in Waco have shown.)
Such was not the case. It was Strong’s team who ended up taking a knee on the goal line at the end of the game.
And in any event, Finebaum’s is the exact wrong reading of the Stoops-Strong rivalry. Charlie is in Bob’s head. You could see it last year as the Longhorns hung tight against a vastly superior squad. Stoops was not wearing his customary smirk in post-Red River Rivalry interviews. You could see that he knew then that a new sheriff was in Austin. That point was drilled home even more thoroughly this year, when another of his more experienced teams was out-coached, out-executed, and out-desired, by both Strong’s youngsters and Mack’s leftovers. After the game, ESPN’s Hannah Storm administered Finebaum an on-air comeuppance, much to the delight of Texas fans.
These last two games against the Sooners have had a completely different vibe than the Mack vs. Bob games. Mack triumphed with inferior talent exactly once, in 2013, and lost with equal or better players more times than I care to remember. Strong’s teams don’t back down against the Sooners at first onslaught. They hit harder. They tackle better. Receivers block downfield, helping to enable long gains like D’Onta Foreman’s huge 80-yard run and Marcus Johnson’s stiff-arming, tackle-breaking pas de deux down the sidelines to set the tone.
On Saturday morning, a growing number of Texas fans, even including some Strong supporters, were doubting the future of the program. What a difference one game makes. Now it’s Strong who looks secure, and the Oklahoma fan base wondering aloud if a change might be in order.
Doom! Woe! Bring on Chip Kelly!
Okay Sooners, while y’all are busy pondering your next coach, we’ll just sit here and suffer with Charlie “In Over His Head” Strong and his “lost locker room.”